2022 Career Award Recipient: Michael Mitchell

by Melissa Pappas

Michael Mitchell (Illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award is given to early-career faculty researchers who demonstrate the potential to be role models in their field and invest in the outreach and education of their work.

Mitchell’s award will fund research on techniques for “immunoengineering” macrophages. By providing new instructions to these cells via nanoparticles laden with mRNA and DNA sequences, the immune system could be trained to target and eliminate solid tumors. The award will also support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab over the next five years.

The project aligns with Mitchell’s larger research goals and the current explosion of interest in therapies that use mRNA, thanks to the technological breakthroughs that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The development of the COVID vaccine using mRNA has opened doors for other cell therapies,” says Mitchell. “The high-priority area of research that we are focusing on is oncological therapies, and there are multiple applications for mRNA engineering in the fight against cancer.”

A new wave of remarkably effective cancer treatments incorporates chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. There, a patient’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, are genetically engineered to identify, target and kill individual cancer cells that accumulate in the circulatory system.

However, despite CART-T therapy’s success in treating certain blood cancers, the approach is not effective against cancers that form solid tumors. Because T-cells are not able to penetrate tumors’ fibrous barriers, Mitchell and his colleagues have turned to another part of the immune system for help.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Training the Next Generation of Scientists on Soft Materials, Machine Learning and Science Policy

by Melissa Pappas

Developing new soft materials requires new data-driven research techniques, such as autonomous experimentation. Data regarding nanometer-scale material structure, taken by X-ray measurements at a synchrotron, can be fed into an algorithm that identifies the most relevant features, represented here as red dots. The algorithm then determines the optimum conditions for the next set of measurements and directs their execution without human intervention. Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Kevin Yager, who helped develop this technique, will co-teach a course on it as part of a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.

The National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship Program aims to support graduate students, educate the STEM leaders of tomorrow and strengthen the national research infrastructure. The program’s latest series of grants are going toward university programs focused on artificial intelligence and quantum information science and engineering – two areas of high priority in academia, industry and government.

Chinedum Osuji, Eduardo D. Glandt Presidential Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), has received one of these grants to apply data science and machine learning to the field of soft materials. The grant will provide five years of support and a total of $3 million for a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.

Osuji will work with co-PIs Russell Composto, Professor and Howell Family Faculty Fellow in Materials Science and Engineering, Bioengineering, and in CBE, Zahra Fakhraai, Associate Professor of Chemistry in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) with a secondary appointment in CBE, Paris Perdikaris, Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Andrea Liu, Hepburn Professor of Physics and Astronomy in SAS, all of whom will help run the program and provide the connections between the multiple fields of study where its students will train.

These and other affiliated faculty members will work closely with co-PI Kristin Field, who will serve as Program Coordinator and Director of Education.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Konrad Kording’s CENTER is Part of a New NIH Education Initiative on Scientific Rigor

by Melissa Pappas

Konrad Kording (Photo by Eric Sucar)

In 2005, John Ioannidis published a bombshell paper titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” In it, Ioannidis argued that a lack of scientific rigor in biomedical research — such as poor study design, small sample sizes and improper assessment of the significance of data— meant that a large percentage of experiments would not return the same results if they were conducted again.

Since then, researchers’ awareness of this “replication crisis” has grown, especially in fields that directly impact the health and wellbeing of people, where lapses in rigor can have life-or-death consequences. Despite this attention and motivation, however, little progress has been made in addressing the roots of the problem. Formal training in rigorous research practices remains rare; while mentors advise their students on how to properly construct and conduct experiments to produce the most reliable evidence, few educational resources exist to support them.

To address this discrepancy, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has launched the Initiative to Improve Education in the Principles of Rigorous Research.

Konrad Kording, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Computer and Information Science in Penn Engineering and the Department of Neuroscience in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, has been awarded one of the initiative’s first five grants.

