Week in BioE (September 29, 2017)

An Immune Cell Atlas

atlas
A human B cell

The human immune system deploys a variety of cells to counteract pathogens when they enter the body. B cells are a type of white blood cell specific to particular pathogens, and they form part of the adaptive immune system. As these cells develop, the cells with the strongest reactions to antigens are favored over others. This process is called clonal selection. Given the sheer number of pathogens out there, the number of different clonal lineages for B cells is estimated to be around 100 billion. A landscape like that can be difficult to navigate without a map.

Luckily, an atlas was recently published in Nature Biotechnology.  It is the work of scientists collaborating between Penn’s own Perelman School of Medicine and faculty from the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems at our next-door neighbor, Drexel University. Using tissue samples from an organ donor network, the authors, led by Nina Luning Prak, MD, PhD, of Penn and Uri Heshberg, Ph.D., of Drexel, submitted the samples to a process called deep immune repertoire profiling to identify unique clones and clonal lineages. In total, they identified nearly a million lineages and mapped them to two networks: one in the gastointestinal tract and one that connects the blood, bone marrow, spleen, and lungs. This discovery suggests that the networks might be less complicated than initially thought. Also, it confirms a key role for the immune system in the gut.

Not only does this B cell atlas provide valuable information to the scientific community, but it also could serve as the basis for immune-based therapies for diseases. If we can identify these lineages and how clonal selection occurs, we could identify the most effective immunological cells and perhaps engineer them in the lab. At the very least, the extent to which scientists understand how B cells are formed and develop has received an enormous push with this research.

Understanding Muscle Movement

Natural movements of limbs require the coordinated activation of several muscle groups. Although the molecular composition of muscle is known, there remains a poor understanding of how these molecules coordinate their actions to confer power, strength, and endurance to muscle tissue. New fields of synthetic biology require this new knowledge to efficiently produce naturally inspired muscle substitutes.

Responding to this challenge, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, including Philip R. LeDuc, Ph.D.,  William J. Brown Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, have developed a computational system to better understand how mixtures of specific myosins affect muscle properties. Their method, published in PNAS, uses a computer model to show that mixtures of myosins will unexpectedly produce properties that are not the average of myosin molecular properties. Instead, the myosin mixtures coordinate and complement each other at the molecular level to create emergent behaviors, which lead to a robustness in how the muscle functions across a broad range. Dr. LeDuc and his colleagues then confirmed their model in lab experiments using muscle tissue from chickens. In the future, this new computational method could be used for other types of tissue, and it could prove useful in developing treatments for a variety of disorders.

Determining Brain Connectivity

How the brain forms and keeps memories is one of the greatest challenges in neuroscience. The hippocampus is a brain region considered critical for remembering sequences and events. The connections made by the hippocampus to other brain regions is considered critical for the hippocampus to integrate and remember experiences. However, this broad connectivity of the hippocampus to other brain areas raises a critical question: What connections are essential for rewiring the brain for new memories?

To offer an explanation for this question, a team of scientists in Hong Kong published a paper in PNAS in which they report on a study conducted in rats using resting-state function MRI. The study team, led by Ed X. Wu, Ph.D., of the University of Hong Kong, found that stimulation of a region deep in the hippocampus would propagate more broadly out into many areas of the cortex. The stimulation frequency affected how far this signal propagated from the hippocampus and pointed out the ability for frequency-based information signals to selectively connect the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. Altering the frequency of stimulation could affect visual function, indicating that targeted stimulation of the brain could have widespread functional effects throughout the brain.

Although human and rodent brains are obviously different, these findings from rats offer insights into how brain connectivity emerges in general. Similar studies in humans will be needed to corroborate these findings.

Seeing Inside a Tumor

Years of research have yielded the knowledge that the most effective treatments for cancer are often individualized. Knowing the genetic mutation involved in oncogenesis, for instance, can provide important information about the right drug to treat the tumor. Another important factor to know is the tumor’s chemical makeup, but far less is known about this factor due to the limitations of imaging.

However, a new study published in Nature Communications is offering some hope in this regard. In the study, scientists led by Xueding Wang, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at the University of Michigan, used pH-sensing nanoprobes and multiwavelength photoacoustic imaging to determine tumor types in phantoms and animals. This new technology is based on the principle that cancerous cells frequently lower the pH levels in tissue, and designing probes with properties that are pH sensitive provides a method to find tumors with imaging methods and also treat these tumors.

