Bioengineering Graduate Students Take the Annual BETA Day Online

By GABE Outreach Chairs and Ph.D. students David Gonzalez-Martinez and David Mai

BETA Day Biomaterials workshop

Every spring, the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) at Penn partners up with iPraxis, an educational non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, to organize BETA Day, an event that brings together Bioengineering graduate students and local Philadelphia grade school students to introduce them to the field of bioengineering, the life of graduate students, and hands-on scientific demonstrations. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we adapted the traditional in-person BETA Day into a virtual event on Zoom. This year, we assembled kits containing the necessary materials for our chosen demonstrations and worked with iPraxis to coordinate their delivery to partner schools and their students. This enabled students to perform their demonstrations in a hands-on manner from their own homes; over 40 students were able to participate in extracting their own DNA and making biomaterials with safe household materials.

Michelle Johnson presents on her work in robotics

The day began with a fantastic lecture by Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, who introduced students to the field of rehabilitation robotics and shared her experience as a scientist. Students then learned about DNA and biomaterials through lectures mediated by the graduate students Dayo Adetu and Puneeth Guruprasad. After each lecture, students broke into breakout rooms with graduate student facilitators where they were able to get some hands-on scientific experience as they extracted DNA from their cheek cells and fabricated alginate hydrogels. Michael Sobrepera, a graduate student in Dr. Johnson’s lab, concluded the event by giving a lecture on the process of robotics development and discussed where the field is heading and some important considerations for the field.

Dayo Adetu, Bioengineering Master’s student and GABE President, teaches the students about Genetic Engineering

While yet another online event may seem unexciting, throughout the lectures students remained exceptionally engaged and raised fantastic questions ranging from the accessibility of low income communities to novel robotic therapeutic technologies to the bioethical questions robotic engineers will face as technologies advance. The impact of BETA day was evident as the high school students began to discuss the possible majors they would like to pursue for their bachelor’s degrees. Events like BETA Day give a glimpse into possible STEM fields and careers students can pursue.

“Educating the Next Generation of Civically Engaged Technologists”

Brit Shields, Ph.D.

Brit Shields, Senior Lecturer in Bioengineering, has brought her expertise in the history and sociology of science to her leading role in developing and improving the ethics curriculum for all students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Most recently, this includes adapting the core ethics engineering ethics course “Technological Innovation and Civil Discourse in a Dynamic World” (EAS 204) for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program. SNF Paideia courses, open to all Penn undergraduates, “integrate students’ personal, professional, and civic development […] focus[ing] on dialogue, wellness, service, and citizenship from different disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.” A recent SNF Paideia blog post goes into detail about the changes made by Shields and co-instructor Christopher Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer and Information Science, to suit the SNF Paideia Program, including its “explicit focus on civil discourse and technology.” According to Shields:

“I really wanted to break down the false dichotomy between technological expertise or humanities training for the students and open up the opportunity for Engineering students to consider themselves to have an important role, not just creating technological systems but also being important participants in civil discourse.”

Michelle Johnson, Ph.D.

The course also includes guest lectures by Penn faculty, including Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and students learn to analyze how guest lecturers communicate their research to the public, for example, in the case of Johnson, in the form of a TED Talk and scholarly articles: “Through her TedTalk, journal articles and visit to the class, Michelle Johnson demonstrates how researchers are attuned to the specific preferences of the rehabilitative robots they are creating for patients…engaged scholarship at its finest.”

Read “Educating the Next Generation of Civically Engaged Technologists” in SNF Paideia Perspectives.

2021 Graduate Research Fellowships for Bioengineering Students

We are very pleased to announce that ten current and future graduate students in the Department of Bioengineering have received 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) fellowships. The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website. BE is thrilled to congratulate our excellent students on these well-deserved accolades! Continue reading below for a list of 2021 recipients and descriptions of their research.

Current Students:

Puneeth Guruprasad

Puneeth Guruprasad is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Marco Ruella, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology and the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Perelman School of Medicine. His work applies next generation sequencing methods to characterize tumors and study the genetic basis of resistance to cancer immunotherapy, namely chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy.

Gabrielle Ho

Gabrielle (Gabby) Ho is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. She works on design strategies for engineering near-infrared fluorescent proteins and tools.

 

Abbas Idris

Abbas Idris is a Master’s student in the lab of Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. His work focuses on using optogenetic tools to develop controllable protein assemblies for the study of cell signaling behaviors.

 

 

Incoming Students:

Additionally, seven NSF GRFP honorees from other institutions will be joining our department as Ph.D. students in the fall of 2021. We congratulate them as well and look forward to welcoming them to Penn:

Congratulations again to all our current and future graduate students on their amazing research!

