A STEM graduate degree can be a gateway to an amazing career, but many undergraduate students are unaware that these opportunities exist or how to navigate the grad school admission process. Guests Christina Fuentes and Shaheen Jeeawoody join Sally and Kayla to discuss strategies for enabling students to learn about and successfully apply to graduate school. Shaheen and Christina are both leaders in Graduate Pathways to STEM, a grad student-run organization that brings students from non-research institutions to Berkeley or Stanford for a 1-day conference to learn about the opportunities a graduate degree presents, what grad school is like, and how to navigate the admissions process. Conference attendees are paired with peer mentors and have the opportunity to interact with STEM leaders. They also discuss strategies for successful grad school applications, writing strong essays that advocate for yourself, Shaheen and Christina’s pathways to graduate school, and the value of peer mentorship: “Peer mentorship kept me in the PhD.” If you’re considering applying to graduate school, want to improve your writing, or want to understand how your community can be more welcoming to graduate students of all backgrounds, you will LOVE this episode.
Last night, Daniel A. Hammer, PhD, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor of Bioengineering and Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, was recognized withthe 2018 Provost’s Award For Distinguished PhD Teaching and Mentoring. This University-wide honor has been awarded annually to two Penn faculty members for the last 15 years.
With an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from Princeton and a PhD from Penn, Dr. Hammer joined the faculty at Cornell in Chemical Engineering after a short postdoctoral appointment in 1988. He was awarded tenure there and came to Penn in 1996. He holds a joint appointment in Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering, and he spent almost seven years as department chair, including serving as Principal Investigator of Penn’s Whitaker Foundation Leadership-Development Award, which led to the hiring of 8 faculty members in Bioengineering and provided seed money for the construction of Skirkanich Hall.
Among Dr. Hammer’s previous honors are an NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1982, election as a Fellow of the AIMBE in 1997, and the Penn SEAS Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research in 2004. Dr. Hammer has mentored a total of 51 PhD students, many of who have become faculty members themselves, including three recipients of NSF Career Awards.
“I am deeply honored to win the PhD mentoring award, which is a testament to the quality, inventiveness, and drive of my doctoral students. I have very much enjoyed training these young people in Penn’s fertile scientific environment, and it’s been a singular joy to see their careers flourish.”
Every year the Penn Bioengineering Department presents several awards to students. Last week, we featured our NSF scholarship winners and Rothberg Catalyzer first-prize winners. Here, we present more awards given to students for their service, originality, leadership, and scholarship.
The Albert Giandomenico Award, presented to four students who “reflect several traits that include teamwork, leadership, creativity, and knowledge applied to discovery-based learning in the laboratory,” was given to Jessica Rose, Michael Roth, Singh Gurjeet, Nicholas Vigilante. The Herman P. Schwan Award, named for a former faculty member in Bioengineering, was given to Anna Branch. In addition, Nicholas Stiansen received the Bioengineering Student Leadership Award and four students —Shira Rieke, Karol Szymula, Kate Panzer, and Michael Patterson — won the Penn Engineering Exceptional Service Award.
The Wolf-Hallac Award was established in October 2000 to be awarded to the best graduating female senior from Penn Engineering who is seen as a role model, has achieved a high GPA (top 10%) of class and who has demonstrated a commitment to school and or community. This year’s award was given to two stands: Jacqueline Valeri from Bioengineering and Anna Estep from Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. The Ben and Bertha Gomberg Kirsch Award, given by the Undergraduate Affairs Committee for achievement in applied science, went to BE’s Harvey Huang.
Last but certainly not least are our senior design and project award winners. This year’s Biomedical Applied Science Project Award was given to Bioengineering major Emily Bachner. The department’s Senior Design competition was held on April 16 and 18, and three teams were selected to continue to the school-wide competition this Friday. The three teams had the following members:
• Kate Panzer, Jackie Valeri, Nick Stiansen, and Karol Szymula
• Eric Helfgott, Margaret Schroeder, Manjari Ganti, and Kyle O’Neil
• Jessica Rose, Michael Roth, Gurjeet Singh, and Nick Vigilante
Since the late 1970s with the advent of computed tomography (CT), medical imaging has grown exponentially. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) offers some of the clearest pictures of human anatomy and pathology, particularly as the strength of the magnetic field used (measured in units called Teslas) increases. However, MRI machines are expensive, and the costs increase as one uses a machine with higher field strength to ‘see’ the human more closely. Therefore, it is often more useful (and certainly less expensive) to modify existing MRI technology on hand, rather than acquire a new machine.
