Episode 4 of Innovation & Impact: Exploring AI in Engineering

by Melissa Pappas

Susan Davidson, Cesar de la Fuente, Surbhi Goel and Chris Callison-Burch speak on AI in Engineering in episode 4 of the Innovation & Impact podcast.

With AI technologies finding their way into every industry, important questions must be considered by the research community: How can deep learning help identify new drugs? How can large language models disseminate information? Where and how are researchers using AI in their own work? And, how are humans anticipating and defending against potential harmful consequences of this powerful technology?

In this episode of Innovation & Impact, host Susan Davidson, Weiss Professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS), speaks with three Penn Engineering experts about leveraging AI to advance scientific discovery and methods to protect its users. Panelists include:

Chris Callison-Burch, Associate Professor in CIS, who researches the applications of large language models and AI tools in current and future real-world problems with a keen eye towards safety and ethical use of AI;  

Surbhi Goel, Magerman Term Assistant Professor in CIS, who works at the intersection of theoretical computer science and machine learning. Her focus on developing theoretical foundations for modern machine learning paradigms expands the possibilities of deep learning; and

Cesar de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Psychiatry and Microbiology with a secondary appointment in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who leads research on technology in the medical field, using computers to find antibiotics in extinct organisms and identify pre-clinical candidates to advance drug discovery. 

Each episode of Penn Engineering’s Innovation & Impact podcast shares insight from leading experts at Penn and Penn Engineering on science, technology and medicine. 

Subscribe to the Innovation & Impact podcast on Apple MusicSpotify or your favorite listening platforms or find all the episodes on our Penn Engineering YouTube channel.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry Positions Penn as a Leader in Engineering Health

by Devorah Fischler

Kathleen J. Stebe and Michel Koo urge “the academic community to adopt a coordinated approach uniting dental medicine and engineering to support research, training and entrepreneurship to address unmet needs and spur oral health care innovations.” (Image: Min Jun Oh and Seokyoung Yoon)

Penn’s Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD) is the first cross-disciplinary initiative in the nation to unite oral-craniofacial health sciences and engineering.

An institutional partnership formalizing the Center’s dual affiliation between the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science and School of Dental Medicine makes CiPD unique.

In just two years since CiPD was founded, the outcomes of this newly conceived research partnership have proven its value: microrobots that clean teeth for people with limited mobility, a completely new understanding of bacterial physics in tooth decay, enzymes from plant chloroplasts that degrade plaque, promising futures for lipid nanoparticles in oral cancer treatment and new techniques and materials to restore nerves in facial reconstructive surgery.

In addition, CiPD is training the next generation of dentists, scientists and engineers through an NIH/NIDCR-sponsored postdoctoral training program as well as fellowships from industry.

The center’s Founding Co-Directors, Kathleen J. Stebe, Richer & Elizabeth Goodwin Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Michel Koo, Professor of Orthodontics in Penn Dental Medicine, published an editorial in the Journal of Dental Research, planting a flag for CiPD’s mission and encouraging others to mirror its method.

The two urge “the academic community to adopt a coordinated approach uniting dental medicine and engineering to support research, training and entrepreneurship to address unmet needs and spur oral health care innovations.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Michel Koo is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

The Future of Medicine Rises in University City: University of Pennsylvania Opens New Multi-Disciplinary Research Labs in One uCity Square

by Holly Wojcik

One uCity Square

On September 14, Wexford Science & Technology, LLC and the University of Pennsylvania announced that the University has signed a lease for new laboratory space that will usher in a wave of novel vaccine, therapeutics, and engineered diagnostics research to West Philadelphia. Research teams from Penn are poised to move into 115,000 square feet of space at One uCity Square, the 13-story, 400,000 square foot purpose-built lab and office building within the vibrant uCity Square Knowledge Community being developed by Wexford. This is the largest lease in the building, encompassing four floors, and bringing the building to over 90% leased. The building currently includes industry tenants Century Therapeutics (NASDAQ: IPSC), Integral Molecular, Exponent (NASDAQ: EXPO), and Charles River Laboratories (NYSE: CRL).

The new University space will house Penn Medicine’s Institute for RNA Innovation and Penn Engineering’s Center for Precision Engineering for Health, underscoring the University’s commitment to a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach to research that will attract and retain the best talent and engage partners from across the region. Penn’s decision to locate at One uCity Square reinforces uCity Square’s evolution as a central cluster of academic, clinical, commercial, entrepreneurial, and amenity spaces for the area’s innovation ecosystem, and further cements Philadelphia’s position as a top life sciences market.