With this technology, Dr. Wang and his colleagues were able to obtain three-dimensional images of pH levels inside of tumors. Importantly, it allowed them to noninvasively view the changes in a dye injected inside the tumor. Although a clinical application is years away, the information obtained using the Michigan team’s techniques could add significantly to our knowledge about tumorigenesis and tumor growth.

The Role of Bacteria in MS

The growing awareness of how bacteria interact with humans to affect health has led to the emergence of new scientific areas (e.g., human microbiome). Research findings from scientists collaborating between Caltech and UCSF suggest bacteria can play a role in the onset of multiple sclerosis. These investigators include Sarkis K. Mazmanian, Ph.D., Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology and a faculty member in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at Caltech. Reporting their research results in PNAS, the researchers found several bacteria elevated in the MS microbiome. Study results showed that these bacteria regulated adaptive immune responses and helped to create a proinflammatory milieu. The identification of the bacteria interacting with immunity in MS patients could result in better diagnosis and treatment of this disabling disease.

People and Places

Faculty members at the University of California, Irvine, including biomedical engineer Zoran Nenadic, Ph.D., have received an $8 million grant to develop a brain-computer interface. The research using this grant aims to restore function in people with spinal cord injuries. Also, at the University of Texas, Austin, the lab of Amy Brock, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has received a three-year $180,000 R21 grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop a barcoding platform to isolate cancer cell lineages and to identify genetic targets for treatment.

Undergraduates Converge at Penn for REU

REU
This year’s summer students

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

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

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

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

Bioengineers Get Support to Study Chronic Pain

chronic pain
Zhiliang Cheng, Ph.D.

Zhiliang Cheng, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, has received an R01 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study chronic pain. The grant, which provides nearly $1.7 million over the next five years, will support the work of Dr. Cheng, Bioengineering Professor Andrew Tsourkas, and Vice Provost for Education and Professor Beth Winkelstein, in developing a novel nanotechnology platform for greater effectiveness in radiculopathy treatment.

Based on the idea that phospholipase-A2 (PLA2) enzymes, which modulate inflammation, play an important role in pain due to nerve damage, the group’s research seeks to develop PLA2-responsive multifunctional nanoparticles (PRMNs) that could both deliver anti-inflammatory drugs and magnetic resonance contrast agents to sites of pain so that the molecular mechanisms at work in producing chronic pain can be imaged, as well as allowing for the closer monitoring of treatment.

This research builds on previous findings by Drs. Cheng, Tsourkas, and Winkelstein. In a 2011 paper, Drs. Tsourkas and Winkelstein used superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles to enhance magnetic resonance imaging of neurological injury in a rat model. Based on the theory of reactive oxygen species playing a role in pain following neural trauma, a subsequent paper published in July with Sonia Kartha as first author and Dr. Cheng as a coauthor found that a type of nanoparticle called polymersomes could be used to deploy superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant, to sites of neuropathic pain. The current grant-supported study combines the technologies developed in the previous studies.

“To the best of our knowledge, no studies have sought to combine and/or leverage this aspect of the inflammatory and PLA2 response for developing effective pain treatment. We hypothesize that this theranostic agent, which integrates both diagnostic and therapeutic functions into a single system, offers a unique opportunity and tremendous potential for monitoring and treating patients with direct, clinically translational impact,” Dr. Cheng said.

Noordergraaf Fellows Conduct Summer Research

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

Noordergraaf
Brianna Karpowicz

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

Noordergraaf
Alejandro Villasmil

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

Noordergraaf
Jacqueline Valeri

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

We congratulate our Noordergraaf award winners!

Week in BioE (September 8, 2017)

A Breath of Fresh Air

lung grafts
A macrophage in the alveolus of a lung.

At Columbia, a new way of treating lung disease is under development. As reported recently in Science Advances, a Columbia research group, headed by Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Ph.D., from the Department of Biomedical Engineering, developed a way to prepare grafted lung tissue for transplantation that could make the process easier. The challenge has been removing the epithelial cells, which ultimately make up the surface of the organ, from potential grafts without damaging the blood vessels. Applying a detergent solution to lung tissue from rats, Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic’s team was able to obtain grafts that could subsequently be used as scaffolds for human pulmonary cells and stem cell-derived lung epithelial cells.  Although this approach remains in a very early state, the results here indicate promise for this technology for end-stage lung diseases such as emphysema.