A recent example is the work of Tamer Ibrahim, PhD, Associate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Ibrahim used a series of multiple NIH grants to develop a coil system for Pitt’s 7T-MRI — one of only approximately 60 worldwide — enabling it to more accurately image the brain’s white matter. Dr. Ibrahim is interested in seeing how hyperintensity in the white matter is related to depression, which is one of the highest-burden but least-discussed diseases in the world. Called a “tic-tac-toe” radiofrequency coil setting, the device that Dr. Ibrahim created is a network of antennas fitted to the head that minimize concerns such as coil heating and radiofrequency intensity losses, as well as safety concerns.
Dr. Ibrahim has more NIH funding on the way to continue optimizing his device and apply it in other psychiatric and neurological disorders. Rather than purchasing a new MRI machine with higher field strengths to achieve this image quality, Dr. Ibrahim’s coil design can be used on existing machines. One possible outcome is more clinicians using this new coil to study how changes in the brain’s white matter structure occur in a broad range of brain diseases, leading to both earlier detection anfor ad more effective treatment.
Smart Shunt for Hydrocephalus
Hydrocephalus, once more commonly known as “water on the brain,” is a condition marked by abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the skull. If unchecked, the accumulation of fluid will create dangerous pressures in the brain that can result in brain damage. Hydrocephalus occurs in one in every 1,000 births, and nearly 400,000 adults in the US suffered at least on episode of hydrocephalus. For both infants and adults, hydrocephalus is often treated surgically with the installation of a shunt to channel the excess CSF out of the cranium. These shunts are simple but effective devices that operate mechanically. However, since they’re entirely mechanical, they fail over time. Being able to determine that such a failure was imminent could allow patients to receive a replacement shunt before complications arise.
To meet this clinical need, a group of scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) updated existing shunt systems with microsensing technology, creating a “smart shunt” that can tell clinicians how an installed shunt is functioning and alert the clinician that a replacement is needed. The group, including Ellis Fan-Chuin Meng, PhD, Gabilan Distinguished Professorship in Science and Engineering, Dwight C. and Hildagarde E. Baum Chair, and Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Electrical Engineering-Electrophysics, has created a start-up called Senseer to produce these smart shunts.
The shunt currently measures pressure, flow, and occlusion using miniature microelectronics sensors. If device approval comes, the company hopes to move on to developing smart sensors for other organ systems.
DNA-based Drug Testing
Drug and alcohol testing is a controversial topic, partly because of the balance between individual rights to use legal drugs and potential for societal harm if these drugs are abused or if patients transition into illegal drug use and dependence. Inventing technology to determine when, and how much, a person has been drinking or using drugs (including tobacco) would probably increase, rather than decrease, the controversy involved in the topic.
New technology reported recently adds a new element to this discussion. According to Robert Philibert, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, his company’s tests, which rely on epigenetic markers of substance use, could be used, for example, to inform a primary care physician about the actual history of substance use, rather than relying solely on patients’ self-reported use.
Dr. Philibert’s tests are currently pending approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Marketing for the products will begin in the coming weeks.
People and Places
Recognizing the changing priorities in engineering and the growing role of data sciences, Boston University has decided to adapt its curriculum by adding data science requirements for all majors. According to John White, PhD, Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, “Advances in data sciences and computing technology will allow us to make sense of all these data.”
The Biomedical Science Program at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas, has received a $200,000 grant from the James A. “Buddy” Davidson Charitable Foundation to endow a scholarship in Davidson’s name, as well as to refurbish the program’s Winebrenner Memorial Hall of Science.
Finally, we offer our congratulations this week to James C. Gee, PhD, Professor of Radiologic Science in Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and a Graduate Group faculty member in Penn’s Department of Bioengineering. Dr. Gee was named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.
Many students arrive in college under-prepared for success, and professors have the responsibility– and opportunity — to help them gain skills to enable their success and find belonging in STEM. However, few professors are trained to help students develop these skills, so Double Shelix’s guest, Sherri Messersmith, incorporates them into her series of developmental math textbooks! On this episode, Sherri shares her journey in math, from besting elementary school bullies on every math test, to high school math teacher, to college math professor, and now author of 15 college math textbooks. Kayla and Sally discuss with Sherri how staying true to your passions outside your main focus area — like writing, cooking, and travel, for Sherri — can make you better at your job, and even open the door to new opportunities — like textbook authorship! Sherri tells Sally and Kayla what departments can do to engage with students in introductory courses and how to build students’ confidence in difficult material. As Sherri says, life is not linear, so follow your passions, work hard, and be ready if fortune strikes with an amazing opportunity! Sherri is an experienced educator and speaker on the topic of enabling student success, and Double Shelix was honored to have her.