Jonathan Epstein, MD, Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer of Penn Medicine, shared his anticipation for the opportunities that lie ahead: “Penn Medicine is proud to build on its existing clinical presence in uCity Square and establish an innovative and collaborative research presence at the heart of uCity Square’s multidisciplinary innovation ecosystem. This strategic move underscores our commitment to accelerating advancements in biomedical research, industry collaboration, and equipping our talented teams with the resources they need to shape the future of healthcare.”

Locating the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation in the heart of the uCity Square community brings together researchers across disciplines who are already pursuing new vaccines and treatments, and better ways to deliver them. Their shared work will help to power the next phase of vaccine discovery and development.

Likewise, anchoring the work of Penn Engineering’s Center in the One uCity Square space will allow the School’s multi-disciplinary researchers and their collaborators to advance new clinical and diagnostic methods that will focus on intelligent therapeutics, genome design, diagnostics for discovery of human biology, and engineering the human immune shield.

“Penn Engineering has made a substantial commitment to precision engineering for health, an area that is not only important and relevant to engineering, but also critical to the future of humanity,” said Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “The space in One uCity Square will add another 30,000 square feet of space for our engineers to develop technologies that will fight future pandemics, cure incurable diseases, and extend healthy life spans around the world.”

Spearheading the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation will be Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor for Vaccine Research, who along with Katalin Karikó, PhD, adjunct professor of Neurosurgery, discovered foundational mRNA technology that enabled the creation of vital vaccine technology, including the FDA-approved mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

In this new space at One uCity Square, Weissman and his research team and collaborators will further pursue their groundbreaking research efforts with a goal to develop new therapeutics and vaccines and initiate clinical trials for other devastating diseases.

In addition, two established researchers will join the Institute at One uCity Square: Harvey Friedman, MD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, who leads a team researching various vaccines. He will be joined by Vladimir Muzykantov, MD, PhD, Founders Professor in Nanoparticle Research, who focuses on several projects related to targeting the delivery of drugs, including mRNA, to create more effective, targeted pathways to deliver drugs to the vascular system, treating a wide range of diseases that impact the brain, lung, heart, and blood.

Dan Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Penn Engineering and Director of the Center for Precision Engineering for Health, will oversee the Center’s innovations in diagnostics and delivery, cellular and tissue engineering, and the development of new devices that integrate novel materials with human tissues. The Center will bring together scholars from all departments within Penn Engineering and will help to foster increased collaboration with campus colleagues at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and with industry partners.

Joining the Center researchers in One uCity Square are Noor Momin, Sherry Gao, and Michael Mitchell. Noor Momin, who will join Penn Engineering in early 2024 as an assistant professor in Bioengineering, will leverage her lab’s expertise in cardiovascular immunology, protein engineering and pharmacokinetic modeling to develop next-generation treatments and diagnostics for cardiovascular diseases.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Jonathan Epstein and Vladimir Muzykantov are members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Michael Mitchell is an Associate Professor in Bioengineering.

The Physics of Fat Droplets Reveal DNA Danger

by Devorah Fischler

Fat is a normal and necessary part of the body. Fat cells store and release energy, as well as play significant roles in hormonal regulation and immunity.

Engineers and scientists at the University of Pennsylvania are the first to discover fat-filled lipid droplets’ (pictured above in green) surprising capability to indent and puncture the nucleus, the organelle which contains and regulates a cell’s DNA.

In recent decades, a concerning rise in metabolic illnesses – such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes – has focused scientific attention on the biology and chemistry of fat, resulting in a wealth of information about how fat cells work.

But fat cells and their metabolic activities are only part of the story.

Fat-filled lipid droplets, tiny spheres of fat many times smaller than fat cells, are a growing subject of scientific interest. Found inside many different cell types, these lipid particles have long been little understood. Studies have begun to illuminate these droplets’ participation in metabolic functions and cellular protection, but we still know next to nothing about the physical nature of fat.

Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science have looked beyond biochemistry to publish groundbreaking work on the physics of these droplets, revealing them to be a potential threat to a cell’s nucleus. In the August issue of the Journal of Cell Biology, they are the first to discover fat-filled lipid droplets’ surprising capability to indent and puncture the nucleus, the organelle which contains and regulates a cell’s DNA.