Eliminating Obesity and Diabetes With Injections

You’ve probably heard that there’s an epidemic of obesity in the United States. Obesity carries an enormous health cost because it is linked to a variety of major health complications, including diabetes and heart disease. At a cell level, white fat cells require more energy to work off than brown fat cells. Approaches to fight obesity now include efforts to increase the number of brown fat cells. Scientists at Purdue University might have found a significant shortcut to creating more brown fat cells. By inhibiting the Notch signaling pathway, Meng Deng, Ph.D., of the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and his colleagues were able to cause white fat cells to convert into brown cells. Reporting their results in Molecular Therapy, the team used nanoparticles loaded with dibenazapine, a chemical used widely in pharmacology, to treat obese mice with targeted injections of the drug-laden nanoparticles. Results showed that the reduction of white fat in the mice was correlated with improved glucose metabolism and reduced body weight. While it’s not yet time to cancel the gym membership, an easier way to combat obesity could be on the horizon.

Diabetes is a chronic health condition with treatments that include diet management and/or insulin injections. In a new twist on diabetes treatments, scientists at the University of Toronto have shown, in a recent PNAS study, that pancreatic islets cells, which produce insulin, could be injected subcutaneously to reverse diabetes in mice. While the idea of transplanting islets into the pancreas has been investigated for some time, this is the first time that transplants were placed under the skin, far away from the pancreas. Impressively, the modules could be retrieved and reused. If future investigations are successful, these modules could form the basis of a treatment for type 1 (so-called juvenile) diabetes, which is caused by autoimmune destruction of the pancreatic islets.

News from New England

Feng Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor in the Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and of Biological Engineering at MIT, is one of five scientists to receive the Albany Medical Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research for his work on CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. We offer Dr. Zhang our heartfelt congratulations.

Across the river from Cambridge in Medford, Tufts University has announced that its newly completed Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) will open this semester and will combine classrooms and laboratories — specifically what the developers are calling “lab neighborhoods,” or spaces for collaboration among laboratories working on related research questions. Bruce Panilaitis, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is the director of the SEC, and his department will also have offices there.

Week in BioE (September 1, 2017)

Overcoming CP With Robotics

robotic exoskeletonCerebral palsy (CP) remains one of the most common congenital birth defects, affecting 500,000 American newborns per year. Gait disorders from CP are common, and crouch gait — characterized by misdirection and improper bending of the feet, causing excessive knee bending and the appearance of crouching — is among the most difficult to correct.

Researchers at Northern Arizona University recently developed a new exoskeleton to treat crouch gait. In an article published in Science Translational Medicine, Zach Lerner, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering and a faculty member with NAU’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation, tested a robotic, motorized exoskeleton in seven patients with crouch gait. Six of the seven participants using the exoskeleton show improvements on par with surgical procedures to correct crouch gait. Although commercial availability of the exoskeleton will require testing in much larger patient groups, the device is an encouraging development in the treatment of a difficult disorder.

Brain Science News

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed here how the Department of Defense supports research using electrical stimulation of the scalp to direct brain activity. At the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), bioengineering professor Hanli Liu, Ph.D., received a NIH grant to test how infrared light, rather than electrical stimulation, can achieve similar effects on the brain. In collaboration with two other UTA professors, Professor Liu uses Transcranial Infrafred Brain Stimulation (TIBS) to project infrared light onto the forehead to enhance blood flow and oxygen supply to the underlying area of the brain. With the grant, she and her colleagues intend to develop imaging tools that will provide greater insight into how both TIBS and the brain itself work.

Even as we learn more about the brain, the devastating effects of neurodegenerative diseases show us how much we still don’t know. Certain drugs can slow the inevitable advance of the disease, but beginning treatment early is important to maintaining a sense of normalcy. At Case Western Reserve University, Anant Madabhushi, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering, is developing computer technology to distinguish Alzheimer’s from other disorders and to predict onset earlier and more accurately.  Reporting their outcomes in Scientific Reports from testing in nearly 150 patients, Dr. Madabhushi and his colleagues used a variety of clinical measures (blood biomarkers, imaging data, neuropsychological testing) instead of a single test and developed a much more accurate test for detecting Alzheimer’s disease. Their approach, called cascaded multiview canonical correlation (CaMCCo), used the ordered analysis of different tests to stratify different patient groups at each stage, rather than developing a single combined measure all at once. More work will be needed to determine how this approach can lead to earlier detection of Alzheimer’s, but its accuracy is very encouraging for future studies.