Also on this episode, Sally and Kayla hear from a listener who was told by professors that they didn’t belong in their grad program because they went to a small liberal arts college, not a big research institution — what?! We discuss how students take these kinds of comments from faculty really harshly, and how faculty can do better. Also, the importance of peer support in making it through trying times when you’re singled out or are the “only one.”
Upcoming #YouDoBelongInScience episodes will feature your stories! Fill out this form or call Double Shelix’s voicemail, 415-895-0850, to share your story of (dis)belonging in STEM. Sally and Kayla are hoping to share a diverse set of experiences from our listeners, but they need your help to make that happen!
We’ve talked before at this site about the difficulty involved in implanting devices in the brain. One chief problem is that any implant to record brain signals causes small amounts of damage that causes signal quality to deteriorate over time. One approach to overcoming this problem uses flexible materials that can move with brain tissue movement, rather than resisting the movement to cause damage.
One of the more recent designs was inspired by an NPR report on mosquitoes. Dr. Andrew Shoffstall, a postdoc in the lab of Jeffrey Capadona, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), saw the report and used the mechanism that mosquitoes use when biting people to design a new device, which the CWRU team describes in an article in Scientific Reports.
The authors studied the buckling force when mosquitoes puncture the skin, using this design to invent new microneedles for brain implant recordings. The group fashioned a 3D-printed plastic device to mimic the process used by the mosquito. They tested the device, first mechanically and then in rat brains, finding that the device could successfully implant a microelectrode in 8 out of 8 trials. Certainly the device will require much more rigorous testing, but if successful, it could change the way implants are inserted into human patients.
Big News About Small Things
Speaking of implants, they continue to decrease in size. Scientists at Stanford University created a wireless device that is the size of a rice grain. Reporting in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems, the scientists, led by Amin Arbabian, PhD, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford, and including Dr. Felicity Gore, a postdoc in the Department of Bioengineering, describe the design and fabrication of this implant. The implant was designed to stimulate peripheral nerves using either platinum electrodes connected directly to the nerve or light from a blue LED to stimulate optogenetic channels expressed in the neurons. The group conducted an in vivo experiment, using the device to stimulate the sciatic nerve of a frog, and they showed the device’s feasibility. Powered by ultrasound transmitted through the skin, the device has no external wire connections. The size of the implant, combined with its ability to target single nerves, could revolutionize how pain is treated, among other applications.
Meanwhile, here at Penn, the creation of very small things is getting a very big boost. In a new collaboration among schools and centers, the university’s Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine has established the Chemical and Nanoparticle Synthesis Core (CNSC). The director, Andrew Tsourkas, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Bioengineering and the Undergraduate Chair. The mission of the CNSC is to provide a concierge level service for Penn faculty interested in synthesizing new molecules for therapy development, as well as new nanoparticles for advanced diagnostics.
A Leap Forward With Stem Cells
Over the last decade, stem cell research has resulted in significant contributions to medical science. One application is the modeling of organs and organ systems for studies before in vivo investigations. However, stem cell projects involving the heart have been limited by the inability to get these cells to a mature state.
However, in a letter published in Nature, researchers at Columbia University and the University of Minho in Portugal describe how they used electrical and mechanical stimulation of human induced pluripotent stem cells to create more mature cells. The authors, led by Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD, University Professor and Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medical Sciences at Columbia, describe how, after four weeks of culturing under the described conditions, the cells displayed multiple characteristics of maturity, although some electromechanical properties of mature cells remained lacking. These findings show that engineering the physical environment that surrounds cells during development is a key factor for the engineering design of replacement tissue.
Individualizing First Aid
Personalized medicine has begun to affect the way that doctors treat several diseases with genetic bases, notably cancer. However, first aid has lagged a bit behind in personalization, in part because the urgency of first aid care emphasizes fast, practical solutions that work for everyone. However, in a presentation at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute last month, Jonathan Gerstenhaber, PhD, Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Department of Bioengineering at Temple University, demonstrated a prototype device that uses 3D printing technology to produce personalized bandages when they are needed.
