Kariyawasam is a double major in Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, with concentrations in computational medicine and medical devices, and in the Wharton School, with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship and innovation.
“We are so proud of our newest Penn Rhodes Scholars who have been chosen for this tremendous honor and opportunity,” said President Amy Gutmann. “The work Raveen has done in health care innovation and accessibility and Nicholas has done to support student well-being while at Penn is impressive, and pursuing a graduate degree at Oxford will build upon that foundation. We look forward to seeing how they make an impact in the future.”
The Rhodes is highly competitive and one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. The scholarships provide all expenses for as long as four years of study at Oxford University in England.
According to the Rhodes Trust, about 100 Rhodes Scholars will be selected worldwide this year, chosen from more than 60 countries. Several have attended American colleges and universities but are not U.S. citizens and have applied through their home country, including Kariyawasam in Sri Lanka.
The University of Pennsylvania’s 2021 iGEM team has been awarded several distinctions in this year’s highly competitive iGEM Competition. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is the largest synthetic biology community and the premiere synthetic biology competition for both university and high school level students from around the world. Each year, hundreds of interdisciplinary teams of students combine molecular biology techniques and engineering concepts to create novel biological systems and compete for prizes and awards through oral presentations and poster sessions.
The Penn team’s project, “OptoReader,” is a combined light-simulation device and plate reader, which makes optogenetic experiments more powerful and accessible. The abstract reads:
“Metabolic engineering has the potential to change the world, and optogenetic tools can make metabolic engineering research easier by providing spatiotemporal control over cells. However, current optogenetic experiments are low-throughput, expensive, and laborious, which makes them inaccessible to many. To tackle this problem, we combined a light-stimulation device with a plate reader, creating our OptoReader. This device allows us to automate ~100 complex optogenetic experiments at the same time. Because it is open source and inexpensive, our device would make optogenetic experiments more efficient and available to all.”
This year’s Penn team was mentored by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. In addition, the team was supported by Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Chow has supported previous undergraduate iGEM teams at Penn, and was involved in the creation of the iGEM program during his time as a graduate student at MIT.
OptoReader took home the top prizes in three of the four categories in which it was nominated. These prizes include:
Best Foundational Advance (best in track)
Best Hardware (best from all undergraduate teams)
Best Presentation (best from all undergraduate teams)
They were also awarded a Gold Medal Distinction and were included in the Top 10 Overall (from all undergraduate teams, and the only team from the United States to make the top 10) and Top 10 Websites (from all undergraduate teams).
The awards were announced during iGEM’s online Jamboree Award Ceremony on November 14, 2021 (watch the full award ceremony here).
In addition to the outstanding awards recognition, OptoReader was also selected for an iGEM Impact Grant which awards teams $2,500 to continue development of their projects. This new initiative from the iGEM Foundation was announced earlier this year, and with the support of the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, is distributing a total of $225,000 in grant funds to 90 iGEM teams during the 2021 competition season. Learn more about the Impact Grant and read the full list of winning teams here.
Penn’s 2021 iGEM team was made up of an interdisciplinary group of women undergraduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS):
Saachi Datta (B.A. in Biology and Religious Studies 2021)
Juliette Hooper (B.S.E. and M.S.E. in Bioengineering 2022)
Gabrielle Leavitt (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2021 and current Master’s student in Bioengineering)
Gloria Lee (B.A. in Physics and B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
Grace Qian (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
Lana Salloum (B.A. in Neuroscience 2022)
They were mentored by three doctoral students in Bioengineering: Will Benman (Bugaj Lab), David Gonzalez Martinez (Bugaj Lab), Gabrielle Ho (Chow Lab). Saurabh Malani, a graduate student in the Avalos Lab at Prince University, was also very involved in mentoring the team.
The graduate mentors were instrumental in quickly bringing the undergraduates up to speed on a diverse array of skills needed to accomplish this project including circuit design, optics, optogenetics, programming, and additive manufacturing. They then coached the team through building and testing prototypes, as well as accomplishing other objectives required for success at iGEM. These other objectives included establishing collaborations with other iGEM teams, performing outreach, and effectively communicating their project through a website and online presentations.
“This team and their work is outstanding,” said William Benman. “Not only did they sweep several awards, but they did it all with a small team and while working with technology they had no prior experience with. They created a device that not only increases accessibility to optogenetics but also allows optogenetic systems to interface directly with computer programs, allowing for completely new research avenues within the field. They are truly a remarkable group.”
