Erin Berlew and Rhea Chitalia Receive 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 Penn Bioengineering recognizes the outstanding work of two graduate students in Bioengineering: Erin Berlew and Rhea Chitalia.

Erin Berlew, Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering

Erin Berlew is a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. She successfully defended her thesis, titled “Single-component optogenetic tools for cytoskeletal rearrangements,” in December 2021. In her research, she used the BcLOV4 optogenetic platform discovered/developed in the Chow lab to control RhoGTPase signaling. Erin earned a B.S. in Chemistry from Haverford College in 2015 and was an Americorps member with City Year Philadelphia from 2015-2016. “Erin is a world-class bioengineering with an uncommon record of productivity gained through her complementary expertise in molecular, cellular, and computational biology,” says Chow. “She embodies everything wonderful, both academically and culturally, about our graduate program and its distinguished history.” Erin’s hobbies outside the lab include spending time with family, reading mystery novels, enjoying Philadelphia, and crossword puzzles. In the future, she hopes to continue to teach for the BE department (she has already taught ENGR 105 and served as a TA for undergraduate and graduate courses) and to conduct further research at Penn.

Rhea Chitalia, Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering

Rhea Chitalia is a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering and a member of the Computational Biomarker Imaging Group (CBIG), advised by Despina Kontos, Matthew J. Wilson Associate Professor of Research Radiology II in the Perelman School of Medicine. Rhea completed her B.S.E. in Biomedical Engineering at Duke University in 2015. Her doctoral research concerns leveraging machine learning, bioinformatics, and computer vision to develop computational imaging biomarkers for improved precision cancer care. In December 2021 she successfully defended her thesis titled “Computational imaging biomarkers for precision medicine: characterizing intratumor heterogeneity in breast cancer.” “It has been such a privilege to mentor Rhea on her dissertation research,” says Kontos. “Rhea has been a star graduate student. Her work has made fundamental contributions in developing computational methods that will allow us to gain important insight into tumor heterogeneity by utilizing a multi-modality imaging approach.” David Mankoff, Matthew J. Wilson Professor of Research Radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, served as Rhea’s second thesis advisor. “It was a true pleasure for me to work with Rhea and to Chair her BE Thesis Committee,” Mankoff adds. “Rhea’s Ph.D. thesis and thesis presentation was one of the best I have had the chance to be involved with in my graduate mentoring career.” After graduation, Rhea hopes to further precision medicine initiatives through the use of real world, multi-omic data in translational industry settings. She will be joining Invicro as an Imaging Scientist. In her spare time, Rhea enjoys trying new restaurants, reading, and spending time with friends and family.

 

Jennifer Phillips-Cremins Wins ISSCR Dr. Susan Lim Award for Outstanding Young Investigator

Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, Ph.D.

Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Bioengineering and Genetics, has been awarded the 2022 Dr. Susan Lim Award for Outstanding Young Investigator by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the preeminent, global organization dedicated to stem cells research.

This award recognizes the exceptional achievements of an investigator in the early part of his or her independent career in stem cell research. Cremins works in the field of epigenetics, and is a pioneer in understanding how chromatin,  the substance within a chromosome, works:

“Dr. Phillips-Cremins is a gifted researcher with diverse skills across cell, molecular, and computational biology. She is a shining star in the stem cell field who has already made landmark contributions in bringing long-range chromatin folding mechanisms to stem cell research. In addition to her skills as an outstanding researcher,” ISSCR President Melissa Little, Ph.D., said. “She has flourished as an independent investigator, providing the stem cell field with unique and creative approaches that have facilitated conceptual leaps in our understanding of long-range spatial regulation of stem cell fate. Congratulations, Jennifer, on this prestigious honor.”

Cremins was awarded a NIH Director’s Pioneer Award in 2021 and a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant as part of the CZI Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project in 2020. The long-term goal of her lab is to understand the mechanisms by which chromatin architecture governs genome function. The ISSCR will recognize Cremins and her research in a plenary session during the ISSCR annual meeting on June 15.