Dr. Gersternhaber created a 3D printer that will print bandages directly onto the skin of the patient. Customizing the fit of the bandage with the printing technology would make them last longer, and the ‘on demand’ production of the bandage provides a chance to individualize the bandage design even in the urgent care setting. The device uses electrospinning technology to create bandages from soy protein, which, as a natural substance, can actually speed healing. Having completed the prototype, Dr. Gerstenhaber has moved onto portable models, as well as a larger device that can make bandages across a larger surface area.
Solving Two Problems in Glaucoma Care
Glaucoma is one of the earliest medical uses for cannabis, commonly known as marijuana. The cannabinoids in the cannabis plan have the effect of lowering intraocular pressure, which is the primary mechanism underlying glaucoma. However, the intoxicating effects of cannabis pose a problem for many patients. Thus, most patients still rely on eyedrops containing other drugs. Getting the dosage correct with eyedrops is tricky, however, because of the continual blinking and tearing of the eye.
Now, in a new article published in Drug Delivery and Translational Research, a team of researchers led by Vikramaditya G. Yadav, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of British Columbia, describes how they developed a nanoparticle hydrogel medication to deliver a cannabinoid. The authors tested the gel in situ, with good results. The authors imagine that such a gel could be used by patients at bedtime, and during the night, the drug would be dispensed by the gel and be gone by morning.
It was a big week’s for Penn Bioengineering‘s Jason Burdick, PhD. This week Dr. Burdick, who is Professor of Bioengineering, received the George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research and the Clemson Award from the Society for Biomaterials. Receiving the Heilmeier Award on Tuesday, April 10, Dr. Burdick presented a lecture entitled “”Engineering Hydrogels for Applications in Drug Delivery and Tissue Repair.” Two days later at the annual meeting of the Society for Biomaterials in Atlanta, he received the Clemson and lectured as well.
The Heilmeier Award is named for George H. Heilmeier, PhD, an alumnus in electrical engineering from Penn and Princeton and executive at RCA, Texas Instruments, DARPA, and other organizations who died in 2014. Dr. Burdick is the sixth BE faculty member (including secondary faculty) to win the award since its institution in 2002. The Clemson awards are given yearly in three areas: basic research; applied research; and contributions to the literature. Dr. Burdick is the first-ever Clemson recipient from Penn. In addition, his PhD student Leo Wang won the Student Award for Outstanding Research by a PhD candidate.
“I am very honored to receive these two awards,” Dr. Burdick said, “which are really reflections of the great lab members that I have had over my years at Penn, as well as the support of fantastic colleagues and collaborators.”
The real value of STEM outreach is the positive youth development and mentorship that students receive. Being inspired to pursue a STEM career? That’s just a welcome bonus, says guest Noni Williams, a math graduate student and data scientist . Noni joins Kayla and Sally of the Double Shelix podcast to discuss effective strategies for STEM and professional development outreach to kids and teens and her extensive experience leading initiatives from robotics and digital art festivals to AP Computer Science and slam poetry. Also, allyship correspondent Jon Muncie checks in for a discussion on how we can all work to distribute the burden of emotional labor equitably in our workplaces and beyond.
Sally and Kayla also discuss with Noni her experiences being the only woman and/or student from an underrepresented background in her graduate mathematics courses and balancing work as a data scientist at United Way of the Midlands with graduate school. Noni gives advice for others in similar situations. Some of Noni’s keys to success including tracking gratitude, finding peer mentors, and defining clear boundaries around her time. Noni brings her *extensive* experience leading STEM outreach initiatives for kids and teens to this episode.
Upcoming #YouDoBelongInScience episodes will feature your stories! Fill this form or call our voice mail, 415-895-0850, to share your story of (dis)belonging in STEM. Sally and Kayla are hoping to share a diverse set of experiences from our listeners, but they need you to help make that happen!
Get your Double Shelix and You Do Belong in Science stickers here.
It’s awards season again, and Penn Bioengineering undergraduates and graduate students are among the honorees. Five students received fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Three of our current graduate students — Jason Andrechak, Brendan Murphy, and Wisberty Gordián Vélez — were awarded fellowships. In addition, two of our former undergrads — Elaida Dimwamwa and Ingrid Sheu Lan — won fellowships to attend graduate programs, respectively, at Georgia Tech and Stanford.
