Thouron Award for Bioengineering Major Nicholas Stiansen

Nick Stiansen

Nicholas Stiansen, a senior Bioengineering major at Penn, is one of eight students and alumni receiving a Thouron Award. Nick will receive a full scholarship to cover tuition and fees, plus a stipend of £19,500 (approximately $27,000). He is still awaiting decisions from graduate programs, but his first choice is to study at Imperial College London (ICL) in the United Kingdom.

Named for Sir John Thouron, a British aristocrat and husband of Esther Driver du Pont, great-granddaughter of Alfred V. du Pont, founder of the chemical company, the Thouron Award is given to graduates of Penn and of universities in the U.K. Each year, a small number of Penn students receives awards, as well as a similar number of British students.  Previous awardees include: the current nominee to head the SEC, Jay Clayton; Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan; and John J. Leonard, Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering and Samuel C. Collins Professor at MIT.

In addition to majoring in Bioengineering, Nick works as an undergraduate research assistant in the Spine Pain Research Laboratory of Beth Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education and Professor, and a teaching assistant for BE 310, the second half of the junior year bioengineering lab series. Plus, he holds or has held positions with the Engineering Deans’ Advisory Board and the Biomedical Engineering Society, and he is involved in the Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity and Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society. If he enrolls at ICL, Nick intends to study in the university’s Master’s program in Medical Device Design and Entrepreneurship.

“I am honored to be named a Thouron Scholar,” Nick says, “and I am extremely excited to continue my graduate studies in the U.K. I am eager to immerse myself in a new, vibrant culture and learn about medical technology from an entirely new perspective. This experience will be integral towards achieving my long-term goal of developing the next wave of innovative and accessible medical devices.”

Second Roundtable With Undergrads

Second roundtableLate last semester, Penn Bioengineering Department chair David Meaney and senior lecturer LeAnn Dourte held a second roundtable with BE undergrads Eric Helfgott, Joseph Maggiore, Kayla Prezelski, and Margaret Schroeder. They picked up on topics from the last roundtable, extending the topics to balancing an engineering workload and other commitments.


Roundtable With Undergraduate BE Majors

Last week, for our latest podcast, Penn Bioengineering Department Communications Coordinator Andrew Mathis sat down with a roundtable of five undergraduate students — Lamis Elsawah, Eric Helfgott, Joseph Maggiore, Kayla Prezelski, and Margaret Schroeder — to talk about how they chose Penn, what majoring in BE has been like so far, and other things.

Penn Bioengineering at BMES 2017

BMES 2017

The annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) was held in Phoenix on October 11-14. The professional society for bioengineers and biomedical engineers this year played host not only to faculty from Penn’s Bioengineering Department but also to several undergraduate and graduate students, as well as staff

As previously mentioned here, three of the undergraduate students from the Center for Engineering MechanoBiology (CEMB) presented their work at the BMES meeting. The three students – Kimberly DeLuca from New Jersey Institute of Technology; John Durel from the University of Virginia; and Olivia Leavitt from Worcester Polytechnic Institute – spent 10 weeks over the summer at Penn working on individual research projects in the labs of Penn faculty.

Olivia worked in the laboratory of Beth Winkelstein, Ph.D., Professor of Bioengineering and Vice Provost for Education at Penn. Olivia’s project studied how matrix proteases influence the nerve impulses, but not the structure, of connective tissue. Jacob’s project, developed with Professor Jason Burdick, Ph.D., generated new insights into how single stem cells sense the mechanical environment and ‘make decisions’ about which type of cell they will become.  Kimberly’s work was done in the lab of Robert Mauck, Ph.D., Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and it studies how to make materials with unique mechanical properties that could eventually find use in tissue engineering applications.

“I am very pleased to have been a part of the CEMB’s first round of undergraduate summer interns, and while there are certainly some small kinks to be worked out around the edges, the CEMB offered an invaluable experience. If I had to go back and decide again whether or not to chose this internship versus others, I would do it again in a heart-beat,” John Durel said.

BMES 2017
(left to right) Bioengineering Department Chair David Meaney, BMES Co-president Olivia Teter, and GABE board members Meagan Ita and Varsha Viswanath.

Also attending BMES were officers of the undergraduate chapter of BMES at Penn. As we previously reported, the chapter won the Student Outreach Achievement Award for the year, repeating its win from 2015. Penn’s contingent from the BMES chapter, as well as from the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE), were on hand to receive awards and recognition (see photo above).

BMES 2017
Sevile Mannickarottu

Finally, Sevile Mannickarottu, instructional laboratories director for the Bioengineering Department, presented a paper at one of the conference sessions. Alongside presenters from MIT, Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, UCSD, UIUC, and Stanford, Sevile (see photo right) participated in a special sessions on curricular innovation held on Friday, October 13. Sevile did a great job explaining the innovations introduced to Penn’s undergraduate lab over the course of the last few years, and the presentation was very well received.

