NB: Penn Bioengineering would like to congratulate one of its current Senior Design teams (Alec Bayliff, Bram Bruno, Justin Swirbul, and Vishal Then) which took home the $500 Pioneer Award at this year’s Rothberg Catalyzer competition this past weekend! Keep reading for more information on the competition, awards, and winners.
Penn Health-Tech’s Rothberg Catalyzer is a two-day makerthon that challenges interdisciplinary student teams to prototype and pitch medical devices that aim to address an unmet clinical need.
MAR Designs took home the top prize of $10,000 for their project, an orthotic device that children with cerebral palsy can more comfortably wear as they sleep.
According to the team’s presentation, existing wrist orthoses “improve function and treat/prevent spasticity. However, patients report that these devices are uncomfortable which leads to lack of compliance and may also prevent patient’s eligibility for surgeries.” MAR Designs’ device initially allows full range of motion, but gradually straightens the wrist as the child is falling asleep.
In second place was Splash Throne. Team members Greg Chen, Nik Evitt, Jake Crawford and Meghan Lockwood proposed a toilet safety frame intended for elderly users. Embedded sensors track basic health information, like weight and heart-rate, as part of a preventative health routine.
Integrated Product Design students Jonah Arheim, Laura Ceccacci, Julia Lin and Alex Wan took third place with ONESCOPE, an untethered, hands-free laproscope designed to make minimally-invasive surgeries faster and safer.
Finally, SchistoSpot took home the Catalyzer’s Pioneer Award. Bioengineering and Computer and Information Science seniors Alec Bayliff, Bram Bruno, Justin Swirbul and Vishal Then designed a low-cost microscopy system that can aid in the diagnosis of the parasitic disease schistosomiasis by detecting eggs in urine samples, eliminating the need for a hospital visit.
The event was made possible by a three-year donation by scientist and entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, with the intent of inspiring the next generation of healthcare innovators.
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.
The annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) will be held in our hometown of Philadelphia October 16-19, 2019. The professional society for bioengineers and biomedical engineers will be taking over the city of Brotherly Love, and lots of faculty and students from Penn’s Bioengineering will be attending and presenting their research.
As previously mentioned here, Jason Burdick, Ph.D., the Robert D. Bent Professor of Bioengineering, is one of three chairs of the 2019 annual meeting. He shares this position with two other local faculty: Alisa Morss Clyne, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics at Drexel University; and Ruth Ochia, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Instruction in Bioengineering at Temple University. They have worked together since their appointment in 2017 to plan and chair the Philadelphia conference. Check out the video below with details of what to expect from BMES in Philly.
For those of you who have never been to BMES, the event is comprised of a mixture of academic and networking events, including keynote talks from top researchers, thousands of oral and poster presentations, participants from around the world, and social receptions. To plan your itinerary, click here for the program and agenda and here for the schedule at a glance. With the meeting being held locally this year, there are far too many presentations by Penn Bioengineering faculty and staff to list here, so check out BMES’s searchable scientific program or our searchable schedule of Penn faculty student activities at this year’s meeting (separated by day).
For those interested in social events and networking, check out two back-to-back events on Friday night. From 6:30-8:30 pm, Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, CEMB, and LRSM will host a reception at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Salon E. This will be followed by the meeting’s big BMES Dessert Bash at the Franklin Institute from 8:30-10:30 pm. (Please note: These events are open to registered conference participants only.) For those sticking around, there are no shortage of things to do in Philly, whether you are looking to site-see, shop, or dine.
We hope everyone has a wonderful time at the conference and enjoys Philadelphia! Let us know what activities you are enjoying most by tagging us on Twitter @pennbioeng or Instagram (pennbioengineering) and using the hashtag #pennbioengineering.
