Christian Figueroa-Espada Named 2020-2021 Hispanic Scholarship Fund Scholar

Christian Figueroa-Espada

Christian Figueroa-Espada, a Penn Bioengineering Ph.D. student and National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellow, was selected as a Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) Scholar from a highly-competitive pool of 85,000 applicants for their 2020-2021 program. One of only 5,100 awardees, Figueroa-Espada’s scholarship comes from the Toyota Motor North America Program. As an HSF Scholar, he has access to a full range of Scholar Support Services, such as career coaching, internship, and full-time employment opportunities, mentoring, leadership development, and wellness resources, including tools for self-advocacy, well-being, and knowledge building.

Born and raised in the Island of Enchantment, Puerto Rico, Figueroa-Espada received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, and is currently a second-year Ph.D. student in the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, where he is funded by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), the Graduate Education for Minorities (GEM) Fellowship Program, and the William Fontaine Fellowship. His research interests lie in the interface of biomaterials, drug delivery, and immunology – designing RNAi therapeutics for the reprogramming of the tumor microenvironment. His current project focuses on polymer-lipid drug delivery systems to study potential strategies to prevent homing and proliferation of multiple myeloma cancer within the bone marrow microenvironment. This project is part of the Mitchell lab’s recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) New Innovator Award.

“Chris has really hit the ground running on his Ph.D. studies at Penn Bioengineering, developing a new bone marrow-targeted nanoparticle platform to disrupt the spread of multiple myeloma throughout the body,” says Mitchell. “I’m very hopeful that this prestigious fellowship from HSF will permit him to make important contributions to nanomedicine and cancer research.”

Figueroa-Espada’s passion for giving back to his community has allowed him to be involved in many mentorship programs as part of his roles in the Society of Hispanics and Professional Engineers (SHPE), the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE). He continues with his fervent commitment, now working with the Penn chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and the Penn Interdisciplinary Network for Scientists Promoting Inclusion, Retention, and Equity (INSPIRE) coalition where he plans on leading initiatives that aim to enhance diversity and student participation in science, especially students from historically marginalized groups.

“This fellowship, along with my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, GEM Fellowship, and William Fontaine Fellowship through the University of Pennsylvania, make my research on nanoparticle-based RNA therapeutics for the reprogramming of the tumor microenvironment to treat malignancies and overcome drug resistance possible,” says Figueroa-Espada. “While my professional goal is to stay in academia and lead a research lab, my personal goal is to become whom I needed: a role model within the Latino STEM community, hoping to address many of the difficulties that impede Latino students’ success in higher education, and thanks to Toyota Motor/HSF, NSF, and GEM, I am one step closer to meeting these goals.”

Student Spotlight: Sonia Bansal

Sonia Bansal, Ph.D.

Next up in the Penn Bioengineering student spotlight series is Sonia Bansal. Sonia got her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University in 2014. She then came to Penn, where she recently got her Ph.D. in September of 2020 in Bioengineering under the advisement of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Professor of Bioengineering. Her dissertation is entitled “Functional and Structural Remodeling of the Meniscus with Growth and Injury” and focuses on the ways the knee meniscus changes while being actively loaded (growth) and under aberrant loading (injurious) conditions. She has presented her work internationally and has first authored four papers, with two more in preparation. She is passionate about K-12 STEM outreach and teaching at the collegiate level. She has been on the teaching team for six classes in the department, and is the first recipient of the Graduate Fellowship for Teaching Excellence from the Bioengineering department.

What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?
I first got interested in Bioengineering when I realized that it would let me merge my interests in biology and the human body with my desire to solve big questions by building and creating solutions. I applied to college knowing it was what I wanted to study.

What kind of research do you conduct, and what is the focus of your thesis?
My research is focused on the knee meniscus, specifically the impacts of its complex extracellular matrix and how that matrix changes during growth and after meniscal injury. My interests are largely translational, and in the future, I’d like to think about how we can use preclinical animal models to create effective therapeutics and drive clinical decision making in the orthopedic space.