Due to the COVID pandemic, the team operated virtually through the summer of 2020, and then continued in person in the summer of 2021 as the project progressed and more students returned to Penn’s campus. Upon return to campus, the work was conducted in both the Bugaj lab in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching laboratory in Penn Bioengineering and an interdisciplinary makerspace open to anyone at Penn. The team also collaborated with the Avalos Lab at Princeton University, which conducts research in the application of optogenetics to optimize production of valuable chemicals in microbes.
“I’m beyond excited about this phenomenal showing from team Penn at the iGEM Jamboree awards ceremony,” said faculty mentor Lukasz Bugaj. “This is truly outstanding recognition for what the team has accomplished, and it wouldn’t have happened without essential contributions from everyone on the team.”
Brian Chow added that this achievement is “no small feat,” especially for a hardware project. “The iGEM competition leans toward genetic strain engineering, but the advances in the field made by these incredible students were undeniable,” he said.
Going forward, the team plans to publish a scientific article and file a patent application describing their device. “It’s clear that there is excitement in the scientific community for what our students created, and we’re excited to share the details and designs of their work,” said Bugaj.
Congratulations to all the team members and mentors of OptoReader on this incredible achievement! Check out the OptoReader project website and Instagram to learn more about their project.
Each year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognizes exceptionally creative scientists through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. The four awards granted by this program are designed to support researchers whose “out of the box” and “trailblazing” ideas have the potential for broad impact.
Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics, is one such researcher. As a recipient of an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, she will receive $3.5 million over five years to support her work on the role that the physical folding of chromatin plays in the encoding of neural circuit and synapse properties contributing to long-term memory.
Phillips-Cremins’ award is one of 106 grants made through the High-Risk, High-Reward program this year, though she is only one of 10 to receive the Pioneer Award, which is the program’s largest funding opportunity.
“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins.
Phillips-Cremins’ research is in the general field of epigenetics, the molecular and structural modifications that allow the genome — an identical copy of which is found in each cell — to express genes differently at different times and in different parts of the body. Within this field, her lab focuses on higher-order folding patterns of the DNA sequence, which bring distant sets of genes and regulatory elements into close proximity with one another as they are compressed inside the cell’s nucleus.
Previous work from the Cremins lab has investigated severe genome misfolding patterns common across a class of genetic neurological disorders, including fragile X syndrome, Huntington’s disease, ALS and Friedreich’s ataxia.
With the support of the Pioneer Award, she and the members of her lab will extend that research to a more fundamental question of neuroscience: how memory is encoded over decades, despite the rapid turnover of the relevant proteins and RNA sequences within the brain’s synapses.
“Our long-term goals are to understand how, when and why pathologic genome misfolding leads to synaptic dysfunction by way of disrupted gene expression,” said Phillips-Cremins, “as well as to engineer the genome’s structure-function relationship to reverse pathologic synaptic defects in debilitating neurological diseases.”
Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering, which teamed earlier this year to launch the Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD), recently awarded the Center’s first IDEA (Innovation in Dental Medicine and Engineering to Advance Oral Health) Prize. Dr. Henry Daniell, W.B. Miller Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Basic & Translational Sciences at Penn Dental Medicine, and his collaborator, Dr. Daeyeon Lee, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Penn Engineering, are the inaugural recipients, awarded the Prize for a project titled “Engineered Chewing Gum for Debulking Biofilm and Oral SARS-CoV-2.”
“The IDEA Prize was created to support Penn Dental and Penn Engineering collaboration, and this project exemplifies the transformative potential of this interface to develop new solutions to treat oral diseases,” says Dr. Michel Koo, Professor in the Department of Orthodontics and Divisions of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health at Penn Dental Medicine and Co-Director of the CiPD.
“The prize is an exciting opportunity to unite Drs. Lee and Daniell and their vision to bring together state-of-the-art functional materials and drug-delivery platforms,” adds Dr. Kathleen Stebe, CiPD Co-Director and Goodwin Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn Engineering.
Open to faculty from Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering, the IDEA Prize, to be awarded annually, supports collaborative teams investigating novel ideas using engineering approaches to kickstart competitive proposals for federal funding and/or private sector/industry for commercialization. Awardees are selected based on originality and novelty; the impact of the proposed innovation of oral/craniofacial health; and the team composition with complementary expertise. Indeed, the project of Drs. Daniell and Lee reflects all three.