We would like to congratulate Dr. Yale Cohen, Ph.D., on his recent appointment as the new Graduate Group Chair for Penn’s Department of Bioengineering. The Graduate Group is a group of faculty that graduate students in bioengineering can choose from to collaborate with on lab research. The Group includes members from nearly all of Penn’s schools, including Penn Engineering, Penn Dental, Penn Medicine, Penn Vet, and the School of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Cohen specializes in otorhinolaryngology as his primary department, with research areas in computational and experimental neuroengineering. He will take over the role of Graduate Group Chair from Dr. Ravi Radhakrishnan, Ph.D, professor of bioengineering and chemical and biomolecular engineering, whose research specializes in cellular, molecular, and theoretical and computational bioengineering. During his tenure as Graduate Group Chair, Dr. Radhakrishnan says that “the most enjoyable part was the student talks during bioengineering seminars, and the talks at the bioengineering graduate student research symposium,” noting the way they made him realize the “depth and breadth of our graduate group, and how accomplished our students are.”
Also during his time as chair, Dr. Radhakrishnan says he was proud to expand the course BE 699 — the Bioengineering Department’s required seminar for all Ph.D. candidates — to include discussions of leadership and soft-skills, as well as instituting individualized development plans to help students track their work. In looking forward to Dr. Cohen’s appointment to the role, Dr. Radhakrishnan says that he is “a natural and accomplished scientist, educator, and amazing leader who connects so readily and well with our students and faculty.”
Dr. Cohen, looking forward to taking on his new role, says that he hopes to improve programs like the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) and the mentoring of graduate students so that they can access the wide range of wisdom that comprises the faculty, students, staff, and alumni associated with the Graduate Group. “I am thrilled to be the new chair of the BE Graduate Group and welcome your input and comments on how to improve an already outstanding program,” says Dr. Cohen.
Each week, the National Science Foundation highlights “4 Awesome Discoveries You Probably Didn’t Hear About” — a kid-friendly YouTube series that highlights particularly eye-popping NSF-supported research.
This week, one of those stories was literally about an eye, or rather, a synthetic model of one.
Dan Huh, associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering, and graduate student Jeongyun Seo, recently published a paper that outlined their new blinking eye-on-a-chip. Containing human cells and mechanical parts designed to mimic natural biological functions, including a motorized eyelid, the device was developed as platform for modeling dry eye disease and testing drugs to treat it.
See more of the series at the NSF’s Science360 site, and read more about Huh’s blinking-eye-on-a-chip research here.
Brain stimulation, where targeted electrical impulses are directly applied to a patient’s brain, is already an effective therapy for depression, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders, but many more applications are on the horizon. Clinicians and researchers believe the technique could be used to restore or improve memory and motor function after an injury, for example, but progress is hampered by how difficult it is to predict how the entire brain will respond to stimulation at a given region.
In an effort to better personalize and optimize this type of therapy, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Perelman School of Medicine, as well as Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and the University of California, Riverside, have developed a way to model how a given patient’s brain activity will change in response to targeted stimulation.
To test the accuracy of their model, they recruited a group of study participants who were undergoing an unrelated treatment for severe epilepsy, and thus had a series of electrodes already implanted in their brains. Using each individual’s brain activity data as inputs for their model, the researchers made predictions about how to best stimulate that participant’s brain to improve their performance on a basic memory test.
The participants’ brain activity before and after stimulation suggest the researchers’ models have meaningful predictive power and offer a first step towards a more generalizable approach to specific stimulation therapies.
The study, published in the journal Cell Reports, was led by Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, and Jennifer Stiso, a neuroscience graduate student in Penn Medicine and a member of Bassett’s Complex Systems Lab.