“The replication crisis is real,” says Kording. “I’ve tried to replicate the research of others and failed. I’ve reanalyzed my own data and found major mistakes that needed to be corrected. I was never properly taught how to do rigorous science, and I want to improve that for the next generation.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

2022 CAREER Award Recipient: Lukasz Bugaj

by Melissa Pappas

Lukasz Bugaj (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Therapies that use engineered cells to treat diseases, infections and chronic illnesses are opening doors to solutions for longstanding medical challenges. Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research that may be key to opening some of those doors.

Such cellular therapies take advantage of the complex molecular mechanisms that cells naturally use to interact with one another, enabling them to be more precise and less toxic than traditional pharmaceutical drugs, which are based on simpler small molecules. Cellular therapies that use engineered immune system cells, for example, have recently been shown to be highly successful in treating certain cancers and protecting against viral infections.

However, there is still a need to further fine-tune the behavior of cells in these targeted therapies. Bugaj and colleagues are addressing that need by developing new ways to communicate with engineered cells once they are in the body, such as turning molecular events on and off at specific times.

The research team recently discovered that both temperature and light can act as triggers of a specific fungal protein, dynamically controlling its location within a mammalian cell. By using light or temperature to instruct that protein to migrate toward or away from the cell’s membrane, Bugaj and his colleagues showed how it could serve as a key component in controlling the behavior of human cells.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Alumni Spotlight: Penelope Georges

Penelope earned her Ph.D.  in Bioengineering in 2006. She is now Associate Director of STEM Initiatives at Princeton University.

Penelope Georges, Ph.D.

“My time at Penn spoiled me for many job experiences that followed.  The Institute for Medicine and Engineering (IME) was collaborative, familial, and stimulating. During my Ph.D. work, I felt simultaneously nurtured and challenged.  Most credit for this prolific phase of my career is due to the members of Dr. Paul Janmey’s laboratory during my tenure at Penn – starting with the big man himself.  My research mentor promoted a research experience that centered on respect for others, not only within our field of study but also outside the academy.   Respect meant the expectation of forming strong relationships and collaborations and having reverence for scientific experts and practitioners alike.  The foundation of the lab’s ethos was collaboration for the greater good. 

Dr. Janmey set the tone for lab members to hold each other in high regard and to be team players.   I would not have been as successful without this support.  Beyond the lab, the IME at the time had a remarkable staff assistant in Marvin Jackson who was central to promoting camaraderie across the Institute.  Marvin was a critical presence in the IME and I believe that many scientific collaborations were made possible due to the environment he cajoled.

Outside the IME, some the most meaningful moments of my Ph.D. studies came from traveling outside the U.S. to collaborate internationally.  I was fortunate to travel as close as Mechanicsville, PA and as far as the Czech Republic to attend meetings, perform experiments, and make connections with colleagues.   Through travel and meeting many different types of people, I learned the culture of being in academia and developed a broader view of scientific research. 

As of recently, my career has focused on pedagogy in higher education.  At Princeton, I serve within an entity that has a central mission of improving science and engineering literacy for all its constituents: the Council on Science and Technology.  I develop new science and engineering courses and introduce interactive research-based teaching methods into these courses. I am involved in policy issues on STEM education at Princeton and beyond.  The skills I learned at Penn that are critical to my current position are to recognize problems and design innovative solutions and the ability to communicate and collaborate with researchers across many disciplines.  I am very grateful to be an alumna of a remarkable program.”

Learn more about Georges’s work and research.

How a Diversity Program Enabled a Childhood Orthopaedics Patient’s Research Dreams

by Julie Wood

As a child, Sonal Mahindroo would go to her orthopaedics appointments with her family, slowly becoming more and more fascinated by the workings and conditions of the musculoskeletal system. While being treated for scoliosis, she would receive children’s books from her doctor that helped provide clear and simplified explanations of orthopaedic topics, which supported her interest.

Nearly a decade later, Mahindroo is still interested in expanding her orthopaedic knowledge, and a Penn Medicine program is helping fuel that expansion. Now a senior at St. Bonaventure University in New York, Mahindroo spends her time at the university’s lab. But in addition to that, this year, she was able to take part in more learning opportunities with Penn Medicine’s support, via the McKay Orthopaedic Research Lab’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee’s conference grant program.