Causes for Congratulations

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology has announced that Kay C. Dee, Ph.D., is among the recipients of this year’s Inspiring Leaders in STEM Award from Insight Into Diversity magazine.  Professor Dee, Associate Dean of Learning and Technology and Professor of Biology and Biomedical Engineering at Rose-Hulman, is the former head of her department. As a dean, she has focused on several issues, including easier access for students with disabilities. Congratulations to Dr. Dee!

Also, several bioengineering and biomedical engineering departments across the country are celebrating birthdays. The departments at both the University of Virginia (biomedical engineering) and the University of Michigan (bioengineering) are 50 years old, with Michigan also celebrating the 20th birthday of their biomedical engineering department. The comparative baby of the group, the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tulane University, turns 40. Happy birthday all! 

Penn Engineers Develop “WorMotel”

The roundworm C. elegans is one of the most important model organisms in biological research. With a transparent, millimeter-long body containing only about a thousand cells and a lifespan of a few weeks, there is no better way of deciphering the role of a given gene on a living creature’s anatomy or behavior. In addition, many of the genes discovered in the worm have been shown to have similar roles in other animals and humans.

In the era of big data, however, a single worm isn’t enough. Thousands upon thousands of individual organisms are necessary to compare many different genes and ensure the reliability of experimental results.

Engineers at the University of Pennsylvania have taken strides to make this type of high-throughput experiment feasible by developing a system they have dubbed “the WorMotel.” To demonstrate its effectiveness, the researchers have studied the role of a set of mutations and stress-inducing drugs on the aging of 1,935 of these organisms, specifically, what percentage of their lifespans they remain healthy and active.

The WorMotel system features index-card-sized plates made out of a transparent polymer. Each plate features 240 individual wells, in which a single worm lives its entire life. Automated systems keep them fed and stimulated while machine vision algorithms track and record their behavior.

The WorMotel system is also designed to be highly scalable. Robotic carousels can automatically swap hundreds of WorMotel plates in and out of analysis chambers, studying up to 57,600 worms in a single experiment. 

WorMotel
Christopher Fang-Yen, Ph.D.

The study, published in the journal eLife, was led by Christopher Fang-Yen, Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Matthew Churgin, a former graduate student (now a postdoctoral fellow) in his lab. They collaborated with David Raizen, an Associate Professor of Neurology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Former Fang-Yen lab members Sang-Kyu Jung, Chih-Chieh (Jay) Yu, and Xiangmei Chen also contributed to the research.

 

New Faculty: Interview With Joel Boerckel

Boerckel
Joel Boerckel, Ph.D.

Continuing with our series of interviews with new faculty members, we feature this interview with Dr. Joel Boerckel, who has a dual appointment in the Department of Bioengineering at Penn and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.  Dr. Boerckel’s research concerns the mechanobiology of development and regeneration. Here, he speaks with Andrew Mathis about his career to this point and where he sees the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine heading over the future. Enjoy!

Week in BioE (August 25, 2017)

Beyond Sunscreen

skin cancer
The sun

Excessive exposure to the sun remains a leading cause of skin cancers. The common methods of protection, including sunscreens and clothing, are the main ways in which people practice prevention. Amazingly, new research shows that what we eat could affect our cancer risk from sun exposure as well.  Joseph S. Takahashi, Ph.D., who is chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, was one of a team of scientists who recently published a paper in Cell Reports that found that by restricting the times when animals ate, their relative risk from exposure to ultraviolet light could change dramatically.

We tend to think of circadian rhythms as being among the reasons why we get sleepy at night, but the skin has a circadian clock as well, and this clock regulates the expression of certain genes by the epidermis, the visible outermost layer of the skin. The Cell Reports study found that food intake also affected these changes in gene expression. Restricting the eating to time windows throughout a 24h cycle, rather than providing food all the time, led to reduced levels of a skin enzyme that repairs damaged DNA — the underlying cause of sun-induced skin cancer. The study was conducted in mice, so no firm conclusions about the effects in humans can be drawn yet, but avoiding midnight snacks could be beneficial to more than your weight.