The stakes of their findings are high: a ruptured nucleus can lead to elevated DNA damage that is characteristic of many diseases, including cancer.

The study was led by Dennis E. Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Bioengineering, and in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, Irena Ivanovska, Ph.D. research associate in Penn’s Molecular and Cell Biophysics Lab, and Michael Tobin, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Bioengineering.

“Intuitively, people think of fat as soft,” says Discher. “And on a cellular level it is. But at this small size of droplet— measuring just a few microns rather than the hundreds of microns of a mature fat cell—it stops being soft. Its shape has a much higher curvature, bending other objects very sharply. This changes its physics in the cell. It can deform. It can damage. It can rupture.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Engineers Create Low-Cost, Eco-Friendly COVID Test

by Kat Sas

Fabrication steps of the biodegradable BC substrate and the electrochemical devices. (1) Incubation of the bacterium Gluconacetobacter hansenii. (2) BC substrate collected and treated, resulting in a clear sheet. (3) The biodegradable BC sheet is screen-printed, (4) resulting in a device with 3 electrodes, (4) which are cut out using a scissor, (5) resulting in a portable, biodegradable, and inexpensive electrochemical sensor.

The availability of rapid, accessible testing was integral to overcoming the worst surges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will be necessary to keep up with emerging variants. However, these tests come with unfortunate costs.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, the “gold standard” for diagnostic testing, are hampered by waste. They require significant time (results can take up to a day or more) as well as specialized equipment and labor, all of which increase costs. The sophistication of PCR tests makes them harder to tweak, and therefore slower to respond to new variants. They also carry environmental impacts. For example, most biosensor tests developed to date use printed circuit boards, or PCBs, the same materials used in computers. PCBs are difficult to recycle and slow to biodegrade, using large amounts of metal, plastic and non-eco-friendly materials.

In addition, most PCR tests end up in landfills, resulting in material waste and secondary contamination. An analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that, as of February 2022, “over 140 million test kits, with a potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious waste (mainly plastic) and 731,000 litres of chemical waste (equivalent to one-third of an Olympic-size swimming pool) have been shipped.”

In order to balance the need for fast, affordable and accurate testing while addressing these environmental concerns, César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, with additional primary appointments in Psychiatry and Microbiology within the Perelman School of Medicine, has turned his attention to the urgent need for “green” testing materials.

The de la Fuente lab has been working on creative ways to create faster and cheaper testing for COVID-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic. Utilizing his lab’s focus on machine biology and the treatment of infectious disease, they created RAPID, an aptly named test that generates results in minutes with a high degree of accuracy. An even more cost-effective version, called LEAD, was created using electrodes made from graphite. A third test, called COLOR, was a low-cost optodiagnostic test printed on cotton swabs.

The team’s latest innovation incorporates the speed and cost-effectiveness of previous tests with eco-friendly materials. In a paper published in Cell Reports Physical Science, the group introduces a new test made from Bacterial Cellulose (BC), an organic compound synthesized from several strains of bacteria, as a substitute for PCBs.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

For a New Generation of Antibiotics, Scientists are Bringing Extinct Molecules Back to Life – and Discovering the Hidden Genetics of Immunity Along the Way

by Devorah Fischler

Marrying artificial intelligence with advanced experimental methods, the Machine Biology Group has mined the ancient past for future medical breakthroughs, bringing extinct molecules back to life. (Image credit: Ella Marushchenko)

“We need to think big in antibiotics research,” says Cesar de la Fuente. “Over one million people die every year from drug-resistant infections, and this is predicted to reach 10 million by 2050. There hasn’t been a truly new class of antibiotics in decades, and there are so few of us tackling this issue that we need to be thinking about more than just new drugs. We need new frameworks.”

De la Fuente is Presidential Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science. He holds additional primary appointments in Psychiatry and Microbiology in the Perelman School of Medicine.

De la Fuente’s lab, the Machine Biology Group, creates these new frameworks using potent partnerships in engineering and the health sciences, drawing on the “power of machines to accelerate discoveries in biology and medicine.”

Marrying artificial intelligence with advanced experimental methods, the group has mined the ancient past for future medical breakthroughs. In a recent study published in Cell Host and Microbe, the team has launched the field of “molecular de-extinction.”