McKay’s DEI committee — consisting of faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and staff — offers a welcoming environment and resources that support people of all identities, empowering them to bring forward unique perspectives to orthopaedic research.

“Our goal is to improve diversity and culture both within McKay and in the orthopaedic research community outside of Penn,” said Sarah Gullbrand, PhD, a research assistant professor at the McKay Lab. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for students to attend a conference and make connections to help them pursue their interest in orthopaedic research.”

The McKay conference grant supports undergraduate students who have been unable to get hands-on research experience. Participants are provided with the opportunity to network with leaders in the field of orthopaedic research, listen to cutting-edge research presentations, and learn about ways to get involved in orthopaedic research themselves.

“When launching the conference grant program earlier this year, I was motivated by my own experience attending a conference as an undergraduate. That experience really increased my interest in attending graduate school and taught me a lot about the breadth of research in orthopaedics,” said Hannah Zlotnick, a PhD student at the McKay Lab and member of the DEI committee. Through the McKay Conference Grants, the committee has supported two cohorts of students. “So far, we’ve been able to fund 11 undergraduate students from around the country to virtually attend orthopaedics conferences and receive early exposure to careers in STEM.”

Along with the conference grant, the McKay Lab holds workshops, book clubs, and other programs focused on DEI-related topics. As part of their efforts for promoting gender diversity in the field, the McKay Lab has previously partnered with the Perry Initiative to offer direct orthopaedic experiences for girls in high school, where they can learn how to suture, and perform mock fracture fixation surgeries on sawbones.

As a primarily male-populated field, orthopaedics could benefit greatly from diversity efforts. While women comprise approximately 50 percent of medical school graduates in the United States, they represent only 14 percent of orthopaedic surgery residents.

“The only women on staff at my orthopaedist’s office were receptionists. There were no female physicians or engineers to make my scoliosis brace,” Mahindroo said. “It was really cool coming to the McKay Lab and seeing how much the field has progressed since then.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.

N.B. Hannah Zlotnick is a PhD student in Bioengineering studying in the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery.

Alumnus Jackson Foster on ’20 in Their 20s’ List

Jackson Foster

Penn Bioengineering alumnus Jackson Foster (BSE 2014) was included in the Los Angeles Business Journal’s 2021 “20 in Their 20s” list, recognizing rising entrepreneurial stars of L.A.’s business community. Foster is the Founder and Chief Executive of the San Francisco-based Edily Learning, an education technology company which has created an app focused on education, learning goals, and personalized content using a TikTok-like algorithm.

After completing his bachelor’s degree, Foster earned his M.B.A in Business Administration and Management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Read “20 in Their 20s: Jackson Foster” in the Los Angeles Business Journal.

New Grant Aims to Broaden Participation in Cutting-Edge Materials Research

University of Puerto Rico’s Edgardo Sánchez (left) and Penn graduate Zhiwei Liao working in the lab of Daeyeon Lee. Via the Advancing Device Innovation through Inclusive Research and Education program, researchers from Penn and the University of Puerto Rico will continue their materials science collaboration while supporting STEM career pathways for underrepresented groups. (Image credit: Felice Macera).

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded grants to eight research teams to support partnerships that will increase diversity in cutting-edge materials research, education, and career development. One of those teams is Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), whose long-running collaboration has now received an additional six years of support.

With the goal of supporting partnerships between minority-serving educational institutions and leading materials science research centers, NSF’s Partnership for Research & Education in Materials (PREM) program funds innovative research programs and provides institutional support to increase recruitment, retention, and graduation by underrepresented groups as well as providing underserved communities access to materials research and education.

‘Research at the frontier’

With this PREM award, known as the Advancing Device Innovation through Inclusive Research and Education (ADIIR) program, researchers from Penn and UPR’s Humacao and Cayey campuses will conduct research on the properties of novel carbon-based materials with unique properties, and will study the effects of surface modification in new classes of sensors, detectors, and purification devices.