Let’s Get Small

Nanotechnology is one of the most common buzzwords nowadays in engineering, and the possible applications in health are enormous. For example, using tiny particles to interfere with the cancer signaling could give us a tool to stop cancer progression far earlier than what is possible today. One of the most recent approaches is the use of star-shaped gold particles — gold nanostars — in combination with an antibody-based therapy to treat cancer.

The study authors, led by Tuan Vo-Dinh, Ph.D., the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke, combined the gold nanostars with anti-PD-L1 antibodies. The antibodies target a protein that is expressed in a variety of cancer types. Focusing a laser on the gold nanostars heats up the particles, destroying the cancer cells bound to the nanoparticles. Unlike past nanoparticle designs, the star shape concentrate the energy from the laser at their tips, thus requiring less exposure to the laser. Studies using the nanostar technology in mice showed a significant improvement in the cure rate from primary and metastatic tumors, and a resistance to cancer when it was reintroduced months later.

Nanotechnology is not the only new frontier for cancer therapies. One very interesting area is using plant viruses as a platform to attack cancers. Plant viruses stimulate a natural response to fight tumor progression, and these are viewed by some as ‘nature’s nanoparticles’. The viruses are complex structures, and offer the possibility of genetic manipulation to make them even more effective in the future. At Case Western Reserve University, scientists led by Nicole Steinmetz, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering, used a virus that normally affects potatoes to deliver cancer drugs in mice. Reporting their findings in Nano Letters, the authors used potato virus X (PVX) to form nanoparticles that they injected into the tumors of mice with melanoma, alongside a widely used chemotherapy drug, doxorubicin. Tumor progression was halted. Most importantly, the co-administration of drug and virus was more effective than packing the drug in the virus before injection.  This co-administration approach is different than past studies that focus on packaging the drug into the nanoparticle first, and represents an important shift in the field.

Educating Engineers “Humanely”

Engineering curricula are nothing if not rigorous, and that level of rigor doesn’t leave much room for education in the humanities and social sciences. However, at Wake Forest University, an initiative led by founding dean of engineering Olga Pierrakos, Ph.D., will have 50 undergraduate engineering students enrolled in a new program at the college’s Downtown campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. The new curriculum plans for an equal distribution of general education/free electives relative to engineering coursework, with the expectation that the expansion of the liberal arts into and engineering degree will develop students with a broader perspective on how engineering can shape society.

People in the News

At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Rashid Bashir, Ph.D., Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering and professor in the Department of Bioengineering, has been elevated to the position of executive associate dean and chief diversity officer at UIUC’s new Carle Illinois College of Medicine. The position began last week. Professor Michael Insana, Ph.D., replaces Dr. Bashir as department chair.

At the University of Virginia, Jeffrey W. Holmes, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering and medicine, will serve as the director of a new Center for Engineering in Medicine (CEM). The center is to be built using $10 million in funding over the next five years. The goal of the center is to increase the collaborations among engineers, physicians, nursing professionals, and biomedical scientists.

Recasting Engineers as Economic Drivers

by Dave Meaney

educating engineers

In the aftermath of the presidential election, quite a few experts cited the lack of economic opportunity for many as a primary factor that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency. These changes in economic opportunity did not occur months prior to the election, but they resulted from years of continual changes in the US economy.

For example, manufacturing represented more than 50% of the economic output and jobs after World War II; it now represents only 10% of the economy. Professional services — in finance, health, insurance, education, and similar industries — represented less than 5% of the economy in 1950, while it now captures almost 40% of the economy. Our country went from makers to providers. Many other workplace traditions have also changed; e.g., one often doesn’t work for the same employer for decades, nor do workers have confidence that they will remain in the career they start in their 20s. A physician could become a business owner and then (if we are lucky) a teacher. These changes are causing many of us to ask: What should we be teaching our students for this future?

