Penn BE Alumnus Helps Develop Rapid COVID-19 Test

Spencer Glantz (left) examines a scheme for light-activated protein cleavage with Dr. Brian Chow (middle) and 2014 iGEM team member Daniel Cabrera (right).

Spencer Glantz, a graduate of the Penn Bioengineering doctoral program and former member of the Brian Chow Lab, was mentioned in a recent WHYY piece highlighting the efforts of Penn labs to develop rapid, at-home testing for COVID-19. Glantz is currently a co-leader of the molecular biology team for 4Catalyzer, a medical device incubator founded by National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient, and sponsor of the annual Rothberg Catalyzer Makerthon competition, Jonathan Rothberg. 4Catalyzer is developing the testing technology while Penn researchers are working to evaluate its effectiveness.

Glantz defended his Ph.D. in 2017 and went on to become a postdoc at the Jackson Laboratory (JAX). He was the recipient of the NSF GRFP Fellowship, and during his doctoral work, he discovered a new class of photoreceptors useful for controlling signaling at the cell membrane with light. During his time at Penn, Glantz also mentored the university’s iGEM team, bringing the annual program devoted to undergraduate-led innovation in synthetic biology to the University of Pennsylvania.

Read the full WHYY article here.

Six Penn Engineers Receive Tenure

Brian Chow, David Issadore, Dongeun (Dan) Huh, Linh Thi Xuan Phan, Amish Patel and Aleksandra Vojvodic

The School of Engineering and Applied Science has granted tenure to six faculty members, including three from the Department of Bioengineering.

Tenured faculty at Penn Engineering demonstrate teaching excellence and international leadership in their fields of study and research collaborations.

Brian Chow
Associate Professor in Bioengineering
Chow’s research focuses on the discovery and engineering of photoreceptors and sensory proteins for manipulating and monitoring the physiology of genetically targeted cells, and the application of these tools to reveal principles of cellular dynamics. His work has advanced the rational design of light activated proteins and the use of optogenetic reagents to study cell signaling.

David Issadore
Associate Professor in Bioengineering
Issadore’s research combines microelectronics, microfluidics, and nanomaterials to create miniaturized platforms for the diagnosis of disease. His work has the potential to radically change the way we diagnose and treat diseases by bringing the technologies out of the lab and directly to the point of care.

Dongeun (Dan) Huh
Associate Professor in Bioengineering
Huh’s research aims to develop innovative bioengineering tools and technologies using biologically inspired design principles and micro- and nano-scale engineering techniques to create systems that mimic the structure and function of human physiological systems.

Linh Thi Xuan Phan
Associate Professor in Computer and Information Science
Phan’s work focuses on making cyber-physical systems (CPS) safer, faster, and more secure, both by strengthening the theoretical foundations and by developing practical solutions. Her recent projects include a cloud platform with real-time capabilities, a new diagnosis technique for timing-related faults, and new ways to defend CPS against attacks from insiders and/or external attackers.

Amish Patel
Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Patel’s research strives to achieve a molecular-level understanding of solvation and transport in aqueous and polymeric systems, with applications ranging from the prediction of protein interactions to the design of advanced materials for water purification and energy storage. His group combines principles of statistical mechanics and liquid state theory with state-of-the-art molecular modeling and atomistic simulation techniques to study these biological, nanoscopic and polymeric systems.

Aleksandra Vojvodic
Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Vojvodic’s research focuses on theory and computation-driven materials design. Her lab uses computational frameworks to obtain fundamental understanding of surface and interface properties of complex materials that can be used to develop theoretical models for chemical transformations and energy conversion. These models have been used to predict new catalyst materials for several chemical reactions which have been experimentally synthesized and tested, validating the desired properties of the computationally predicted catalyst material.

Originally posted on the Penn Engineering Medium blog.

Brian Chow, Dan Huh, and David Issadore Promoted to Tenured Positions as Associate Professors in Penn Bioengineering

by Sophie Burkholder

We would like to congratulate Penn Bioengineering faculty members Brian Chow, Ph.D., Dongeun (Dan) Huh, Ph.D., and David Issadore, Ph.D., on all of their recent promotions to tenured positions as Associate Professors. Both Chow and Issadore taught the second half of the foundational course in the Penn Bioengineering undergraduate curriculum, Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design Laboratory, in which students form lab groups to complete modules in microfluidics, synthetic biology, bioelectrical signal analysis, and bioanalytical spectroscopy.

Chow R01
Brian Chow, Ph.D.

Outside of the classroom, Chow’s research focuses on the creation of dynamic input and output interfaces for cells through the use of optogenetics, synthetic biology, genomics, and device engineering. The Chow lab’s current projects include the exploration of functional diversity of photoreception, engineering optically active genetically encoded tools, and their applications in neuroscience and mammalian synthetic biology. His research is supported by the NIH and he is the recipient of a 2017 NSF CAREER Award. Chow also supports undergraduate innovations in research by hosting the annual Penn team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, a program which he helped to create during his time as a graduate student at MIT. One group of Bioengineering students under Chow’s mentorship used the iGEM project as a springboard to create an accessible, open-source plate reader.