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?
I studied Biomedical Engineering during my undergraduate education and worked in cartilage tissue engineering. These experiences helped guide me to my Ph.D. work here at Penn. The two pieces of advice I’d give my undergraduate self is to ask for help and that it’s important to get more than five hours of sleep a night.

What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?
My favorite thing to do on campus was to read papers/write lectures/work on grants at a local coffee shop. I used to go to HubBub when it still existed, Saxby’s, and United By Blue.

Have you done or learned anything new or interesting during quarantine?
I have embarked on a journey in culinary fermentation (variety of pickles and sourdough, of course), and recently started homebrewing!

Ruby Washington: Poised to Make Her Mark in Bioengineering

by

Ruby Washington

Data show that healthcare disparities plague the Black community in America, making it harder to receive adequate treatment and care. But rather than just accepting the status quo, Ruby Washington, senior in the Department of Bioengineering, is dedicated to leveraging her interest in biomedicine to change outcomes and systems.

“I feel that I have a duty to help my community and make the healthcare system better for people who look like me,” she says.

That’s a challenge well suited to a woman who is both fascinated by the intersection of materials science and biology and dedicated to representing and leading a community of Black engineers.

Read the full story at Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Bioengineering’s Applicant-Support Program Supports “Underserved and Underrepresented Communities”

A recent piece in the Daily Pennsylvanian highlights Penn Bioengineering’s new Applicant-Support Program. Introduced for the Fall 2020 admissions cycle, this new program supports the department’s mission of increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion by pairing Ph.D. applicants to current doctoral students who will serve as a mentors to help navigate the process, give feedback on application materials, and provide other support to prospective students.

As Jason Andrechak, President of Penn’s Graduate Association of Association of Bioengineers (GABE) chapter, explains in the DP’s profile: “A lot of what a successful application looks like at this level is just knowing what a successful application looks like.” This and other new policies and programs implemented by GABE and Yale Cohen, Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, Neuroscience and Bioengineering and BE’s current Graduate Group Chair, seek to support applications from “underserved or underrepresented communities.”

Read the full story in the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Guest Post: Penn Bioengineering Lab Classes in the Time of Coronavirus

By Solumtochukwu (Somto) Egboga

Stephenson Lab student employees (L to R): Seth Fein (BSE 20, MSE 21), Nicole Wojnowski (BSE 22), and Somto Egboga (MSE 21)

Since the country began shutting down in March, I have joined the majority of the world in calling the times “unprecedented”: The word, which I rarely used before the pandemic, is now a staple of my lockdown lexicon. In March, we all got the email that changed the trajectory of the rest of our semester and the school year. Since then, COVID-19 has been impacting lives here at Penn, around the nation, and the world. Hanging out with friends and family on Zoom, managing work and school from home, social distancing, wearing masks everywhere, and constantly washing hands have been the reality of our new normal for months.

It has been almost ten months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and this has posed a global crisis like nothing most of us have experienced in our lifetime. At Penn, the campus community including students and staff have rallied to keep each other safe, all while doing what is possible to ensure that lectures, teaching, and research are possible in ways that uphold the university’s mission of “strengthening the quality of education and producing innovative research and models of healthcare delivery by fostering a vibrant inclusive environment and fully embracing diversity.”

BE students Alexa Rybicki, Ifeoluwa Popoola, and Caitlin Frazee meet for BE 309 in the Gather.Town virtual lab space.

In Penn Engineering’s Bioengineering Department, the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace has been at the heart of ensuring that lab-based classes run as smoothly as possible given the circumstances. First off, during the summer, the lab launched a Slack site that not only kept students engaged and connected through fun, daily “Questions of the Day” but also gave them the opportunity to reach out to our staff and obtain their expertise for coursework and personal projects. The staff at the Stephenson Lab also supported and continue to support Senior Design students (BE 495) with their projects by ordering, receiving, packaging, arranging pickups, or mailing supplies needed to complete their Senior Design projects. In addition, class time takes place using Gather.Town to recreate our Bio-MakerSpace virtually. In other classes, video tutorials of some of the experiments students were missing out on were produced over the summer and made available to students so they could learn by seeing what the lab staff were doing in the videos. For the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design (BE MAD) class (BE 309), in addition to videos, our lab Engineer, Michael Patterson, developed software through which students can enter design criteria and have experimental data emailed to them.