Our genomes – our genetic material – and the genomes of our ancient ancestors, express proteins with natural antimicrobial properties. “Molecular de-extinction” hypothesizes that these molecules could be prime candidates for safe new drugs. Naturally produced and selected through evolution, these molecules offer promising advantages over molecular discovery using AI alone.

In this paper, the team explored the proteomic expressions of two extinct organisms –Neanderthals and Denisovans, archaic precursors to the human species – and found dozens of small protein sequences with antibiotic qualities. Their lab then worked to synthesize these molecules, bringing these long-since-vanished chemistries back to life.

“The computer gives us a sequence of amino acids,” says de la Fuente. “These are the building blocks of a peptide, a small protein. Then we can make these molecules using a method called ‘solid-phase chemical synthesis.’ We translate the recipe of amino acids into an actual molecule and then build it.”

The team next applied these molecules to pathogens in a dish and in mice to test the veracity and efficacy of their computational predictions.

“The ones that worked, worked quite well,” continues de la Fuente. “In two cases, the peptides were comparable – if not better – than the standard of care. The ones that didn’t work helped us learn what needed to be improved in our AI tools. We think this research opens the door to new ways of thinking about antibiotics and drug discovery, and this first step will allow scientists to explore it with increasing creativity and precision.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Engineered White Blood Cells Eliminate Cancer

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“Macrophages killing cancer cell” photographed by Susan Arnold.

By silencing the molecular pathway that prevents macrophages from attacking our own cells, Penn Engineers have manipulated these white blood cells to eliminate solid tumors.

Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. at over 600,000 deaths per year. Cancers that form solid tumors such as in the breast, brain or skin are particularly hard to treat. Surgery is typically the first line of defense for patients fighting solid tumors. But surgery may not remove all cancerous cells, and leftover cells can mutate and spread throughout the body. A more targeted and wholistic treatment could replace the blunt approach of surgery with one that eliminates cancer from the inside using our own cells.

Dennis Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and postdoctoral fellow, Larry Dooling, provide a new approach in targeted therapies for solid tumor cancers in their study, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering. Their therapy not only eliminates cancerous cells, but teaches the immune system to recognize and kill them in the future.

“Due to a solid tumor’s physical properties, it is challenging to design molecules that can enter these masses,” says Discher. “Instead of creating a new molecule to do the job, we propose using cells that ‘eat’ invaders – macrophages.”

Macrophages, a type of white blood cell, immediately engulf and destroy – phagocytize – invaders such as bacteria, viruses, and even implants to remove them from the body. A macrophage’s innate immune response teaches our bodies to remember and attack invading cells in the future. This learned immunity is essential to creating a kind of cancer vaccine.

But, a macrophage can’t attack what it can’t see.

“Macrophages recognize cancer cells as part of the body, not invaders,” says Dooling. “To allow these white blood cells to see and attack cancer cells, we had to investigate the molecular pathway that controls cell-to-cell communication. Turning off this pathway – a checkpoint interaction between a protein called SIRPa on the macrophage and the CD47 protein found on all ‘self’ cells – was the key to creating this therapy.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Multiple members in the biophysical engineering lab lead by Dennis Discher, including co-lead author and postdoctoral fellow and Penn Bioengineering alumnus Jason Andrechak and Bioengineering Ph.D. student Brandon Hayes, contributed to this study. The research was funded by grants from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Cancer Institute, including the Physical Sciences Oncology Network, of the US National Institutes of Health.

2023 Solomon R. Pollack Awards for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research

The Solomon R. Pollack Award for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research is given annually to the most deserving Bioengineering graduate students who have successfully completed research that is original and recognized as being at the forefront of their field. This year, the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania recognizes the stellar work of four graduate students in Bioengineering.

Margaret Billingsley

Dissertation: “Ionizable Lipid Nanoparticles for mRNA CAR T Cell Engineering”

Maggie Billingsley

Margaret earned a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Delaware where she conducted research in the Day Lab on the use of antibody-coated gold nanoparticles for the detection of circulating tumor cells. She conducted doctoral research in the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, J. and Peter Skirkanich Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. After defending her thesis at Penn in 2022, Margaret began postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Hammond Lab where she is investigating the design and application of polymeric nanoparticles for combination therapies in ovarian cancer. She plans to use these experiences to continue a research career focused on drug delivery systems.