Read the full press release on the ISSCR website.

Penn Bioengineering Senior Raveen Kariyawasam Named 2022 Rhodes Scholar

2022 Rhodes Scholar, Raveen Kariyawasam

One of the two University of Pennsylvania seniors who were awarded Rhodes Scholarships for graduate study at the University of Oxford is Penn Engineering‘s own Raveen Kariyawasam, from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Kariyawasam is a double major in Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, with concentrations in computational medicine and medical devices, and in the Wharton School, with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship and innovation.

“We are so proud of our newest Penn Rhodes Scholars who have been chosen for this tremendous honor and opportunity,” said President Amy Gutmann. “The work Raveen has done in health care innovation and accessibility and Nicholas has done to support student well-being while at Penn is impressive, and pursuing a graduate degree at Oxford will build upon that foundation. We look forward to seeing how they make an impact in the future.”

The Rhodes is highly competitive and one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. The scholarships provide all expenses for as long as four years of study at Oxford University in England.

According to the Rhodes Trust, about 100 Rhodes Scholars will be selected worldwide this year, chosen from more than 60 countries. Several have attended American colleges and universities but are not U.S. citizens and have applied through their home country, including Kariyawasam in Sri Lanka.

With an interest in health care innovation and accessibility, Kariyawasam is involved in several research projects, including his Wharton honors thesis that focuses on optimizing a low-cost electronic medical record system in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. He has received several research grants, including the Vagelos Undergraduate Research Grant, the Berkman Opportunity Fund grant, and the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps grant. At Penn, he is editor-in-chief of Synapse, a student-run health care magazine and is vice president of the Phi Sigma Biological Honor Society. He is a disc jockey for the student-run radio station, WQHS, and an executive board member of the Wharton Undergraduate Healthcare Club. He also is a former student ambassador at the Penn Health-Tech Center for Health Devices and Technology. At Oxford, Kariyawasam plans to pursue a D.Phil. degree.

Read more at Penn Today.

A New Model for How the Brain Perceives Unique Odors

by Erica K. Brockmeier

Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor Vijay Balasubramanian at Penn’s BioPond.

A study published in PLOS Computational Biology describes a new model for how the olfactory system discerns unique odors. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that a simplified, statistics-based model can explain how individual odors can be perceived as more or less similar from others depending on the context. This model provides a starting point for generating new hypotheses and conducting experiments that can help researchers better understand the olfactory system, a complex, crucial part of the brain.

The sense of smell, while crucial for things like taste and hazard avoidance, is not as well studied as other senses. Study co-author Vijay Balasubramanian, a theoretical physicist with an interest in how living systems process information, says that olfaction is a prime example of a complex information-processing system found in nature, as there are far more types of volatile molecules—on the scale of tens or hundreds of thousands—than there are receptor types in the nose to detect them, on the scale of tens to hundreds depending on the species.

“Every molecule can bind to many receptors, and every receptor can bind to many molecules, so you get this combinatorial mishmash, with the nose encoding smells in a way that involves many receptor types to collectively tell you what a smell is,” says Balasubramanian. “And because there are many fewer receptor types than molecular species, you basically have to compress a very high dimensional olfactory space into a much lower dimensional space of neural responses.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Vijay Balasubramanian is the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

This research was supported by the Simons Foundation Mathematical Modeling of Living Systems (Grant 400425) and the Swartz Foundation.

Penn, CHOP and Yale Researchers’ Molecular Simulations Uncover How Kinase Mutations Lead to Cancer Progression

by Evan Lerner

A computer model of a mutated anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK), a known oncogenic driver in pediatric neuroblastoma.

Kinases are a class of enzymes that are responsible for transferring the main chemical energy source used by the body’s cells. As such, they play important roles in diverse cellular processes, including signaling, differentiation, proliferation and metabolism. But since they are so ubiquitous, mutated versions of kinases are frequently found in cancers. Many cancer treatments involve targeting these mutant kinases with specific inhibitors.