Next year’s BMES conference will be held in Atlanta on October 17-20, followed by the 2019 meeting in Philadelphia, to be co-chaired by Penn BE’s Jason Burdick.

InnoWorks Academy Engages Local Teens


The week of August 21-25, 20 students from area middle schools visited Penn to participate in InnoWorks, an educational initiative of the United InnoWorks Academy (UIA), a non-profit organization founded in 2003 by William Hwang, M.D., Ph.D., when he was an undergraduate engineering major at Duke.  Today, InnoWorks offers programs at 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Caribbean. In the program, undergraduate student volunteers host middle schoolers from disadvantaged backgrounds to foster the teenagers’ interest in science and engineering.

InnoWorksEach day of the week, from 9:15 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., the group of teens attended presentations, conducted experiments, and competed against one another in activities designed to have them apply the principles they learned about. Each day was dedicated to different topics: materials science on Monday; biology on Tuesday; chemistry and earth science on Wednesday; physics and computer science on Thursday; and a wrap-up day on Friday. In addition, over the course of the week, the students were scored for their activities, with a winner announced at the end of the week.

For instance, on Friday, students participating in InnoWorks competed in the Egg Drop Challenge. Using materials provided for them, the students designed their own parachutes for eggs, which they used in dropping the eggs from the second floor of Skirkanich Hall to the ground floor. The students did so well that the competition had to be extended to the third floor.

On another day, Dr. Kushol Gupta, a research assistant professor at Penn conducting research on HIV and assistant director of the Penn Band, talked to the students about the physics of music. Sarah Tang and Monroe Kennedy of Dean Vijay Kumar’s GRASP lab discussed the current state of robotics and drones and showed video clips of some of their work. It was among the most popular popular parts of the week.

InnoWorksHere at Penn, the codirectors of the chapter are Jacqueline Valeri, a senior bioengineering major, and Monica Shen, a senior biology major. Asked about InnoWorks this year, Jackie said, “The InnoWorks program is a great camp to be involved with because the hands-on, interactive engagement really gets our students excited about science. We try to do really minimal lecturing time and maximize the opportunity for the students to actually do experiments, demonstrations, and design challenges. As codirector of this year’s program, it was really awesome to see what a great group of students we had this year and how they flourished throughout the week. This is my third year participating in Penn’s InnoWorks chapter and it has been one of the most rewarding, fun experiences that I’ve had at Penn!”

Undergraduates Converge at Penn for REU

This year’s summer students

This past summer, 10 undergraduate from 10 colleges came to Penn for 10 weeks (May 30 to August 4) for the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), also known as the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). During the program, the students were hosted in the laboratories of faculty in Penn’s Schools of Engineering and Applied Science (including Penn Bioengineering faculty Beth Winkelstein, Dan Huh, and Jason Burdick) and Arts and Sciences and the Perelman School of Medicine. These students were hosted under the aegis of the Center for Engineering MechanoBiology (CEMB), a National Science Foundation-funded collaboration among Penn, Washington University (WashU) in St. Louis, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Alabama State University, Bryn Mawr College, Boston University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

The students all worked on individual research projects. At the end of the 10-week term, three abstracts from this research were chosen for presentation at the forthcoming annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), which will be held October 11-14 in Phoenix. The three students are Kimberly DeLuca (NJIT), John Durel (Univ. of Virginia), and Olivia Leavitt (Worcester Polytech).

The CEMB Web site at WashU has a nice page up featuring the program and this summer’s students.

Penn’s 2017 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience At-a-Glance

Noordergraaf Fellows Conduct Summer Research

Each year, the Penn Department of Bioengineering chooses undergraduate students to receive fellowships for summer research. These fellowships, which provide a $3,500 stipend for use over 10 weeks, were endowed by the Abraham Noordergraaf Student Summer Bioengineering Research Fund. Dr. Noordergraaf, who died in 2014, was a founding member and first chair of the Penn BE Department. In keeping with Dr. Noordergraaf’s research focus on the cardiovascular system, fellows with a focus on this system are favored but not exclusively awarded.

Brianna Karpowicz

The fellows for the summer of 2017 were Brianna Karpowicz, Jacqueline Valeri, and Alejandro Villasmil. Brianna is a junior bioengineering major working in the lab of Professor Yale Cohen. In her research, Brianna worked with Dr. Cohen in the Auditory Research Laboratory, examining the modeling of multisensory perceptual decision making and specifically seeking to better understand the mechanisms underlying the relationship between sensory information and perception.

Alejandro Villasmil

Alejandro Villasmil, who is a senior bioengineering major working in Professor Beth Winkelstein’s lab, used his Noordergraaf’s grant to study chronic pain in neck injury. To better understand this problem, Alejandro helped to model injury to the facet capsular ligament — one of the structures in the neck — by examining how painful and nonpainful stimuli affected the axonal structure. He found using fluorescence technology that uniaxial tension resulted in axonal changes resulting in pain.