A New Sprayable Gel Can Help Prevent Surgical Adhesions
Adhesions are a common kind of scar tissue that can occur after surgery, and though usually not painful, they have the potential to result in complications like chronic pain or decreased heart efficiency, depending on where the scar tissue forms. Now, a sprayable gel developed by researchers at Stanford University will help to prevent adhesions from forming during surgical procedures. The gel, called PNP 1:10 in reference to its polymer-nanoparticle structure, has a similar stiffness to mayonnaise and achieves an ideal balance of slipperiness and stickiness that allows it to adhere easily to tissue of irregular shapes and surfaces. The flexible gel will actually dissolve in the body after two weeks, which is about how long most adhesions take to heal. Though lead author Lyndsay Stapleton, M.S., and senior authors Joseph Woo, M.D., and Eric Appel, Ph.D., have only tested the gel in rats and sheep so far, they hope that human applications are not too far in the future.
Learning to Understand Blood Clots in a New Model
Blood clots are the source of some of the deadliest human conditions and diseases. When a clot forms, blood flow can be interrupted, cutting off supply to the brain, heart, or other vital organs, resulting in potentially serious damage to the mind and body. For patients with certain bleeding disorders, clotting or the lack thereof can hold tremendous importance in surgery, and affect some of the typical procedures of a given operation. To help plan for such situations, researchers at the University of Buffalo created an in vitro model to help better illustrate the complex fluid mechanics of blood flow and clotting. Most importantly, this new model better demonstrates the role of shear stress in blood flow, and the way that it can affect the formation or destruction of blood clots – an aspect that current clinical devices often overlook. Led by Ruogang Zhao, Ph.D., the model can allow surgeons and hematologists to consider the way that certain chemical or physical treatments can affect clot formation on a patient-to-patient basis. The two key factors of the model are its incorporation of blood flow, and its relationship to shear stress, with clot stiffness through microfabrication technology using micropillars as force sensors for the stiffness. Going forward, Zhao and his research team hope to test the model on more patients, to help diversify the different bleeding disorders it can exhibit.
Training the Next Generation of Researchers
Rebecca Zappala, a junior from Miami, Florida who is majoring in bioengineering, worked in Grenoble this summer on new ways to harvest water from fog. She describes her research project as a “futuristic” way to collect water and says that she’s thankful for the opportunity to work on her first independent research project through the Research and Education in Active Coatings Technology (REACT) program.
After learning the technical skills she needed for her project, Zappala spent her summer independently working on new ways to modify her material’s properties while working closely with her French PI and a post-doc in the lab. She was surprised to see how diverse the lab was, with researchers working on everything from biomolecular research to energy in the same space.
“I learned a lot,” she says about being in such an interdisciplinary setting. “I hadn’t been part of a research team before, and I got a lot of exposure to things that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.”
Virginia Tech Course Addresses the Needs of Wounded Veterans
A new course at Virginia Tech encourages students to apply engineering skills to real-life problems in the biomedical world by designing medical devices or other applications to assist veterans suffering from serious injuries or illnesses. Funded by the National Institute of Health, faculty from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics hope that the course will allow students to see how theoretical knowledge from the classroom actually works in a clinical setting, and to understand how different stakeholder interests factor into designing a real device. What makes this new class unique from other traditional design-focused courses at other universities is its level of patient interaction. Students at Virginia Tech who choose to take this class will have the chance to gain input from field professionals like clinicians and engineers from the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center, while also being able to get direct feedback from the patients that the devices will actually help. Beginning in the spring of 2020, students can take the new course, and volunteer in the veterans clinics to gain even more experience with patients.
People and Places
Sevile Mannickarottu, the Director of the Educational Laboratories in Penn’s Department of Bioengineering and recent recipient of the Staff Recognition Award from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, presented a paper to highlight the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Educational Lab and Bio-Makerspace at the 126th annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education. Thanks to the dedication of Mannickarottu and the lab staff to creating a space for simultaneous education and innovation, the Bioengineering Lab continues to be a hub for student community and projects of all kinds.
A week-long program for high school girls interested in STEM allows students to explore ideas and opportunities in the field through lab tours, guest speakers, and hands-on challenges. A collaboration across the University of Virginia Department of Biomedical Engineering, Charlottesville Women in Tech, and St. Anne’s Belfield School, the program gave this year’s students a chance to design therapies for children with disorders like hemiplegia and cerebral palsy, in the hopes that these interactive design challenges will inspire the girls to pursue future endeavors in engineering.