First, let’s understand how economies can change. One theory in economics puts these job sector shifts as part of Kondriateff waves, which pass through the US economy in (roughly) 50- to 80-year cycles. These “K-waves” reach back to late 18th century and continue to the current day. The economist Joseph Schumpeter reasoned that these waves were triggered by technological revolutions; e.g., the invention of the steam engine and new steel production processes led to a K-wave from 1850 to 1900 that included the development of the railroad system, the settling of the American West, and the emergence of the American economy as a global force. Similarly, the widespread availability of consumer computer power and the invention of the Internet in the late 20th century created a K-wave that began in 1990 and is cresting now with the emergence of alternative media (e.g., cutting the digital cord with online media access), the Internet of Things, and the Big Data wave.

Where Engineers Fit In

As engineers, we are naturally attracted to the idea that technology starts the wave that affects everything else. But this belief raises a question: If technology triggers waves, then how can we predict where the next wave will start? And a second question follows: How do we organize and educate ourselves so that we make the most of these technologies so society can ride this wave effectively, rather than absorb the displacements these waves create? Well, we all know it is hard to predict the future. However, a recent report from the Brookings Institute helps us pinpoint areas of the economy that are most powerful in creating downstream economic output, whether it is additional jobs, more exports, or the forming of completely new industries. Given their potency, it is likely that new economic opportunities will emerge more frequently from this sector than any other.

educating engineersRather than using the traditional categorization scheme that breaks up the economy into bins associated with worker output (e.g., we manufacture, provide financial services, trade energy goods, supply food), the Brookings report asked a slightly different question: Which parts of the economy provide the downstream spark for the rest of us?  If we understood the origin of this spark, we would be much more informed about how to make strategic investments that will have broad economic trickle-down effects on the national economy. The answer? The most potent part of our economy consists of the industries that invest heavily in research and development and contain a high percentage of employees with STEM degrees.  The Brookings report termed these advanced industries. And this part of the economy is indeed potent. It generates 2.7 additional downstream jobs for every job in this sector, far outpacing the highly publicized downstream impact of the manufacturing sector (1.7 downstream jobs per manufacturing job).  Advanced industries contain 8% of the workforce but generate 19% of the national GDP, and advanced industries span everything from communications, defense, and security to health, medicine, and the environment.

Creating Economic Opportunity Waves

Knowing that this is the proverbial spark certainly places a premium on educating scientists and engineers and placing them in these advanced industries.  Some of them could become the next Elon Musk, a Penn alum (SAS ’97) whose vision will eventually electrify the entire fleet of motor vehicles in the US. Others could follow in the footsteps of Carl June, MD, a Penn faculty member who invented a radically new form of cancer immunotherapy that may be the biggest change in cancer treatment in several decades. But what can colleges and universities teach students today to make them thrive in the epicenters of these advanced industries? How can we teach so that our students are ahead of the curve and, in some cases, creating these curves?

educating engineers

We are constantly discussing the content of undergraduate and graduate education here at Penn. In these conversations, it is often easy to fall into the trap of saying “Well, I can’t imagine a degree in X not having a course in Y” or “If I had to learn X, then my students should learn X too.” I think we should step away from specific courses and distribution sequences for a moment and think about the core principles in an engineering education that will allow our graduates to successfully navigate any economic wave that falls across all of us. In the most successful form, we would educate people that successfully create waves to benefit everyone. I suggest focusing on three core principles in an undergraduate’s engineering education toward achieving this goal.

  1. Introduce the uncertainty of research to counterbalance the certainty of formal didactic instruction. For engineering, teaching the fundamentals makes the world a safer place, whether we are teaching safety factors, repeatability, or design standards. But the advanced industries are at the bleeding edge of uncovering knowledge not in textbooks. And this new knowledge eventually creates something useful and interesting. Yet there is always a major transition for students when they realize that technological advances never come from a script in a textbook. Many will ask, “How can I learn anything that isn’t known?” Historically, we would use undergraduate education to teach what is known, and graduate education to answer the unknown. But if creating new ideas in advanced industries requires one to determine some of the unknowns, we shouldn’t restrict research experiences to just graduate education anymore.

