While genetics and biochemistry research has dominated the conversation about how human bodies are formed, new research — with an old twist — is proposing that there is another star in the show of human development: mechanical forces.
At the turn of the twentieth century, medical research relied on simple mechanics to explain scientific phenomena, including how human cells morph into shape from embryo to newborn and beyond. As better chemistry techniques and DNA research burst onto the scene, however, the idea that cells could be affected by physical forces took a back seat. Now researchers are referring back to this vintage idea and bringing it into the 21st century.
Dennis Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor in the Departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, was featured in a recent article in Knowable Magazine for his research on the human heart and how mechanical forces exerted on heart cells give the vital organ its necessary stiffness during development.
What originally drew me to this field was a “Women in Engineering Day” I attended at a local college while in high school. I had the opportunity to hear incredible women speak about their research regarding biomaterials and tissue engineering. This event showed me the impact this field can have on the world. This drove me to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering, which only strengthened my passion. As I furthered my studies and began working full-time at a biotechnology company, I learned more about bioengineering. With encouragement from my coworkers and family, I decided to pursue my Master’s in Bioengineering and am delighted to have the opportunity to study at Penn.
What kind of research do you conduct, and what do you hope to focus on for your thesis?
I am actually a part-time student, who works full-time at a drug packaging and medical device company out in Exton, PA. Though I am not doing research on campus, my coursework has tied into previous research projects I have participated in at my job. My latest project entailed understanding different material properties used in container closure systems for mAb-based biologics and how they interact. This work was done to support an understanding of how to pick appropriate vial/syringe systems for various drug products in development.
What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?
My favorite thing to do is trying all the new restaurants and incredible foods this city has to offer. I think Philadelphia is so unique and has such rich cultural influences. With so many different neighborhoods and restaurant options you really can’t go wrong.
What did you study for your undergraduate degree, how does it pair with the work you’re doing now, and what advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
My undergraduate degree was in Biomedical Engineering. It has supported my graduate coursework very well and has given me a great opportunity to dive deeper into certain parts of my studies.
My advice to my younger self would be to take your time! It took me a little while to evaluate different graduate programs and choose which was right for me. Though it took some time, I ultimately decided what was best for me and couldn’t be happier with my choices.
What are you thinking about doing after graduate school?
Currently, I work full-time as an Associate Packaging Engineer at West Pharmaceutical Services in Exton, PA. I hope to take my degree to further my career and to help support my future aspirations at this company.
Growing up in Sri Lanka and being surrounded by relatives who were doctors, I have been fascinated by both modern and traditional medicine. However, during physician shadowing in high school, I came to the realization that I was far more fascinated with the technology doctors use rather than practicing medicine. Therefore, I made the decision to turn down studying medicine in the U.K. and come to Penn to study Bioengineering in the hopes of being more hands-on with medical technology.
Have you done research with a professor on campus? What did you like, and what didn’t you like about it?
I currently work in the Interventional Radiology Lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) under Assistant Professor of Radiology Chamith Rajapakse. The best thing about research here is that I get to be hands-on with some of the most cutting edge technology in the world and help pioneer medical diagnostic techniques that aren’t traditionally being used anywhere else. The only downside is that the learning curve can be a little too steep.
What have been some of your favorite courses and/or projects in Bioengineering so far?
Without a doubt, my favorite BE class has to be BE 309 (Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis and Design Laboratory I) and especially the Computer-Cockroach Interface we have to develop for this lab.
What advice would you give to your freshman self?
There are way too many things happening at a given time at Penn. Take it easy and plan it out so you can do everything you want to! It’s totally possible. Who says you can’t work hard and play hard?!
What do you hope to pursue after obtaining your undergraduate degree?
My hope is to head my own health-tech startup and create technologies that will aid developing countries, starting out with my humble island of Sri Lanka first.
A Q&A with neuroscientist Konrad Kording on how connections between minds and machines are portrayed in popular culture, and what the future holds for this reality-defying technology.
For the many superheroes that use high-powered gadgets to save the day, there’s an equal number of villains who use technology nefariously. From robots that plug into human brains for fuel in “The Matrix” to the memory-warping devices seen in “Men in Black,” “Captain Marvel,” and “Total Recall,” technology that can control people’s minds is one of the most terrifying examples of technology gone wrong in science fiction and superhero films.
Now, progress made on brain-machine interfaces, technology that provides a direct communication link between a brain and an external device, is bringing us closer to a world that feels like science fiction. Elon Musk’s company NeuraLink is working on a device to let people control computers with their minds, while Facebook’s “mind-reading initiative” can decode speech from brain activity. Is this progress a glimpse into a dark future, or are there more empowering ways in which brain-machine interfaces could become a force for good?
Q: What are the main challenges in connecting brains to devices?
The key problem is that you need to get a lot of information out of brains. Today’s prosthetic devices are very slow, and if we want to go faster it’s a tradeoff: I can go slower and then I am more precise, or I can go faster and be more noisy. We need to get more data out of brains, and we want to do it electrically, meaning we need to get more electrodes into brains.
So what do you need? You need a way of getting electrodes into the brain without making your brain into a pulp, you want the electrodes to be flexible so they can stay in longer, and then you want the system to be wireless. You don’t want to have a big connector on the top of your head.
It’s primarily a hardware problem. We can get electrodes into brains, but they deteriorate quickly because they are too thick. We can have plugs on people’s heads, but it’s ruling out any real-world usage. All these factors hold us back at the moment.
That’s why the Neuralink announcement was very interesting. They get a rather large number of electrodes into brains using well-engineered approaches that make that possible. What makes the difference is that Neuralink takes the best ideas in all the different domains and puts them together.
Q: Most examples in pop culture of connecting brains to machines have villainous or nefarious ends. Does that match up with how brain-machine interfaces are currently being developed?
Let’s say you’ve had a stroke, you can’t talk, but there’s a prosthetic device that allows you to talk again. Or if you lost your arm, and you get a new one that’s as good as the original—that’s absolutely a force for good.
It’s not a dark, ugly future thing, it’s a beautiful step forward for medicine. I want to make massive progress in these diseases. I want patients who had a stroke to talk again; I want vets to have prosthetic devices that are as good as the real thing. I think short-term this is what’s going to happen, but we are starting to worry about the dark sides.