We would like to congratulate Nancy Albritton, Ph.D., on her appointment as the next Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington. Albritton brings both a deep knowledge of the research-to-marketplace pipeline and experience in the development of biomedical microdevices and pharmacoengineering to the new position.
We would also like to congratulate Jeffrey Brock, Ph.D., on his appointment as the dean of the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. Already both a professor of mathematics and a dean of science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale, Brock’s new position will help him to foster collaborations across different departments of academia and research in science and engineering.
The Bioengineering Department seminar series kicks off for the fall semester in one week. We hope to see you there!
Speaker: Jens Herberholz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Cognitive Science Graduate Program
Co-Director, Brain and Behavior Initiative (BBI)
University of Maryland College Park
Date: Thursday, October 3, 2019
Time: 12:00-1:30 pm
Location: Room 337, Towne Building
Title: “Developing Neuroengineering Solutions of Biomedical Relevance Using Crayfish as a Model System”
In my talk, I will first describe one of the main projects in my lab that investigates the underlying cellular-molecular mechanisms for changes in alcohol sensitivity of crayfish with different prior social experiences. In this context, I will explain why “simple” invertebrates may provide unique advantages for studying complex phenomena such as socially-dependent drug effects. Crayfish are inexpensive and easily maintained in the laboratory, and they have an accessible nervous system with large, identified neurons that link directly to behavior and can sustain many hours of experimental study. This allows for high precision and reproducibility and makes crayfish a suitable model not just for investigating neurobehavioral questions, but for developing and improving biomedical devices and tools. In the second part of my talk, I will illustrate two projects that are currently ongoing in collaboration with engineering colleagues at UMD. The first one aims to develop nanoparticles that wirelessly activate and record neural activity patterns using microwave signals. Preliminary data using individual neurons of the ex vivo crayfish nerve cord revealed that single action potentials can be robustly recorded by activating microwave signals in a nanoscale magnetic tunnel junction. The future goal of this project is to develop this technique for non-invasive monitoring and modulating of activity in brains of higher complexity. The second project interfaces the crayfish ex vivo ventral nerve cord and innervated hindgut with a multi-sensor 3D printed platform that contains cultured human gut cells and interchangeable colonies of microbiota. The physiological responses to serotonin release from cell cultures will be measured and quantified in crayfish neurons of the central and enteric nervous system and on corresponding hindgut motility with intracellular electrophysiology and motion tracking. The long-term goal is to develop a real-time, high-throughput discovery platform that allows detailed investigation of the cellular processes underlying the gut-brain axis.
Dr. Jens Herberholz is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department and the Director of the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program, an interdisciplinary, multi-departmental research and graduate training program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Herberholz received his PhD from the Technical University in Munich, Germany. His PhD work investigated the importance of mechanosensory signals during aggressive interactions in snapping shrimp. Following his PhD. he was a Postdoctoral Associate and Research Scientist at Georgia State University where he combined single-cell electrophysiology with behavioral analysis to study the neurobehavioral underpinnings of escape in crayfish. In his own laboratory, he continues to use crayfish as a primary animal model for research. Crayfish make complex behavioral decisions, and they feature an accessible nervous system with large, identifiable neurons, which allows for cellular and circuit-level analysis using neurophysiological, neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neuroimaging techniques. His current research program focuses on identifying the structure and function of decision-making neural circuitry and understanding the interconnections between neural activity patterns and motor action in the context of aggression and predator avoidance. His most recent work addresses fundamental questions regarding the role of neurochemical inhibition, including the interplay between the neurocellular effects of alcohol and behavioral disinhibition, with the long-term goal of identifying how nervous system function is linked to adaptive and maladaptive behavioral output. Dr. Herberholz has published many peer-reviewed articles and conference abstracts as well as several book chapters on these topics; his research has been supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and featured by various media outlets. He is an Associate Editor for the journal “Behaviour”.