Picking up lab supplies outside in the Engineering complex

The staff at the lab also supported a Rehabilitation Engineering course (BE 514) taught by Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Bioengineering, by putting together supplies that enabled students in the class to reengineer toy bunny rabbits to be more accessible to children with disabilities. Optical Microscopy (BE 518), another Bioengineering course, taught by Christopher Fang-Yen, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Neuroscience, offers students an introduction to the fundamental concepts of optics and microscopy. The staff at the lab put together kits and made them available for pickup by the students in the class.

In a time when the shape of education looks vastly different from what we anticipated this year, the Bio-MakerSpace has been instrumental in ensuring that students still have access to resources that make their learning experience an enriching one. In these unprecedented times, the lab has been able to encourage students to keep up and be engaged with their coursework while also fostering creativity in students, virtually and remotely. While we may not know what life after the pandemic will look like, one thing to be sure of is that the Stephenson Lab will always be a reliable place for Penn students to get support for personal projects and coursework when needed.

Solumtochukwu (Somto) Egboga is a Master’s Student in Bioengineering, graduating December 2020. She also is a student employee for the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace.

Student Spotlight: David Alanis Garza

David Alanis Garza (BSE & BS 2021)

The Penn Bioengineering student spotlight series continues with David Alanis Garza. David is a senior from Monterrey, Mexico finishing his dual degree in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Health Care Management at the Wharton School, with minors in Chemistry and Math. He currently serves as the Captain of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), managing clinical operations and the organization’s response to COVID-19. He is also a Penn tour guide and a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. In his free time, he enjoys mountain climbing, camping, and playing guitar.

What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?

I first became interested in BE during my high school physics class, in which my teacher motivated our lesson in electromagnetism by explaining the basics behind an MRI machine and how defibrillators are basically glorified capacitors. I realized that my lifelong dream to be a surgeon would best be served if I armed myself with a scalpel and screwdriver alike. With the fast paced advances in the medical field, the best physicians must not only understand the underlying pathophysiology of disease, but also how to interact with and keep up with innovations in the biomedical engineering field. At Penn, I have enjoyed discovering that BE is much more wide than what I initially appreciated.

Have you ever done research with a professor on campus? What did you like, and what didn’t you like about it?

I have had the opportunity to work in the Center for Resuscitation Science on a research project investigating diagnostic patterns in the electrocardiogram of Pulseless Electrical Activity (PEA). I truly enjoyed the opportunity to take on more responsibility as the first author of the manuscript we are currently working on, and learned so much about communication in science when presenting the research during American Heart Association’s Resuscitation Science Symposium this last weekend. What I learned in Bioengineering, especially in BE 309/310 (Lab) and BE 301 (Signals and Systems), has been incredibly useful for my research. I am also currently completing a Wharton senior thesis exploring how financial derivative securities could be used to hedge risk in emergency departments. Penn is incredibly supportive of students seeking to gain more research experience, offering an abundance of opportunities for guided and independent projects. I truly enjoyed the opportunity of finding answers to very specific questions in my fields, as well as the valuable relationships with my mentors I formed along the way.

What have been some of your favorite courses and/or projects in Bioengineering so far?

BE 305 (Engineering Principles of Human Physiology) has been my favorite course at Penn. In this class, we were able to understand, quantify, and hack the body’s physiology through an engineering lens. From building a pulseoximeter with our phone cameras, to determining the blood volume of the left ventricle over time with MRI images, this class was very much hands on. A close second is BE 301 (Bioengineering Signals and Systems). I hadn’t previously grasped how this discipline was relevant to medicine until this class, but now I find myself applying what I learned in my research. Lastly, as many other BE students will tell you, the human-cockroach machine interface project in BE lab has been one of my most challenging and rewarding undertakings at Penn. Our team linked a wearable device that measured the forearms position and muscle contractions, so that when the wearer painted a picture, a cockroach leg would be moved and stimulated to paint an imitation of the image. Overcoming my phobia of cockroaches and the countless hours of trial and error were all worth it, for I can now brag about how my team made an artist out of a cockroach leg.