“Science vs Science: The Contradictory Fight Over Whether Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity is Real”

cell phones
Kenneth R. Foster, Ph.D.

Electromagnetic fields are everywhere, and especially so in recent years. To most of us, those fields are undetectable. But a small number of people believe they have an actual allergy to electromagnetic fields. Ken Foster, a Professor Emeritus of Bioengineering, has heard these arguments before.  “Activists would point to all these biological effects studies and say, ‘There must be some hazard’; health agencies would have meticulous reviews of literature and not see much of a problem.”

Listen to the episode of The Pulse and read the full story at WHYY.

Originally posted on Penn Today.

Becoming a Bioengineer, Both at Home and On Campus

by Erica K. Brockmeier

The junior year BE-MAD lab series includes modules on dialysis, drug delivery, insect limb control, microfluidics, cell-cell communication, ECG analysis (pictured here), and spectroscopy. (Image: Bioengineering Educational Lab)

While the majority of courses remained online this spring, a small number of lab-based undergraduate courses were able to resume limited in-person instruction. One course was BE 310, the second semester of the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design lab sequence. Better known as BE-MAD, this junior-year bioengineering course was able to bring students back to the teaching lab safely this spring while adapting its curriculum to keep remote learners engaged with hands-on lab modules at home.

An Essential Step Towards Becoming a Bioengineer

After learning the basics of chemistry, physics, biology, and math during freshman year and studying bioengineering fundamentals throughout sophomore year, BE-MAD is designed to provide essential hands-on experience to bioengineering majors during their junior years. In BE-MAD, students integrate what they’ve learned so far in the classroom to addressing complex, real-world problems by breaking down the silos that exist across different STEM fields.

“Usually what we hear from students is that this BE 309/310 sequence is when they really feel like they are engineers,” says Brian Chow, one of the BE 310 instructors. “They can put what they learn in classes to work in some practical setting and applied context.”

BE-MAD is also an important course to prepare students for senior design and is designed to be a “safe space to fail,” allowing students to build confidence through trial and error within a supportive environment, explains Sevile G. Mannickarottu, director of the educational laboratories. “We’re trying to build skills needed for senior year as well as teaching students how to think critically about problems by pulling together the materials they’ve learned all in one place,” he says. “By senior year, we want them to, when presented with a problem, not be afraid.”

Adapting BE-MAD for Both Remote and Hybrid Instruction

Traditionally, the BE-MAD lab is taught in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary bioengineering teaching lab, and includes modules on dialysis, drug delivery, insect limb control, microfluidics, cell-cell communication, ECG analysis, and spectroscopy. In the fall, the first lab in the series (BE-309) pivoted to remote learning using video tutorials of lab experiments and providing real data to students for analysis.

This spring, with more aspects of on-campus life able to reopen, the Educational Laboratory staff and BE-MAD instructors developed protocols in collaboration with David Meaney, Penn Engineering senior associate dean and an instructor for BE 309, and Penn’s Environmental Health and Radiation Safety office to safely reopen the teaching lab and Bio-MakerSpace for both BE-310 and for bioengineering senior design students.

The BE-MAD lab was also recreated on Gather.Town, an online video chat platform where students can speak with group members or instructors. Student groups also had their own tables where they could meet virtually to work on data analysis and lab report writing.

To continue to meet the needs of remote students, BE 310 instructor Lukasz Bugaj says that the curriculum was adapted to be two parallel courses—one that could be done entirely at home and the other in-person. The challenge was to adjust the content so that it could be completed either in-person or virtually, and could be switched from in-person to virtual at a moment’s notice because of COVID precautions, all while maximizing the hands-on experience, says Bugaj. “That’s a real credit to the lab staff of Sevile and Michael Patterson, who put a lot of work into revamping this entire class.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Claudia Loebel Appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan

by Mahelet Asrat

Claudia Loebel, MD, PhD (Photo/Mel Evans)

The Department of Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Claudia Loebel, M.D., Ph.D. on her appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. Loebel is part of the University of Michigan’s Biological Sciences Scholar program, which recruits junior instructional faculty in major areas of biomedical investigation. Loebel’s appointment will begin in Fall 2021.

Loebel got her M.D. in 2011 from Martin-Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany and her Ph.D. in Health Sciences and Technology from ETH Zurich, Switzerland in 2016. There she worked under her advisors Professors Marcy Zenobi-Wong from ETH Zurich and David Eglin from AO Research Institute Davos. At Penn, she conducted postdoctoral research in the Polymeric Biomaterials Laboratory of Jason Burdick, Robert D. Bent Professor in Bioengineering, and as a Visiting Research Scholar in the Mauck Laboratory of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory in the Perelman School of Medicine.