Among our Master’s students, Natalie A. Giovino was one of four recipients from the School of Engineering and Applies Science receiving Outstanding Academic Awards. BE undergraduate Jacqueline A. Valeri, who will go on to MIT for her PhD next year, received honorable mention. Finally, at the Rothberg Catalyzer at Penn over the last weekend in March, the first prize (runner-up to grand prize) award of $2,000 went to a team of Penn freshmen including Bioengineering major Jonathan Mairena.
“The successes of our remarkable students continue to be recognized in local and national competitions” says David Meaney, S.R. Pollack Professor and chair of Bioengineering, “and is more evidence of the special environment Penn has for bioengineering.”
Medicine has made tremendous strides since the 1960s, as evidenced by the increased survival rates of combat soldiers since Vietnam. Nevertheless, blood loss remains the most common cause of death of soldiers on the battlefield. Finding a way for medics or soldiers to stop bleeding can significantly cut down on these deaths, but current approaches are either very expensive or not easy to use in combat.
According to a new paper published in Acta Biomaterialia, a solution to this problem could come from seaweed — or more precisely, from kappa-carrageenan, a type of polymeric carbohydrate produced by certain types of edible seaweed. Akhilesh K. Gaharwar, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M, led a study team who developed and tested an injectable hydrogel nanoengineered from kappa-carrageenan.
The authors combined kappa-carrageenan with clay-based nanoparticles to yield a hydrogel that can be injected into wounds. When the gel solidifies, it both stanches the flow of blood and helps to generate new tissue. The gel performed well in in vitro experiments. The next step will be to test the gel in animal models of wounds.
A New Understanding of Anatomy
A group of scientists collaborating among Mount Sinai Medical Center, NYU, Weill Cornell Medical Center, and the University of Pennsylvania, including Penn Bioengineering secondary faculty member Rebecca Wells, MD, published a paper in Scientific Reports detailing the heretofore unknown extent of the human interstitium and providing a new understanding of these fluid-filled compartments beneath the skin surface. The study used confocal laser endomicroscopy, which can examine structures at depths of 60-70 µm, to look at human hepatobiliary tissue. They found a reticular pattern of fluid-filled sinuses not detected before, which is connected to the lymph nodes and similar to structures found in other organs and organ systems.
On the basis of their findings, the authors suggest that our current understanding of the anatomy might be revised. Much more research is necessary, but they also believe that the fluid-filled spaces might play important roles in cancer metastasis and a number of other disease processes.
Bringing Bioprinting to the Masses
Three-dimensional printing is one of the great innovations of the last decade, and it has transformed numerous fields inside and outside of science. In the health sciences, the ability to manufacture 3D biomaterials holds enormous promise. Unfortunately, the costs of 3D printing remain prohibitive; the available models range between $10,000 and $200,000 in cost, not including the raw materials, software, etc. However, engineers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) might have devised a solution. In a paper published in HardwareX, Adam Feinberg, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at CMU, and his coauthors describe their development of a syringe-pump large volume extruder (LVE).
Syringe pump extruders, which inject raw material into 3D printers, are already used to print biomaterials. However, achieving cheap, fast, and precise printing of 3D materials is a major technical challenge. The LVE, which is based on open-source hardware and software, significantly increases the size of the extruder without compromising speed, and it can print at sizes as small as 100 µm. The authors estimate that the materials necessary to build their bioprinter would cost less than $500 — orders of magnitude less than current models that are slower and unable to print using large volumes. Their source materials are online here.
People and Places
Missouri dominates this week’s news, with a new program at one institution and a symposium at another. At the University of Missouri, the College of Engineering has announced that it will begin offering an undergraduate program in biomedical engineering in the fall. Ninety miles away at Missouri University of Science and Technology, a symposium will be held this week — the first to be convened on the topic of biomedical humanities. The event is a collaboration between Missouri S&T’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society and the Center for Biomedical Research.
Colorado State University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering is celebrating its 10th anniversary. In that time, the department has added more than 20 faculty members to its original cohort of 29.
Finally, we offer our congratulations to Jelena Kovačević, PhD, who has been named the new dean at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A graduate of Columbia and the University of Belgrade, Dr. Kovačević, who is an electrical engineer with broad interest in biomedical applications, moves to NYU from CMU and is the first-ever female dean of Tandon. Congratulations Jelena!