Understanding the exact genetic mutations that lead to these aberrant kinases can therefore be critical in predicting the progression of a given patient’s cancer and tailoring the appropriate response.

To achieve this understanding on a more fundamental level, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Perelman School of Medicine, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and researchers at the Yale School of Medicine’s Cancer Biology Institute, have constructed molecular simulations of a mutant kinase implicated in pediatric neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer impacting the central nervous system.

Using their computational model to study the relationship between single-point changes in the kinase’s underlying gene and the altered structure of the protein it ultimately produces, the researchers revealed useful commonalities in the mutations that result in tumor formation and growth. Their findings suggest that such computational approaches could outperform existing profiling methods for other cancers and lead to more personalized treatments.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by Ravi Radhakrishnan, Professor and chair of Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and professor in its Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Mark A. Lemmon, Professor of Pharmacology at Yale and co-director of Yale’s Cancer Biology Institute. The study’s first authors were Keshav Patil, a graduate student in Penn Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, along with Earl Joseph Jordan and Jin H. Park, then members of the Graduate Group in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Krishna Suresh, an undergraduate student in Radhakrishnan’s lab, Courtney M. Smith, a graduate student in Lemmon’s lab, and Abigail A. Lemmon, an undergraduate in Lemmon’s lab, contributed to the study. They collaborated with Yaël P. Mossé, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Penn Medicine and in the division of oncology at CHOP.

“Some cancers rely on the aberrant activation of a single gene product for tumor initiation and progression,” says Radhakrishnan. “This unique mutational signature may hold the key to understanding which patients suffer from aggressive forms of the disease or for whom a given therapeutic drug may yield short- or long-term benefits. Yet, outside of a few commonly occurring ‘hotspot’ mutations, experimental studies of clinically observed mutations are not commonly pursued.”

Read the full post in Penn Engineering Today.

Seminar: “The Coming of Age of De Novo Protein Design” (David Baker)

David Baker, Ph.D.

Speaker: David Baker, Ph.D.
Professor
Biochemistry
University of Washington

Date: Thursday, March 18, 2021
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM EDT
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “The Coming of Age of De Novo Protein Design”

This seminar is jointly hosted by the Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics.

Abstract:

Proteins mediate the critical processes of life and beautifully solve the challenges faced during the evolution of modern organisms. Our goal is to design a new generation of proteins that address current day problems not faced during evolution. In contrast to traditional protein engineering efforts, which have focused on modifying naturally occurring proteins, we design new proteins from scratch based on Anfinsen’s principle that proteins fold to their global free energy minimum. We compute amino acid sequences predicted to fold into proteins with new structures and functions, produce synthetic genes encoding these sequences, and characterize them experimentally. I will describe the de novo design of fluorescent proteins, membrane penetrating macrocycles, transmembrane protein channels, allosteric proteins that carry out logic operations, and self-assembling nanomaterials and polyhedra. I will also discuss the application of these methods to COVID-19 challenges.

Bio:

David Baker is the director of the Institute for Protein Design, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a professor of biochemistry and an adjunct professor of genome sciences, bioengineering, chemical engineering, computer science, and physics at the University of Washington. His research group is a world leader in protein design and protein structure prediction. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry with Randy Schekman at the University of California, Berkeley, and did postdoctoral work in biophysics with David Agard at UCSF. Dr. Baker is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Baker is a recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, Irving Sigal and Hans Neurath awards from the Protein Society, the Overton Prize from the ISCB, the Feynman Prize from the Foresight Institute, the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize, the Sackler prize in biophysics, and the Centenary Award from the Biochemical society. He has also received awards from the National Science Foundation, the Beckman Foundation, and the Packard Foundation. Dr. Baker has published over 500 research papers, been granted over 100 patents, and co-founded 11 companies. Seventy-five of his mentees have gone on to independent faculty positions.