Loebel was awarded a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports her remaining time as a postdoc as well as her time as an independent investigator at the University of Michigan. Loebel is excited about training the next generation of scientists and engineers and being part of their journey in becoming independent and diverse thinkers.

Loebel’s research area is inspired by the interface between material science and regenerative engineering and how it can address specific problems related to tissue development, repair, and regeneration. By developing mechanically and strucatally dynamic biomaterials, microfabrication, and matrix manipulation techniques her works aim to recreate complex cell-matrix interactions and model tissue morphogenesis and disease. The ultimate goal of her research is to use these engineered systems to develop and translate more effective therapeutic treatments for diseases such as fibrotic, inflammatory, and congenital disorders. Her lab’s work will initially focus on developing engineering lung alveolar organoids, aiming to build models of acute and chronic pulmonary diseases and for personalized medicine.

Loebel says, “I am grateful to all my Ph.D. and postdoc mentors for their continuous support and especially Jason who, over the last few years, has trained me in becoming an independent scientist and mentor. This transition would not have been possible without such a great mentor team behind me.”

Congratulations Dr. Loebel from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!

Looking Towards the Future Through an Interdisciplinary Lens

by Erica K. Brockmeier

Yasmina Al Ghadban, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Beirut, was able to connect her undergraduate education in bioengineering and psychology with her passion for public health through teaching, research, and extracurricular activities. Now, she is poised to leverage her “interdisciplinary lens” towards a future career in public health.

While reflecting on her undergraduate journey at Penn, senior Yasmina Al Ghadban says that she has a “ton of memories” she will take with her: lifelong friends made and skills developed through coursework, research, and teaching experiences, the chance to engage with public health communities on campus, and traveling for courses and internships. “That’s the beauty of Penn,” she says. “There’s just so many opportunities everywhere.”

As a double major in bioengineering and psychology, Al Ghadban, who is from Beirut, has certainly taken advantage of many such opportunities. Now, she is poised to leverage her “interdisciplinary lens” towards a future career in public health.

Problem-solving perspectives

Looking for a place to grow and become more independent, Al Ghadban decided to come to Penn after graduating from the International College in Lebanon. After taking an introduction to bioengineering course during her freshman year, she became enthralled by the hands-on nature of the program and enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “I really enjoyed working with circuits and Arduino, being able to synthesize things, and I felt like being in engineering was the place where I was going to gain the most skills,” she says.

Al Ghadban is applying those skills as she completes her senior design project. She and a team of four seniors are building an autonomous robot equipped with Lidar sensors that it uses to create a map of a physical space. The team also programmed their robot to recognize high-touch surfaces that it then disinfects with UV light. “It’s a technology that is completely autonomous, cheaper than what’s on the market, and doesn’t put people at risk when they go in to disinfect,” she says. The team recently put the finishing touches on the project and presented their robot as part of a demonstration on April 14.

In addition to her degree in engineering, Al Ghadban’s interests in public and mental health spurred her to take courses and eventually pursue a double major in psychology, a field that she sees as complementary to engineering. “In psychology, we focus a lot on research and study design, research bias, and these things are similar in engineering and psychology,” she says. “Overall, I think they gave me different perspectives in terms of problem solving, and it’s nice to have that interdisciplinary lens.”

One place where Al Ghadban was able to use this interdisciplinary lens was while working as an research assistant in the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab with Michelle Johnson during her sophomore year. “The focus of the lab is to create robots for post-stroke rehabilitation, and the robotics part is very engineering-focused, but there is another part where people struggle doing the exercises,” she says. “Being able to engage with people and increasing their likelihood of doing that intervention, you rely on a lot from psychology, like interventions from positive psychology or research on how people stay engaged.”

Continue reading at Penn Today.

Bioengineering’s Organ-on-a-chip Spin-off is Growing

Andrei Georgescu (left) and Dan Huh are the co-founders of Vivodyne, a spin-off of Huh’s BIOLines lab.

Dan Huh, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, has been steadily growing a collection of organs-on-chips. These devices incorporate human cells into precisely engineered microfluidic channels that mimic an organ’s natural environment, providing a way to conduct experiments that would not otherwise be feasible.

Huh’s previous research has involved using a placenta-on-a-chip to study which drugs are able to reach a developing fetus; investigating microgravity’s effect on the immune system by sending one of his chips to the International Space Station; and testing treatments for dry eye disease using an eye-on-a-chip, complete with a mechanical blinking eyelid.