Jacqueline Valeri

Finally, Jacqueline Valeri is a senior bioengineering major doing research in the lab of Professor Jennifer Phillips-Cremins. In Professor Cremins’s lab, Jackie undertook research on stem cells, specifically examining the question of whether light could be used to control and modulate the fate of these cells — a field called optogenetics. She helped to design two light boxes to stimulate the interaction between two proteins as a first step toward ultimately attempting to control pluripotent stem cells using light, specifically determining what cell lines these stem cells ultimately produce.

We congratulate our Noordergraaf award winners!

Pancreatic Cancer Detection With Micropore Chip

Pancreatic cancer remains one of the deadliest types of cancer, with one- and five-year survival rates of only 20% and 7%, respectively, according to the American Cancer Society. The mortality is so high because the disease does not typically cause symptoms until it is too late. Therefore, earlier detection could be the key to better survival rates.

In a new paper published by Lab on a Chip, a research team from the lab of David Issadore, assistant professor of Bioengineering, reports on its development of a micropore chip, callled the circulating tumor cell fluorescence in situ hybridization (CaTCh FISH) chip, that could detect circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from mice and patients with pancreatic cancer, even at very low, previously undetectable levels.

pancreatic cancer
Jin A Ko

Jin A (Jina) Ko, who is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering and first author on the paper, says that CTCs are a key mechanism underlying metastasis, which is another reason why pancreatic cancer has such a low survival rate. Not only can the chip that she helped design detect these cells, which circulate in the bloodstream, but more importantly, pancreatic tumors shed these cells even in their very early stages before any spread has occurred. Therefore, provided the test is performed early enough, the tumor can be detected and treated. Patients with family histories of pancreatic cancer or who have tested positive for certain gene mutations would likely benefit from this sort of test.

The study authors also tested the CaTCh FISH chip using blood samples from 14 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer and from healthy controls. They found that their micropore chip could detect several RNA markers of cancer in 10-mL samples — around 2 tsp. In addition, there were no false-negative results among the healthy controls, demonstrating a high level of reliability in that regard.

“We have developed a microchip platform that combines fast, magnetic micropore-based negative immunomagnetic selection with rapid on-chip in situ RNA profiling,” Jina said. “This integrated chip can isolate both rare circulating cells and cell clusters directly from whole blood and allow individual cells to be profiled for multiple RNA cancer biomarkers.”

Sperry Wins BMES Design and Research Award

Megan Sperry

Megan Sperry, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Bioengineering, is a recipient of a Student Design and Research Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES). Megan works in the Spine Pain Research Lab of Beth Winkelstein, Ph.D., professor of Bioengineering and Vice Provost for Education at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as with Eric Granquist, DMD, MD, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Penn Dental Medicine.

With Drs. Winkelstein and Granquist, Megan studies temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain and osteoarthritis, the latter of which can develop as a long-term consequence of untreated TMJ dysfunction.  There’s currently no way to determine which patients will progress to TMJ osteoarthritis, so Megan’s extended abstract, which was submitted to the BMES competition, detailed a study using 18F-EF5 PET, an imaging modality used mainly in oncology. Hypothesizing that hypoxia, or low oxygen, was a key factor in the development of TMJ osteoarthritis, Megan studied the relationship between hypoxia and persistent TMJ pain and found that hypoxia preceded reorganization of the cartilage of the TMJ, part of the process culminating in TMJ osteoarthritis (see image below).

An example of 18F-EF5-PET imaging of the TMJ.

“This project has been both fun and challenging because it brings together concepts and techniques from multiple fields, including orthopedics, neuroscience, and, with the use of 18F-EF5, radiation oncology,” Megan said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to share my work at the BMES Annual Meeting and receive feedback as we continue to move the project forward.”

Each year, BMES awards up to five graduate students the Student Design and Research Award from dozens of submissions. Congratulations to Megan for this elite recognition of her research!

BMES at Penn Wins Outreach Award


The chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) at the University of Pennsylvania has won the Student Outreach Achievement Award from the society. This is the second time in three years that BMES at Penn has won the award, for which more than 60 other chapters compete.

The award acknowledges the efforts of Penn BMES to establish relationships with the surrounding community. For instance, Junior Beta Day, held in the spring semester, saw Penn BE students hosting approximately 60 local middle school students for a day on campus, during which they interacted with members of the faculty and engaged in activities centered on bioengineering. In addition, the Penn BMES chapter has participated in local neighborhood revitalization initiatives and acted as mentors.

“I’m very proud of our group’s outreach initiatives within the both the greater Philadelphia and campus communities,” said Sonia Bansal, who is one of the outreach chairs for the chapter. “Our partnerships with iPraxis and SPARK help us break down bioengineering concepts into approachable activities for middle school students. We hope that our programming shows students that they too can go on to be engineers and scientists, and its an incredibly rewarding experience to see students get excited about STEM.”

Founded in 1968, BMES is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit professional association acting as a lead society for 7,000 members and 115 student chapters.