BE Seminar: “Imaging and Sequencing Single Cells” (Aaron Streets, UC Berkeley)

The Penn Bioengineering virtual seminar series continues on October 8th.

Aaron Streets, PhD

 

Speaker: Aaron Streets, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Bioengineering
University of California, Berkeley

Date: Thursday, October 8, 2020
Time: 2:00-3:00 pm (note the change from our regular seminar time)
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “Imaging and Sequencing Single Cells”

Abstract:

Recent advances in microfluidics and high-throughput sequencing technology have enabled rapid profiling of genomic material in single cells. Valve- and droplet-based microfluidic platforms can precisely and efficiently manipulate, sort, and process cells to generate indexed sequencing libraries, allowing for high-throughput single-cell analysis of the genome, transcriptome, proteome, and epigenome. Such technology has been instrumental in the global effort to create a human cell atlas, with the ambitious goal of identifying and cataloging all human cell types and cell states in health and disease. However, not all cell phenotypes are directly encoded in the genome and high-throughput sequencing cannot probe the full space of cellular identity. Therefore, microscopy remains one of the most powerful and versatile tools for characterizing cells. Fluorescent imaging and quantitative non-linear optical imaging can reveal morphological characteristics, protein localization, chromatin organization, and chemical composition in single cells. Both single-cell genomics and microscopy can uncover heterogeneity in cellular populations that would otherwise be obscured in ensemble measurement. In this talk, I will discuss a suite of new microfluidic platforms for coupling genomic measurements and optical measurements of the same single cell, and some novel computational approaches to grapple with these new datasets. With a combination of new hardware and software, our goal is to converge on a quantitative and comprehensive understanding of cellular identity.

Bio:

Aaron received a Bachelor of Science in Physics and a Bachelor of Arts in Art at UCLA. He completed his PhD in Applied Physics at Stanford with Dr. Stephen Quake. Aaron then went to Beijing, China as a Whitaker International Postdoctoral Fellow and a Ford postdoctoral fellow and worked with Dr. Yanyi Huang in the Biodynamic Optical Imaging Center (BIOPIC) at Peking University. Aaron joined the faculty of UC Berkeley as an Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in 2016 and is currently a core member of the Biophysics Program and the Center for Computational Biology and he is a Chan Zuckerberg Biohub investigator. Aaron has received the NSF Early Career award and was recently named a Pew Biomedical Scholar.

See the full list of upcoming Penn Bioengineering fall seminars here.

BE Seminar: “Predicting the Effects of Engineering Immune Cells Using Systems Biology Modeling” (Stacey Finley, USC)

The Penn Bioengineering virtual seminar series continues on October 1st.

Stacey Finley, PhD

 

Speaker: Stacey Finley, Ph.D.
Gordon S. Marshall Early Career Chair and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Biological Sciences
University of Southern California

 

Date: Thursday, October 1, 2020
Time: 3:00-4:00 pm
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “Predicting the Effects of Engineering Immune Cells Using Systems Biology Modeling”

Abstract:

Systems biology approaches, including computational models, provide a framework to test biological hypotheses and optimize effective therapeutic strategies to treat human diseases. In this talk, I present recent work in modeling signaling in cancer-targeting immune cells, including CAR T cells at Natural Killer cells. Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) are comprised of a variety of different activating domains and co-stimulatory domains that initiate signaling required for T cell activation. There is a lack of understanding of the mechanisms by which activation occurs. We apply mathematical modeling to investigate how CAR structure influences downstream T cell signaling and develop new hypotheses for the optimal design of CAR-engineered T cell systems. Natural Killer cells also provide a useful platform for targeting cancer cells. However, NK cells have been shown to exhibit reduced killing ability with prolonged stimulation by cancer cells. We use a combination of mechanistic model, optimal control theory and in silico synthetic biology to investigate strategies to enhance NK cell-mediated killing.