“Maggie was an absolutely prolific Ph.D. student in my lab, who pioneered the development of new mRNA lipid nanoparticle technology to engineer the immune system to target and kill tumor cells,” says Mitchell. “Maggie is incredibly well deserving of this honor, and I am so excited to see what she accomplishes next as a Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT and ultimately as a professor running her own independent laboratory at a top academic institution.”

Victoria Muir

Dissertation: “Designing Hyaluronic Acid Granular Hydrogels for Biomaterials Applications”

Victoria Muir

Victoria is currently a Princeton University Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the lab of Sujit S. Datta, where she studies microbial community behavior in 3D environments. She obtained her Ph.D. in 2022 as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Penn Bioengineering under the advisement of Jason A. Burdick, Adjunct Professor in Bioengineering at Penn and Bowman Endowed Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She received a B.ChE. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware in 2018 as a Eugene DuPont Scholar. Outside of research, Victoria is highly active in volunteer and leadership roles within the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), currently serving as Past Chair of the Young Professionals Community and a member of the Career and Education Operating Council (CEOC). Victoria’s career aspiration is to become a professor of chemical engineering and to lead a research program at the interaction of biomaterials, soft matter, and microbiology.

“Victoria was a fantastic Ph.D. student,” says Burdick. “She worked on important projects related to granular materials from the fundamentals to applications in tissue repair. She was also a leader in outreach activities, a great mentor to numerous undergraduates, and is already interviewing towards an independent academic position.”

Sadhana Ravikumar 

Dissertation: “Characterizing Medial Temporal Lobe Neurodegeneration Due to Tau Pathology in Alzheimer’s Disease Using Postmortem Imaging”

Sadhana Ravikumar

Sadhana completed her B.S. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 2014 and her M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 2017. Outside of the lab, she enjoys spending time in nature and exploring restaurants in Philadelphia with friends. She focused her doctoral work on the development of computational image analysis techniques applied to ex vivo human brain imaging data in the Penn Image Computing and Science Laboratory of Paul Yushkevich, Professor of Radiology at the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. She hopes to continue working at the intersection of machine learning and biomedical imaging to advance personalized healthcare and drug development.

“Dr. Sadhana Ravikumar’s Ph.D. work is a tour de force that combines novel methodological contributions crafted to address the challenge of anatomical variability in ultra-high resolution ex vivo human brain MRI with new clinical knowledge on the contributions of molecular pathology to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease,” says Yushkevich. “I am thrilled that this excellent contribution, as well as Sadhana’s professionalism and commitment to mentorship, have been recognized through the Sol Pollack award.”

Hannah Zlotnick

Dissertation: “Remote Force Guided Assembly of Complex Orthopaedic Tissues”

Hannah Zlotnick

Hannah was a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and in Bioengineering. She successfully defended her thesis and graduated in August 2022. During her Ph.D., Hannah advanced the state-of-the-art in articular cartilage repair by harnessing remote fields, such as magnetism and gravity. Using these non-invasive forces, she was able to control cell positioning within engineered tissues, similar to the cell patterns within native cartilage, and enhance the integration between cartilage and bone. Her work could be used in many tissue engineering applications to recreate complex tissues and tissue interfaces. Hannah earned a B.S. in Biological Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2017 during which time she was also a member of the women’s varsity soccer team. At Penn, Hannah was also involved in the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) intramurals & leadership, and helped jumpstart the McKay DEI committee. Since completing her Ph.D., Hannah has begun her postdoctoral research as a Schmidt Science Fellow in Jason Burdick’s lab at the University of Colorado Boulder where she looks to improve in vitro disease models for osteoarthritis.

“Hannah was an outstanding graduate student, embodying all that is amazing about Penn BE – smart, driven, inventive and outstanding in every way,” says Mauck. “ I can’t wait to see where she goes and what she accomplishes!”

Congratulations to our four amazing 2023 Sol Pollack Award winners!

Daeyeon Lee: Evan C Thompson Lecture and American Chemical Society Award

 Daeyeon Lee, Professor and Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, is the recipient of two recent honors.

Surrounded by his supportive research team, fellow faculty, students, School of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Vijay Kumar, and Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, Lee recently delivered the 2023 Evan C Thompson Chair Lecture about—fittingly enough—establishing a sense of community as we return from the isolating days of the pandemic.