The collaborative proposal combines Dr. Daniell’s novel plant-based drug development/delivery platform with Dr. Lee’s novel polymeric structures to create an affordable, long-lasting way to reduce dental biofilms (plaque) and oral SARS-CoV-2 transmission using a uniquely consumer-friendly delivery system — chewing gum.
“Oral diseases afflict 3.5 billion people worldwide, and many of these conditions are caused by microbes that accumulate on teeth, forming difficult to treat biofilms,” says Dr. Daniell. “In addition, saliva is a source of pathogenic microbes and aerosolized particles transmit disease, including COVID-19, so there is an urgent need to develop new methods to debulk pathogens in the saliva and decrease their aerosol transmission.”
Three recent Penn Bioengineering graduates took home the Best Application Award from the Medical Robotics for Contagious Disease Challenge, part of the three-month Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics. Organized by the Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College, London, UK, in collaboration with the UK-RAS Network, the challenge involved “creating a 2-minute video of robotic or AI technology that could be used to tackle contagious diseases” in response to the current and potential future pandemics. Yasmina Al Ghadban, Rob Paslaski, and Phuong Vu were members of the Penn Bioengineering senior design team rUmVa who designed and built a cost-effective, autonomous robot that can quickly disinfect rooms by intelligently sanitizing high-touch surfaces and the air. The Best Application Award comes with a prize of £5,000.
Jenny Jiang, the Peter & Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in the department of Bioengineering, has received a Lloyd J. Old STAR Program grant from the Cancer Research Institute (CRI), which is a major supporter of cancer immunotherapy research and clinical trials with the goal of curing all types of cancer.
The CRI Lloyd J. Old Scientists Taking Risks (STAR) Program “provides long-term funding to mid-career scientists, giving them the freedom and flexibility to pursue high-risk, high-reward research at the forefront of discovery and innovation in cancer immunotherapy.” This prestigious grant was give to six awardees this year, chosen from a pool of hundreds of applicants, and recognizes “future leaders in the field of cancer immunotherapy [who are expected to] carry out transformational research.”
The Old STAR Program Grant comes with $1.25 million in funding over 5 years to support the awardees’ cancer immunology research.
Jiang, who recently joined Penn Bioengineering, is a pioneer in developing tools in genomics, biophysics, immunology, and informatics and applying them to study systems immunology and immune engineering in human diseases. She was also inducted into the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) College of Fellows in March 2021 for her outstanding contributions to the field of systems immunology and immunoengineering and devotion to the success of women in engineering. Jiang’s research focuses on systems immunology by developing technologies that enable high-throughput, high-content, single cell profiling of T cells in health and disease and she is recognized as one of the leading authorities in systems immunology and immunoengineering.
“The STAR Award from CRI allows my lab to answer some of the fundamental questions in T cell biology, such as is the T cell repertoire complete to cover all possible cancer antigens, as well as to improve the efficacy of T cell based cancer immunotherapies,” says Jiang.
Shreya Parchure, a recent graduate of Penn Bioengineering, was selected by a committee of faculty for a 2021 Rose Award from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF). The Rose Award recognizes outstanding undergraduate research projects completed by graduating seniors under the supervision of a Penn faculty member and carries with it a $1,000 award. Parchure’s project, titled “BDNF Gene Polymorphism Predicts Response to Continuous Theta Burst Stimulation (cTBS) in Chronic Stroke Patients,” was done under the supervision of Roy H. Hamilton, Associate Professor in Neurology and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and director of the Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation in the Perelman School of Medicine. Parchure’s work in Hamilton’s lab previously resulted in a 2020 Goldwater Scholarship.
Each year, Penn Engineering’s seniors present their Senior Design projects, a year-long effort that challenges them to test and develop solutions to real-world problems, to their individual departments. The top three projects from each department go on to compete in the annual Senior Design Competition, sponsored by the Engineering Alumni Society, which involves pitching projects to a panel of judges who evaluate their potential in the market. While the pandemic made this year’s competition logistically challenging, students and organizers were able to come together virtually to continue the tradition.
This year’s virtual format provided an opportunity for judges from around the country to participate in evaluating projects. Brad Richards, Director of Alumni Relations at Penn Engineering who helped plan the competition, was able to help recruit more than 60 volunteers to serve on the panel.