Penn Engineering is pleased to announce the names of the recipients of four scholarly chairs: Drs. Danielle Bassett, Russell Composto, Boon Thau Loo and Mark Yim. These are all well-deserved honors and we celebrate the privilege of having each of these scholars among us. Two of the recipients, Drs. Bassett and Composto, are members of the Bioengineering Department.
Danielle Bassett has been named the J. Peter Skirkanich Professor of Bioengineering.
Dr. Bassett is a Professor in the department of Bioengineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. She holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Cambridge and completed her postdoctoral training at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before joining Penn in 2013.
Dr. Bassett has received numerous awards for her research, including an Alfred P Sloan Research Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and, most recently, an Erdos-Renyi Prize in Network Science to name but a few. She has authored over 190 peer-reviewed publications as well as numerous book chapters and teaching materials. She is the founding director of the Penn Network Visualization Program, a combined undergraduate art internship and K-12 outreach program bridging network science and the visual arts.
Dr. Bassett’s research is in the area of complex systems and network science, with applications to biological, physical and social networks. She examines dynamic changes in network architecture, the interaction between topological properties of networks, and the influence of network topology on signal propagation and system function. To learn more about Dr. Bassett and her research, please visit her faculty profile.
The J. Peter Skirkanich Professorship was established to honor J. Peter “Pete” Skirkanich, an alumnus, trustee and member of the School of Engineering and Applied Science Board of Overseers who also served as co-chair of Penn Engineering’s “Making History through Innovation” capital campaign and was a member of the University’s “Making History” steering committee. His generous support for Penn Engineering paved the way for Skirkanich Hall.
Russell Composto has been named the Howell Family Faculty Fellow in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Dr. Composto is a Professor in the department of Materials Science and Engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science with secondary appointments in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He joined Penn in 1990 after an appointment as a Research Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Massachusetts. He is an alumnus of Cornell University, where he received his doctoral degree in 1987.
Dr. Composto is a member of a number of centers and institutes and is the director of Research and Education in Active Coatings Technologies (REACT) for human habitat, a Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Composto is a previous recipient of the Provost’s Award for Distinguished PhD Teaching and Mentoring. He also serves at the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education at Penn Engineering.
Dr. Composto’s research is in the area of polymer science and biomolecular engineering. His interests extend to polymer surfaces and interfaces, adhesion and diffusion, and nanocomposite polymer blend and copolymer films. His biomaterials work centers around manipulating the surface of polymers to elicit control over protein adsorption, as well as cell adhesion, orientation, and function, and he has an active research program at the interface of polymer science and biomolecular engineering, which combines block copolymer self-assemble as a basis for orienting stiff biological molecules. To learn more about Dr. Composto and his research, please visit his faculty profile.
The Howell Family Faculty Fellow was established to provide financial support to a faculty member in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. This faculty fellow helped launch the dean’s strategic goal to increase the School’s number of named, endowed faculty positions.
Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, has received a Young Investigator Award from the Chinese Association for Biomaterials.
According to the Chinese Association for Biomaterials, “The CAB Young/Mid-Career Investigator Awards recognize the individuals who have successfully demonstrated significant achievements in the field of biomaterials research.”
The Chinese Association for Biomaterials was founded in 2015 at the Society for Biomaterials Annual Meeting. It is a non-profit professional organization that aims to facilitate exchange of research ideas and to promote collaboration among scientists in the fields of biomaterials research.
Mitchell joined the Department of Bioengineering at Penn in 2018 as Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation. Previously, he was an NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Fellow with Institute Professor Robert Langer at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. His research interests include biomaterials, drug delivery, and cellular and molecular bioengineering for applications in cancer research, immunotherapy, and gene therapy. Since joining Penn in 2018, Mitchell has received the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface, a Rising Star Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society, and the T. Nagai Award from the Controlled Release Society.