Daeyeon Lee of the School of Engineering and Applied Science delivers the 2023 Thompson Chair Lecture on April 4, 2023. He spoke about reconnecting in the classroom and building community.

“Students who feel connected with instructors and among peers will invest more time, work harder, and retain information better, because they feel comfortable and safe being in the classroom and making space,” Lee said in his opening remarks. “So, there are clearly lots of positive benefits to having this connectedness among students in the classroom.”

Lee’s lecture, titled “(Re)connecting in the Classroom,” was inspired by the “Great Disengagement” referenced in an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education last year. It portrayed students as more disconnected and uncertain as they re-entered the campus environment.

Read more about Lee’s “(Re)connecting in the Classroom” in Penn Today.

In addition, Lee has received the 2022 Outstanding Achievement Award in Nanoscience from the American Chemical Society (ACS).

The annual award recognizes exceptional achievements in nanoscience research and notable leadership in the area of colloidal nanoparticles and application. Lee was chosen from a large group of extraordinary nominees among the invited speakers, “for pioneering research in development of factory-on-a-chip and its application for large scale nanoparticle synthesis and functionalization.”

Read more about this award in Penn Engineering Today.

Puneeth Guruprasad Wins 2023 Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students

Front, from left to right: Lucy Andersen, Vice Provost for Education Karen Detlefsen, Derek Yang, Ann Ho, and Arianna James. Back, from left to right: Ritesh Isuri, Adiwid (Boom) Devahastin Na Ayudhya, Oualid Merzouga, and Puneeth Guruprasad.

Ten winners of the 2023 Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students were announced at a ceremony held April 13 at the Graduate Student Center. The recipients, who represented five of Penn’s 12 schools, were recognized among a pool of 44 Ph.D. candidates and master’s students nominated primarily by undergraduates—a quality unique to and cherished about this Prize.

“It’s a particularly authentic expression of gratitude from undergraduates, and that’s really the pleasure [of presenting these awards],” says Vice Provost for Education Karen Detlefsen, who was present to announce the winners and award them with a certificate. (They also receive a monetary award.) “I’m so proud of our students: Our undergraduates, for taking the time to recognize what it is our graduate students contribute to the student body, and the graduate students who are contributing to the life of the University.

“Students are the lifeblood of the University and without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

The Prize began in the 1999-2000 academic year under former Penn President Judith Rodin. It was spearheaded by then-doctoral-candidate Eric Eisenstein and has been issued every year since. Nominations for the Prize often mention how graduate teaching assistants were able to take a complex subject and make it relatable or craft a course like philosophy or mathematics into an enjoyable—even highly anticipated—experience for students.

“Many nominations show how much students value a TA or a graduate instructor of record who shows that they care for their learning and for them as people, and who makes themself readily available to assist,” says Ian Petrie, director of graduate student programming for the Center for Teaching and Learning, who organizes the selection committee for the Prize. “Typically, however, committee members are also interested in seeing nominations that really point to how a graduate student instructor taught or gave feedback—not just how responsive they were to emails or how many office hours they had.”

He also emphasizes that many winners this year were not just teachers, but mentors—often helping undergraduates or new graduate students navigate not only the course but also Penn as an institution.

Puneeth Guruprasad

One of the winners, Puneeth Guruprasad, hails from Penn Bioengineering. Guruprasad is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Bioengineering who conducts research in the lab of Marco Ruella, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine. Ruella is also a member of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) and the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Guruprasad studies mechanisms of resistance to chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy for cancer. He has served as a teaching assistant for five semesters: three for Intro to Biotransport Processes (BE 3500) taught by Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, and two for Cellular Engineering (BE 3060), taught by Daniel Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Both courses are a part of the core curriculum for undergraduate bioengineering students. His doctoral thesis focuses on how a specific interaction between CAR T cells and tumor cells limits their function across a range of cancers.

“I make myself approachable outside the classroom, and I think that’s one aspect of being a TA: having responsibilities that extend beyond the classroom,” says Guruprasad. “Dozens of times, I’ve spoken to students over coffee, or over some lunch, about what direction they want to take in their life, what they want to do outside of the course, and give them my two cents of advice. I try to individualize.”

This post was adapted from an original story by Brandon Baker in Penn Today. Read the full story and list of 2023 winners here.