“The broad number of judges from varying industries made this competition incredibly meaningful, we will absolutely be integrating a virtual component to allow for more judges in the future.”
Eighteen teams total, three from each department, virtually presented to the panel of judges, who awarded $2,000 prizes in four categories.
Technology & Innovation Prize
This award recognized the team whose project represents the highest and best use of technology and innovation to leverage engineering principles.
Winner: Team OtoAI Department: Bioengineering Team Members: Krishna Suresh, Nikhil Maheshwari, Yash Lahoti, Jonathan Mairena, Uday Tripathi Advisor: Steven Eliades, Assistant Professor of Otorhinolaryngology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine Abstract: OtoAI is a novel digital otoscope that enables primary care physicians to take images of the inner ear and leverages machine learning to diagnose abnormal ear pathologies.
Sofia Gonzalez, who graduated with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Bioengineering this spring, was one of a select number of Penn students to receive 2021 Student Leadership Awards. Gonzalez was awarded a Penn Alumni Student Award of Merit as well as the William A. Levi Kite & Key Society Award for Service and Scholarship. Awardees were celebrated during the university’s annual Ivy Day, “a tradition recognizing students’ leadership, service, and scholarship for nearly 150 years.”
“Sofia reflected that on countless college tours, she noticed a striking pattern: only one of the ambassadors she encountered was a female engineer, and none of them were Latinx. While the nation was reckoning with racism, Sofia was leading critical discussions about how Kite & Key could improve in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion to mirror the Penn student body. Sofia is now graduating, confident that she took measurable strides toward breaking the cycle of underrepresentation at America’s first University. Sofia’s work leaves a lasting legacy at Penn and beyond.”
Gonzalez also served as a Senior Advisor to the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) and as President of the Kite and Key Society, a society which welcomes all visitors to campus, acquaints prospective students and families with the undergraduate experience, and fosters a community of students dedicated to serving the University of Pennsylvania. Having completed her degrees, Gonzalez is headed for the first year of a rotational program as a member of the Merck Manufacturing Leadership Development Program in Durham, NC.
Following her time at Merck, Gonzalez will continue her education at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Gaining admission to the M.B.A. program via the Early Admission offering, she will matriculate within the following five years.
The National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award is given to early-career researchers in order to kickstart their careers in innovative and pivotal research while giving back to the community in the form of outreach and education. Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Cell and Developmental Biology, is among the Penn Engineering faculty members who have received the CAREER Award this year.
Hughes plans to use the funds to develop a human kidney model to better understand how the development of cells and tissues influences congenital diseases of the kidney and urinary tract.
The model, known as an “organoid,” is a lab-grown piece of human kidney tissue on the scale of millimeters to centimeters, grown from cultured human cells.
“We want to create a human organoid structure that has nephrons, the filters of the kidney, that are properly ‘plumbed’ or connected to the ureteric epithelium, the tubules that direct urine towards the bladder,” says Hughes. “To achieve that, we have to first understand how to guide the formation of the ureteric tubule networks, and then stimulate early nephrons to fuse with those networks. In the end, the structures will look like ‘kidney subunits’ that could potentially be injected and fused to existing kidneys.”
The field of bioengineering has touched on questions similar to those posed by Hughes, focusing on drug testing and disease treatment. Some of these questions can be answered with the “organ-on-a-chip” approach, while others need an even more realistic model of the organ. The fundamentals of kidney development and questions such as “how does the development of nephrons affect congenital kidney and urinary tract anomalies?” require an organoid in an environment as similar to the human body as possible.
“We decided to start with the kidney for a few reasons,” says Hughes. “First, because its development is a beautiful process; the tubule growth is similar to that of a tree, splitting into branches. It’s a complex yet understudied organ that hosts incredibly common developmental defects.
“Second,” he says, “the question of how things form and develop in the kidney has major medical implications, and we cannot answer that with the ‘organ-on-a-chip’ approach. We need to create a model that mimics the chemical and mechanical properties of the kidney to watch these tissues develop.”
The fundamental development of the kidney can also answer other questions related to efficiency and the evolution of this biological filtration system.
“We have the tendency to believe that systems in the human body are the most evolved and thus the most efficient, but that is not necessarily true,” says Hughes. “If we can better understand the development of a system, such as the kidney, then we may be able to make the system better.”
Hughes’ kidney research will lay the foundation for broader goals within regenerative medicine and organ transplantation.