What advice would you give to your freshman self?

It is a great idea to identify which area of BE research you are interested in, and plan your academics so that you can take the closely related courses early on. This will empower you to conduct research with greater responsibilities or give you marketable skills that employers may look for when hiring for internships of your interest. BE upperclassmen are always willing to help, so feel free to reach out to us for any advice.

What do you hope to pursue after obtaining your undergraduate degree?

I will be taking a gap year in which I will be working in the area of hospital administration and clinical engineering before I begin my medical school journey. As of right now, I am interested in specializing in emergency medicine or surgery, but I know my interests may change as my understanding of medicine grows throughout the next years.

Have you done or learned anything new or interesting during quarantine?
The COVID pandemic gave me a unique opportunity to manage the clinical operations of MERT’s emergency medical services during an unprecedented challenge. As a result, I learned a lot about how different hospitals and health care systems are managing their response, not to mention the standard protocols to ensure the safety and wellness of our patients and providers. On a less professional note, I have been able to get a bit better at chess and guitar.

Bioengineering Student Jamie Moni Participates in the 34th Africana Studies Summer Institute

Jamie Moni (BAS 2024)

Jamie Moni, a freshman in Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, spent his summer before starting Penn participating in the 2020 Africana Studies Summer Institute, a pre-freshman program hosted by the Center for Africana Studies. A recent piece by Penn Today’s KristineGarcía profiling the thirty-four-year-old program and its transition to a virtual format featured Moni’s thoughts on the program:

“Jamie Moni is a bioengineering major who participated from his home in Hillsborough, New Jersey. The Institute was one of the first programs he sought out after enrolling at Penn, Moni says. ‘My parents were really happy that there’s a program like this at Penn, especially because there’s not a lot of Black people in my town. Most of the African Americans that I interact with on a daily basis are my family,’ Moni says, whose ancestry is from Cameroon. ‘It’s been interesting, to say the least.’

Moni has a close relationship with his peer mentor, Niko Simpkins, who ‘has been really one of the best things that I took out of the Africana Institute.’ A fellow engineering major, Simpkins gives Moni study tips and introduced him to the National Society of Black Engineers as well as STEM-specific workshops.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Gabriel DeSantis: Penn Abroad Leader

Gabriel DeSantis

As an undergraduate studying bioengineering, Gabriel DeSantis spent a semester abroad at ETH Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland. Now in the Bioengineering master’s program, DeSantis is also a Penn Abroad Leader, serving on the office’s student advisory board and supporting fellow students interested in global experiences.

Penn Abroad’s Selene Li recently interviewed DeSantis about what drew him to Switzerland and his time there:

How did you discover the Switzerland abroad program? 
I think it was probably in my sophomore year when I started seriously thinking about going abroad as something I could do during my time at Penn. I had cousins and other friends who had gone abroad, and just heard great things about it, so it seemed like something worth looking into. So as a bioengineer, I remember I first looked at what programs even offer bioengineering credit, and there’s really only a handful of options. I think I really wanted to be in Europe, and the Zurich program was at a super strong school. There was also someone in one of my classes who was a year older than me that was planning on going and was going through the whole application process. They were telling me about their whole application process and that really showed me how feasible going abroad was as a bioengineer.

What kinds of classes did you take? 
I went in as a Health Sciences and Technology major. I had a decent amount of freedom in terms of the courses I could take because of that. While there, I took four credits that I ended up bringing back, and then two courses that were a little smaller that I didn’t do for credit but were just sort of interesting.