David Issadore, Ph.D.

The Issadore lab at Penn focuses on the use of microelectronics and microfluidics for medical diagnostics. In projects that combine elements of bioengineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and applied physics, Issadore and his team use an interdisciplinary approach to create miniaturized low-cost platforms for disease diagnosis. His company Chip Diagnostics received the JPOD @ Philadelphia QuickFire Challenge Award last month. Earlier this year, Issadore taught the Penn Engineering course Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics (APOC), which culminated in a service trip to Ghana (read blog posts written by participating students here). This fall, he will take over the core Bioengineering undergraduate course in Bioengineering Signals and Systems, which focuses on applications in ECG signaling, cochlear implants, and biomedical imaging.

Dan Huh, Ph.D.

Dr. Huh is the principal investigator of the BIOLines Lab at Penn, which is best known for its work on bioinspired engineering systems that Huh calls “organs-on-a-chip.” Using design and engineering principles based on microfluidics and biomimicry, the Huh lab creates microengineered systems that can reconstitute the structural and functional complexity of healthy and diseased human physiological systems in ways not possible using traditional cell culture techniques. His research has been featured in TEDx, and he has won several prestigious honors and awards including the Bernard Langer Distinguished Lectureship, Lush Prize, the McPherson Distinguished Lectureship, CRI Technology Impact Award, John J. Ryan Medal, Design of the Year Award and Best Product of the Year Award from London Design Museum, NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, and Analytical Chemistry Young Innovator Award. This fall, Huh will teach a graduate level course in biomicrofluidics that will cover the use of microfluidics for biomedical application.

Junior Bioengineering Students Complete Their Laboratory Course with Creatively Designed Spectrophotometers

by Sophie Burkholder

To finish the second half of Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design (BE MAD) Laboratory – the hallmark laboratory course of Penn’s Bioengineering program – instructors Dr. Brian Chow and Dr. David Issadore tasked junior undergraduate students with creating their own spectrophotometers for potential use in detecting water-borne pathogens in a design process that involved rapid prototyping techniques, the use of low-cost optoelectronics, and the incorporation of automation software and a graphical user interface for data acquisition. The final projects were assessed for both the creativity of the structural design of the device, and their abilities to measure optical properties of fluorescein, a chromophore used in clinical diagnostics, to determine each device’s accuracy, sensitivity, precision, and dynamic range.

For the final project of the year, many groups planned adventurous structural innovations to house their spectrophotometer circuits. Some of this year’s highlights included a fish tank complete with flashing lights and goldfish, a motorized arm that could successfully shoot a ball into a miniature basketball hoop with every spectrophotometer reading, a guitar with the ability to actually play music, and a working carousel. “My group decided to make a version of the Easy Bake Oven, using an LED oven light bulb, and a motor to open the door,” said junior Alina Rashid. “Of course, it didn’t actually cook anything because of the spectrophotometer inside, but maybe next time!” All of these designs involved the use of CAD-modeling to create sketches and parts that could then be laser-cut or 3D-printed into physical structures. The Department of Bioengineering also allotted each group with a budget for students to purchase any additional parts they required for their designs that were not already available in the lab.

On Demo Day for the spectrophotometer projects, instructors, lab staff, and friends came to the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace to assess final designs and celebrate the end of the semester. Given three solutions of unknown concentrations, students used their completed spectrophotometers to create standard curves using Beer-Lambert’s Law and attempt to determine the concentrations of the provided solutions. “I always love Demo Day because that’s when all separate aspects of the project – the mechanical design, the code, the circuitry – come together to make a device that actually works the way we planned and wanted it to all along,” said junior Jessica Dubuque. After nearly a month of working on the projects, each lab group went into Demo Day with designs they were proud of, and ended the semester on a high note with many new insights and lab skills under their belt for the beginning of their Senior Design projects in the fall.

Junior Bioengineering Students Filter ECG Signals for Use in Astronaut Fatigue-Monitoring Device

by Sophie Burkholder

Every undergraduate student pursuing a B.S.E. in Bioengineering participates in the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design Laboratory I & II courses, in which students work together on a series of lab-based design challenges with an emphasis on model development and statistical analysis. Recently, junior undergraduates enrolled in this course taught by Dr. Brian Chow and Dr. David Issadore (both of whom recently received tenure) completed a project involving the use of electrocardiography (ECG) to innovate a non-invasive fatigue-monitoring device for astronauts that tend to fall asleep during long operations in space.

Using ECG lead wires and electrodes with a BioPac M-35 data collection  apparatus, students collected raw data of their own heart and respiration rates, and loaded the data into MATLAB to analyze and calculate information like the heart rate itself, and portions of it like the QT-interval. “I think it was cool that we could measure signals from our own body and analyze it in a way that let us use it for a real-world application,” said junior Melanie Hillman about the project.

After taking these preliminary measurements, students used a combination of circuitry, MATLAB, and data acquisition boards to create both passive and active filters for the input signals. These filters helped separate the user’s breathing rate, which occurs at lower frequencies, from the heart rate, which occurs at higher frequencies, allowing for the data to be read and analyzed more easily. In their final design, most students used an active filter circuit chip that combined hardware with software to create bandpass filters of different frequency ranges for both input signals.

