Ongoing clinical trials have demonstrated that psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD can have rapid and long-lived antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects. A related clinical problem is chronic pain, which is notoriously difficult to treat and often associated with depression and anxiety.
This summer, Ahmad Hammo, a rising third-year student in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is conducting a pilot study to explore psilocybin’s potential as a therapy for chronic pain and the depression that often accompanies it.
“There’s a strong correlation between chronic pain and depression, so I’m looking at how a psychedelic might be used for treating both of these things simultaneously,” says Hammo, who is originally from Amman, Jordan.
Hammo’s project focuses on neuropathic pain, pain associated with nerve damage. Like other forms of chronic pain, most experts believe that chronic neuropathic pain is stored in the brain.
“Neuropathic pain can lead to a centralized pain syndrome where the pain is still being processed in the brain,” Cichon says. “It’s as if there’s a loop that keeps playing over and over again, and this chronic form is completely divorced from that initial injury.”
They will conduct research, pursue graduate degrees, or teach English in Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Israel, Latvia, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, the West Bank-Palestine territories, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand.
The Fulbright Program is the United States government’s flagship international educational exchange program, awarding grants to fund as long as 12 months of international experience.
Among the Penn Fulbright grant recipients for 2023-24 is Ella Atsavapranee, from Cabin John, Maryland, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a minor in chemistry from the College. She was offered a Fulbright to conduct research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.
At Penn, Atsavapranee worked with Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, engineering lipid nanoparticles to deliver proteases that inhibit cancer cell proliferation. She has also worked with Shan Wang, Leland T. Edwards Professor in the School of Engineering and Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, using bioinformatics to discover blood biomarkers for cancer detection. To achieve more equitable health care, she worked with Lisa Shieh, Clinical Professor in Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, to evaluate an AI model that predicts risk of hospital readmission and study how room placement affects patient experience.
Outside of research, Atsavapranee spread awareness of ethical issues in health care and technology as editor-in-chief of the Penn Bioethics Journaland a teaching assistant for Engineering Ethics (EAS 2030). She was also a Research Peer Advisor for the Penn Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships (CURF), a student ambassador for the Office of Admissions, and a volunteer for Service Link, Puentes de Salud, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She plans to pursue a career as a physician-scientist to develop and translate technologies that are more affordable and accessible to underserved populations.
Read the full list of Penn Fulbright grant recipients for 2023-24 in Penn Today.
Five University of Pennsylvania undergraduates have received 2022 Goldwater Scholarships, including Laila Barakat Norford, a third year Bioengineering major from Wayne, Pennsylvania. Goldwater Scholarships are awarded to sophomores or juniors planning research careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering.
Penn has produced 23 Goldwater Scholars in the past seven years and a total of 55 since Congress established the scholarship in 1986.
Laila Barakat Norford is majoring in bioengineering with minors in computer science and bioethics in Penn Engineering. As a Rachleff Scholar, Norford has been engaged in systems biology research since her first year. Her current research uses machine learning to predict cell types in intestinal organoids from live-cell images, enabling the mechanisms of development and disease to be characterized in detail. At Penn, she is an Orientation Peer Advisor, a volunteer with Advancing Women in Engineering and the Penn Society of Women Engineers, and a teaching assistant for introductory computer science. She is secretary of the Penn Band, plays the clarinet, and is a member of the Band’s Fanfare Honor Society for service and leadership. Norford registers voters with Penn Leads the Vote and canvasses for state government candidates. She is also involved in Penn’s LGBTQ+ community as a member of PennAces. Norford plans to pursue a Ph.D. in computational biology, aspiring to build computational tools to address understudied diseases and health disparities.
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.
Coevolution is all around us. Think of the elongated blooms that perfectly accommodate a hummingbird’s slender mouth parts. But not all examples of species influencing one another’s evolutionary course accrue benefits to all parties. Tradeoffs are part of the game.
This summer, sophomores Linda Wu of Annandale, Virginia, and Nova Meng of Akron, Ohio, researched an coevolutionary scenario with benefits as well as costs for the species involved. Their work, supported by the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) and conducted in the lab of biology professor Corlett Wood, has examined the relationship among plants in the genus Medicago, beneficial bacteria that dwell in their roots, and parasitic nematodes that try to steal the plants’ nutrients.
The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships provides students in the PURM program awards of $4,500 during the 10-week summer research internship. Wu and Meng stayed busy through those weeks. Whether evaluating plants in a soybean field in Michigan or tending to hundreds—even thousands—of plants in the greenhouse at Penn, these aspiring researchers built a foundation for future scientific endeavors with hands-on practice.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Wu. “I’ve always been interested in genetics and evolution and have found parasitic relationships in particular really interesting. I like reading about weird parasites. This summer I’ve gotten to participate in lab meetings, read books about coevolution, and expand my knowledge about the topic.”
Mentored by Ph.D. student McCall Calvert, Wu spent the summer focused on the parasites in the Medicago model system the Wood lab uses. “I’m trying to see if those nematodes are specialists or generalists, if they’re locally adapted to their host plant or open to parasitizing on different species,” Wu says.
To do so, she’s grown pots and pots of plants in the Penn greenhouse, experimentally infecting Medicago plants as well as other species, such as carrot and daisy plants, with nematodes, to measure the degree to which the parasites flourish.
Meng’s project looked at the bacterial side of the coevolutionary relationship. Overseen by lab manager and technician Eunnuri Yi, Meng looked at four strains of bacteria, known as rhizobia. Two strains are nitrogen-fixing, giving their associated plants a crucial nutrient to promote growth, while the other two do not seem to contribute nitrogen to the plants, and instead exist as parasites in the plants’ roots. “I’m looking at what happens when we infect the plants with nematode parasites,” Meng says, “to see if the plants that are open to mutualistic rhizobia are more susceptible to the nematode parasites.”
Linda Wu is a sophomore pursuing an uncoordinated dual degree in business, energy, environment, and sustainability in the Wharton School and in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
Nova Meng is a sophomore majoring in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn.
Shreya Parchure, a recent graduate of Penn Bioengineering, was selected by a committee of faculty for a 2021 Rose Award from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF). The Rose Award recognizes outstanding undergraduate research projects completed by graduating seniors under the supervision of a Penn faculty member and carries with it a $1,000 award. Parchure’s project, titled “BDNF Gene Polymorphism Predicts Response to Continuous Theta Burst Stimulation (cTBS) in Chronic Stroke Patients,” was done under the supervision of Roy H. Hamilton, Associate Professor in Neurology and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and director of the Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation in the Perelman School of Medicine. Parchure’s work in Hamilton’s lab previously resulted in a 2020 Goldwater Scholarship.