What was a really good or favorite memory from going abroad? 
I really like hiking. During the first few weeks, we would do day trips to mountains nearby, but we did one weekend trip where we did two nights in Interlaken and had two full days to do some more intense hikes. Interlaken is just one of the most beautiful places in the world. We were staying at a nice little hostel, so I had an amazing day doing an 18-mile hike, and then coming back and hanging out with a bunch of people who I was also abroad with, as well as other people who were at the hostel. I think it was just being around constant beauty and around such great people and feeling accomplished because of the hike that made it such a great memory.

Continue reading at the Penn Abroad Blog.

Magnetic Field and Hydrogels Could Be Used to Grow New Cartilage

by Frank Otto

MRI Knee joint or Magnetic resonance imaging sagittal view for detect tear or sprain of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

Using a magnetic field and hydrogels, a team of researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine have demonstrated a new possible way to rebuild complex body tissues, which could result in more lasting fixes to common injuries, such as cartilage degeneration. This research was published in Advanced Materials.

“We found that we were able to arrange objects, such as cells, in ways that could generate new, complex tissues without having to alter the cells themselves,” says the study’s first author, Hannah Zlotnick, a graduate student in bioengineering who works in the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory at Penn Medicine. “Others have had to add magnetic particles to the cells so that they respond to a magnetic field, but that approach can have unwanted long-term effects on cell health. Instead, we manipulated the magnetic character of the environment surrounding the cells, allowing us to arrange the objects with magnets.”

In humans, tissues like cartilage can often break down, causing joint instability or pain. Often, the breakdown isn’t in total, but covers an area, forming a hole. Current fixes are to fill those holes in with synthetic or biologic materials, which can work but often wear away because they are not the same exact material as what was there before. It’s similar to fixing a pothole in a road by filling it with gravel and making a tar patch: The hole will be smoothed out but eventually wear away with use because it’s not the same material and can’t bond the same way.

What complicates fixing cartilage or other similar tissues is that their makeup is complex.

“There is a natural gradient from the top of cartilage to the bottom, where it contacts the bone,” Zlotnick explains. “Superficially, or at the surface, cartilage has a high cellularity, meaning there is a higher number of cells. But where cartilage attaches to the bone, deeper inside, its cellularity is low.”

So the researchers, which included senior author Robert Mauck, PhD, director of the McKay Lab and a professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, sought to find a way to fix the potholes by repaving them instead of filling them in. With that in mind, the research team found that if they added a magnetic liquid to a three-dimensional hydrogel solution, cells, and other non-magnetic objects including drug delivery microcapsules, could be arranged into specific patterns that mimicked natural tissue through the use of an external magnetic field.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.

Through Brain Imaging Analysis in Rats, Penn Researchers Show Potential to Predict Whether Pain Will be Acute or Persistent

Beth Winkelstein, Megan Sperry, and Eric Granquist

Pain may be a universal experience, but what actually causes that experience within our brains is still poorly understood. Pain often continues long after the relevant receptors in the body have stopped being stimulated and can persist even after those receptors cease to exist, as is the case with “phantom limb” pain.

The exact experience an individual will have after a painful incident comes down to the complex, variable connections formed between several different parts of the brain. The inability to predict how those connections will form and evolve can make pain management a tricky, frustrating endeavor for both healthcare providers and patients.

Now, a team of Penn researchers has shown a way to make such predictions from the pattern of neural connections that begin to take shape soon after the first onset of pain. Though their study was conducted in rats, it suggests that similar brain imaging techniques could be used to guide treatment decisions in humans, such as which individuals are most likely to benefit from different drugs or therapies.

The study, published in the journal Pain, was led by Beth Winkelstein, Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and Deputy Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, along with Megan Sperry, then a graduate student in her lab. Eric Granquist, Director of the Center for Temporomandibular Joint Disease at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery, and assistant professor of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery in Penn’s School of Dental Medicine, also contributed to the research.

“Our findings provide the first evidence that brain networks differ between acute and persistent pain states, even before those different groups of rats actually show different pain symptoms,” says Winkelstein.

Read the full story at Penn Engineering Today. Media contact Evan Lerner.