“It was nice to be able to do a lab that connected different aspects of engineering in the sense that we both electronically built circuits, and also modeled them theoretically, because normally there’s a separation between those two domains,” said junior Emily Johnson. On the final day of the project, Demo Day, groups displayed their designs ability to take one input from the ECG cables connected to a user, and filter it out into recognizable heart and respiration rates on the computer. This project, conducted in the in the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Educational Laboratory here at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering, is just one of many examples of the way this hallmark course of the bioengineering curriculum strives to bring together all aspects of students’ foundational engineering coursework into applications with significance in the real world.

Penn BE Undergrads Make Biology More Accessible with Open-Source Plate Reader

The annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition challenges students to expand the field of synthetic biology to solve tangible problems. While most iGEM projects involve imbuing microorganisms with useful new traits and adding them to a global toolkit, Penn Engineering students took a unique approach to the iGEM challenge by creating an open-source blueprint for a mechanical instrument that could make biological research more accessible.

Penn Bioengineering undergraduate Andrew Clark and recent graduates Karol Szymula, now a research assistant in Penn’s Complex Systems Lab, and Michael Patterson, now the lab engineer for Penn Bioengineering’s Instructional Laboratories, contributed to the project that originated through the 2017 iGEM challenge. Graduate student Michael Magaraci, who started Penn’s iGEM program as an undergraduate, and Sevile Mannickarottu, director of Instructional Laboratories, also participated. Brian Chow, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering at Penn, who helped create the iGEM competition when he was an MIT graduate student, oversaw the project.

Read the full story at Penn Engineering’s Medium Blog. Media contacts Evan Lerner and Lauren Salig.

Penn BE Undergraduates’ Plate Reader Design Published

Microplate reader, Wikimedia Commons

In a paper recently published in Biochemistry, a group of University of Pennsylvania Bioengineering students describe the results of their work designing a new, open-source, low-cost microplate reader. Plate readers are instruments designed to measure light absorption and fluorescence emission from molecules useful for clinical biomarker analyses and assays in a diverse array of fields including synthetic biology, optogenetics, and photosensory biology. This new design costs less than $3500, a significantly lower price than other commercially available alternatives. As described in the paper’s abstract, this design is the latest in a growing trend of open-source  hardware to enhance access to equipment for biology labs. The project originated as part of the annual International Genetically Engineering Machine Competition (iGEM), an annual worldwide competition focusing on “push[ing] the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday issues facing the world” (iGEM website).

The group consists of current junior Andrew Clark (BSE ’20) and recent graduates Karol Szymula (BSE ’18), who works in the lab of Dr. Danielle Bassett, and Michael Patterson (BSE ’18), a Master’s student in Bioengineering and Engineer of Instructional Laboratories. Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Dr. Brian Chow served as their faculty mentor alongside Director of Instructional Labs Sevile Mannickarottu and Michael Magaraci, a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering, all of whom serve as co-authors on the published article. The research and design of the project was conducted in the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Educational Laboratory here at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering.

Chow Wins NIH Grant for Brain Study

Chow R01
Brian Chow, Ph.D.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a grant to Brian Chow, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering, to study ultrafast genetically encoded voltage indicators (GEVIs). GEVIs are proteins that can detect changes in the electrical output of cells and report those changes by emitting different color light. His research seeks to create GEVIs that can report these changes much more rapidly – in fact, more than a million times more quickly than the velocity of the changes themselves – and apply these ultrafast GEVIs to the study of the brain.

The NIH-funded research will build on earlier research, employing de novo fluorescent proteins (dFPs) created in Dr. Chow’s lab. These dFPs, which are totally artificial and unrelated to natural proteins, report voltage changes in neurons by changing in brightness. Working with a team of investigators that includes faculty members from the Departments of Biochemistry & Biophysics and Neuroscience, Dr. Chow hopes to develop these ultrafast GEVIs.

“Monitoring thousands of neurons in parallel will shed new light on cognition, learning and memory, mood, and the physiological underpinnings of nervous system disorders,” he says.

Phytoplankton Research Earns Award


The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, announced last week that one of its faculty members, Andrew Barton, PhD, received a Simons Foundation Early Career Award to study phytoplankton — a type of algae that requires sunlight to survive and that serves as the basis for much of the marine food chain.

Dr. Barton’s research will use the Scripps Plankton Camera System, which provides real-time photographic images to monitor these phytoplankton. While not exactly offering the excitement or cuteness factor of the Golden Retriever Puppy Cam, this sort of technology is incredibly important to better understanding certain aspects of marine biology.

“This is an interesting project that brings cutting edge image-processing technology to the natural habitat to study complex organismal dynamics in the real-world setting,” says Brian Chow, PhD, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. “Establishing the critical interplay between an organism’s form and function and the forces of its local and global environments are important problems in physical biology in general. Diatoms have long been studied by bioengineers interested in self-assembly, programmed assembly, biomineralization, and biomimicry, so the work may lead to some novel insights for our field.”

Congratulations to Dr. Barton on receiving this prestigious award.