Bio:

Stacey D. Finley is the Gordon S. Marshall Early Career Chair and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. Dr. Finley received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Florida A & M University and obtained her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Northwestern University. She completed postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Finley joined the faculty at USC in 2013, and she leads the Computational Systems Biology Laboratory. Dr. Finley has joint appointments in the Departments of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Biological Science, and she is a member of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Finley is also the Director of the Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer at USC. Her research is supported by grants from NSF, NIH, and the American Cancer Society.

Selected honors: 2016 NSF Faculty Early CAREER Award; 2016 Young Innovator by the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering journal; Leah Edelstein-Keshet Prize from the Society of Mathematical Biology; Junior Research Award from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering; the Hanna Reisler Mentorship Award; 2018 AACR NextGen Star; 2018 Orange County Engineering Council Outstanding Young Engineer

See the full list of upcoming Penn Bioengineering fall seminars here.

Penn Alumnus Peter Huwe Appointed Assistant Professor at Mercer University

Peter Huwe, Ph.D.

Peter Huwe, a University of Pennsylvania alumnus and graduate of the Radhakrishnan lab, was appointed Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the Mercer University School of Medicine beginning this summer 2020 semester.

Huwe earned dual B.S. degrees in Biology and Chemistry in 2009 from Mississippi College, where he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. At Mississippi College, Huwe had his first exposure to computational research in the laboratory of David Magers, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics in 2014 in the laboratory of Ravi Radhakrishnan, Chair of the Bioengineering Department at Penn. As an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in Radhakrishnan’s lab, Huwe focused his research on using computational molecular modeling and simulations to elucidate the functional consequences of protein mutations associated with human diseases. Dr. Huwe then joined the structural bioinformatics laboratory Roland Dunbrack, Jr., Professor at the Fox Chase Cancer Center as a T32 post-doctoral trainee. During his post-doctoral training, Huwe held adjunct teaching appointments at Thomas Jefferson University and at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2017, Huwe became an Assistant Professor of Biology at Temple University, where he taught medical biochemistry, medical genetics, cancer biology, and several other subjects.

During each of his appointments, Huwe became increasingly more passionate about teaching, and he decided to dedicate his career to medical education. Huwe is very excited to be joining Mercer University School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences this summer. There, he will serve in a medical educator track, primarily teaching first and second year medical students.

“Without Ravi Radhakrishnan and Philip Rea, Professor of Biology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, giving me my first teaching opportunities as a graduate guest lecturer at Penn, I may never have discovered how much I love teaching,” says Huwe. “And without the support and guidance of each of my P.I.’s [Dr.’s Magers, Radhakrishnan, and Dunbrack], I certainly would not be where I am, doing what I love.  I am incredibly thankful for all of the people who helped me in my journey to find my dream job.”

Congratulations and best of luck from everyone in Penn Bioengineering, Dr. Huwe!

Ravi Radhakrishnan Named Chair of the Department of Bioengineering

The Department of Bioengineering would like to congratulate and welcome our new Chair, Dr. Ravi Radhakrishnan! Read the post below, originally posted on the Penn Engineering blog, and visit the Radhakrishnan Lab’s website for more information on his research.

Ravi Radhakrishnan, Ph.D.

Ravi Radhakrishnan has been named Chair of the Department of Bioengineering.

Radhakrishnan holds joint appointments in the Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He is a founding member and the current Director of the Penn Institute for Computational Science, as well as a member of the Penn Physical Sciences in Oncology Center, Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, and several graduate groups, including Materials Science and Engineering, Genomics and Computational Biology, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics.

In addition to these roles at Penn, Radhakrishnan holds many editorial board positions in the research community, including Nature Publishing’s Scientific Reports.

Beyond being a passionate teacher and advocate for his students, Radhakrishnan’s research interests lie at the interface of chemical physics and molecular biology. His lab’s goal is to provide molecular level and mechanistic characterization of biomolecular and cellular systems and formulate quantitatively accurate microscopic models for predicting the interactions of various therapeutic agents with innate biochemical signaling mechanisms.