Now, he and his colleagues are taking this technology out of their lab and into industry with their company, Vivodyne.

Andrei Georgescu, Huh’s lab-member and co-founder of Vivodyne, recently spoke with Technical.ly Philly’s Paige Gross about the growth of their company.

Research into potential drugs is usually performed first on mice, and success is only found in a fraction of humans once implemented in clinical trials, Andrei Georgescu, cofounder and CEO of Vivodyne, told Technical.ly. The genetic makeup just isn’t similar enough. But technology that allows scientists to test therapies on lab-grown human organs called “organs on chip” is allowing for testing without human subjects.

The organs on chip allow for a drug to react to tissue in a more similar way to the body than it would in a petri dish, Georgescu said. Cells sense their environment very well, he added.

“We’re making the environment more complicated, making its spacial features complicated enough to match the native complexity of the organs,” he said. “When [cells] sense a softer environment, they start to behave more realistically. Their response to the drug is more realistic.”

Continue reading “This Penn-founded biotech company specializing in human ‘organs on chip’ raised $4M” at Technical.ly Philly. 

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

Alumni Spotlight: Christopher B. Rodell

Chris Rodell, Ph.D.

Christopher B. Rodell completed his Ph.D. in Penn Bioengineering in 2016 and has since gone on to complete a postdoc at the Center for Systems Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He is now an Assistant Professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems at Drexel University. Chris caught up with the BE Blog to talk about his love of Philly and the Penn Bioengineering community:

“Yes, Penn is a great place to study – it’s full of brilliant instructors and classmates. No big surprises there. But Penn Bioengineering is so much more than that! It’s a community with passion, grit, and great times that reflect the city as a whole.

I grew up in the South, so I didn’t really know much about the school or Philly in general when I first visited. But what stood out to me was the people. From the professors to the grad students and even the other visiting students, nearly everyone I met was genuinely excited to talk about their work and just wanted to have a good time doing it. Looking back, I realize that’s exactly what I needed to thrive in a research-based education. Whether studying for a class or pulling long hours at lab, it takes some grit to make it through an engineering degree. But being passionate and having others to share your excitement with make it fun. Penn Bioengineering is a really unique place where I always felt welcome to talk with anyone – the sense of community and openness is probably one of the biggest reasons for their great success in education, research, and productive collaboration.

Through my time at Penn, I was fortunate enough to work with Jason Burdick who is, as everyone told me, ‘one of smartest and nicest people you’ll ever meet.’ I also had the opportunity to build a network of lifelong friends and mentors that span the school of engineering, the medical school, and the broader academic community of Philadelphia. These connections have continued to provide me a sense of community as I embark on an independent research career at Drexel, and I’m excited to be back in Philly!”

This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.

Modified Nanoparticles Can Stop Osteoarthritis Development

Zhiliang Cheng

As we age, the cushioning cartilage between our joints begins to wear down, making it harder and more painful to move. Known as osteoathritis, this extremely common condition has no known cure; if the symptoms can’t be managed, the affected joints must be surgically replaced.

Now, researchers are exploring whether their specially designed nanoparticles can deliver a new inflammation inhibitor to joints, targeting a previously overlooked enzyme called sPLA2.

Zhiliang Cheng, a research associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering, recently collaborated with members of Penn Medicine’s McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, on a study of this approach, published in the journal Science Advances.

The normal function of sPLA2 is to provide lipids (fats) that promote a variety of inflammation processes. The enzyme is always present in cartilage tissue, but typically in low levels. However, when the researchers examined mouse and human cartilage taken from those with osteoarthritis, disproportionately high levels of the enzyme were discovered within the tissue’s structure and cells.

“This marked increase strongly suggests that sPLA2 plays a role in the development of osteoarthritis,” said the study’s corresponding author, Zhiliang Cheng, PhD, a research associate professor of Bioengineering. “Being able to demonstrate this showed that we were on the right track for what could be a potent target for the disease.”

The next step was for the study team – which included lead author Yulong Wei, MD, a researcher in Penn Medicine’s McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory – to put together a nanoparticle loaded with an sPLA2 inhibitor. This would block the activity of sPLA2 enzyme and, they believed, inflammation. These nanoparticles were mixed with animal knee cartilage in a lab, then observed as they diffused deeply into the dense cartilage tissue. As time progressed, the team saw that the nanoparticles stayed there and did not degrade significantly or disappear. This was important for the type of treatment the team envisioned.

Continue reading at Penn Medicine News.

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.