    Research forces one to learn the inexact science of breaking down a complex problem into more manageable parts, finding out which of these parts is most critical in solving the problem, and the finding a solution. Research uses failure as a mechanism to learn, and teaches persistence and patience. These are good things to learn if you want to be in industries that are searching for the Next Big Idea. In many ways, research experiences resemble learning a foreign language — the first language (research experience) is a real bear, but they get easier as you learn more of them (additional experiences). Jumping across different fields would parallel the learning of more than one foreign language and would be a good primer for a career in the advanced industries. If more of us became comfortable with uncertainty and failure, we would accelerate the creation and filtering of new ideas and products, in turn creating more opportunities for everyone in the economy.

  2. Teach invention, as it will continue to drive economic development. Over a decade ago, the American university system was recognized for its almost unique ability to educate students who would thrive as innovators over their careers. American higher education was sought after by students around the world, and world universities started to tweak their own models of education, inspired by the US success story. Much of what was written about the ‘secret sauce’ for American higher education was the magical ingredient of innovation that existed on college campuses in the US. However, we are overlooking the one critical ingredient upstream of innovation that makes the innovation engine go: inventing new ideas. So much activity surrounding innovation involves how to package ideas for marketplace needs or how to use marketplace needs to filter through existing technologies to create new products.

    Our science and engineering infrastructure is driven by inventing technologies and algorithms that appear years to decades later in innovative products. And we are sorely overlooking how to best educate to invent, e.g., the classroom environment that forms the best ideas, or the best methods to teach the abstraction of several seemingly unrelated problems into a common group of invention challenges that will serve hundreds of innovations. Just as philosophy class in college can shape people’s views of morality for the rest of their lives, the practical experience of conceiving and executing a new idea for a market can leave a lifelong impression on a college student for seeing and creating opportunity in the world. Many students graduate nowadays with a much better idea about how to take ideas and commercialize them into products. Adding the teaching of invention will replenish the ideas that feed the future of these innovation pipelines.

  3. Include the economists, artists, and philosophers. Jason Silva has a wonderful quote about engineering: “The scientist and engineers who are building the future need the poets to make sense of it.” I couldn’t agree more. Artists and philosophers have an interesting reflection role in society, whether it is to challenge one’s perception of the ordinary or to make the ordinary unusual (artist) or to provide a more holistic view of a human’s purpose (philosopher). Likewise, economists can explain how technology can drive development locally and globally and the subsequent changes expected in the workforce. In other words, they all provide different optics on the same idea.

    Engineering may enjoy a sterling reputation as creating a world that others do not see, but we are sometimes too enamored with this vision to ask a very simple question: If we can do it, should we do it? Technologists can cite several inventions in the past as drivers of economic change that pushed society forward (see K-waves, above) and never backward. The mechanization of the agriculture industry coincided with the emergence of manufacturing and heavy industries in the US and elsewhere in the 19th century, and this advanced the world. People moved from working on farms to working in factories, and the urbanization movement swept across the country. In a similar manner, artificial intelligence could cause a similar shift in the services sector today and create a supply of highly educated people to tackle the world’s next big problem. For this reason, they can help engineers understand the impact of their ideas even before they are implemented.

    Creating new technologies without a thoughtful mulling about how they could really change the world seems irresponsible to me, given how some of these technologies could completely change large parts of the economic landscape quickly. And it could lead to other societal crises — e.g., do we really want to interrupt nature’s evolutionary clock without considering the impact of editing our own genome? Similar questions exist when we start to understand how our minds work and the principles by which we can (and should) study and influence the human traits of identity, reasoning, and self. One of our faculty recently wrote about the ethical constructs by which we should view these advances in understanding how we think, and how they can influence the science of mind control. Broadly speaking, initiating these conversations in advance will help engineers realize that these technologies should not be created in a vacuum, and they must be developed in parallel with conversations about the impact of their use.

A Mirror, Not a Trigger

All of this brings us back to the beginning. The election wasn’t the trigger but the mirror, and we must answer the call to think about engineering education to create future economic opportunity instead of passively watching it happen. We now know that advanced industries are the most powerful part of our economy for generating downstream economic output. We are fortunate that engineers are a central part of these industries. And we now know the dramatic changes in the demographics of opportunity among the electorate that occurred in the past two decades. By re-emphasizing core principles to impress upon our engineering students, we can be part of a future that focuses more on opportunities for the society rather than the individual. And we can use this new mindset to tackle some of the most pressing problems we see in front of us (e.g., affordable health care, energy, climate change) and those problems that we don’t see yet.