Thanks to this collaboration of more than 20 years, both institutions have made significant scientific and educational progress aided by biannual symposia and regular pre-pandemic travel between both institutions before the pandemic, resulting in a rich portfolio of publications, conference presentations, patents, students trained, and outreach programs.

“Together we have been publishing good papers that have impact, and we’ve really cultivated a culture of collaboration and friendship between our institutions,” says Penn’s Arjun Yodh, former director of the LRSM. “Our goal is to carry out research at the frontier and, in the process, nurture promising students from Puerto Rico and Penn.”

Ivan Dmochowski, a chemistry professor at Penn who has been involved with PREM for several years, says that this program has helped his group connect with experts in Puerto Rico whose skills complement his group’s interests in protein engineering. Dmochowski has also hosted UPR faculty members and students in his lab and also travelled to Puerto Rico before the pandemic to participate in research symposia, seminars, and outreach events.

“I’ve had students who have benefitted from being a co-author on a paper or having a chance to mentor students, and the faculty we’ve interacted with are exceptional,” Dmochowski says. “There’s a lot of benefit for both me and my students, and I’ve enjoyed our interactions both personally and scientifically.”

Penn’s Daeyeon Lee, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor who has been involved with PREM for several years, regularly hosts students and faculty from UPR while working on nanocarbon-based composite films for sensor applications. The success of this collaboration relies on unique materials made by researchers at UPR combined with a method for processing them into composite structures developed in Lee’s lab.

“What I really admire about people at PREM, both faculty and students, is their passion,” says Lee. “I think that’s had a really positive impact on my students and postdocs who got to interact with them because they got to see the passion that the students brought.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Daeyeon Lee is a professor and the Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Arjun Yodh is the James M. Skinner Professor of Science in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Bioengineering Graduate Students Take the Annual BETA Day Online

By GABE Outreach Chairs and Ph.D. students David Gonzalez-Martinez and David Mai

BETA Day Biomaterials workshop

Every spring, the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) at Penn partners up with iPraxis, an educational non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, to organize BETA Day, an event that brings together Bioengineering graduate students and local Philadelphia grade school students to introduce them to the field of bioengineering, the life of graduate students, and hands-on scientific demonstrations. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we adapted the traditional in-person BETA Day into a virtual event on Zoom. This year, we assembled kits containing the necessary materials for our chosen demonstrations and worked with iPraxis to coordinate their delivery to partner schools and their students. This enabled students to perform their demonstrations in a hands-on manner from their own homes; over 40 students were able to participate in extracting their own DNA and making biomaterials with safe household materials.

Michelle Johnson presents on her work in robotics

The day began with a fantastic lecture by Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, who introduced students to the field of rehabilitation robotics and shared her experience as a scientist. Students then learned about DNA and biomaterials through lectures mediated by the graduate students Dayo Adetu and Puneeth Guruprasad. After each lecture, students broke into breakout rooms with graduate student facilitators where they were able to get some hands-on scientific experience as they extracted DNA from their cheek cells and fabricated alginate hydrogels. Michael Sobrepera, a graduate student in Dr. Johnson’s lab, concluded the event by giving a lecture on the process of robotics development and discussed where the field is heading and some important considerations for the field.

Dayo Adetu, Bioengineering Master’s student and GABE President, teaches the students about Genetic Engineering

While yet another online event may seem unexciting, throughout the lectures students remained exceptionally engaged and raised fantastic questions ranging from the accessibility of low income communities to novel robotic therapeutic technologies to the bioethical questions robotic engineers will face as technologies advance. The impact of BETA day was evident as the high school students began to discuss the possible majors they would like to pursue for their bachelor’s degrees. Events like BETA Day give a glimpse into possible STEM fields and careers students can pursue.

“Educating the Next Generation of Civically Engaged Technologists”

Brit Shields, Ph.D.

Brit Shields, Senior Lecturer in Bioengineering, has brought her expertise in the history and sociology of science to her leading role in developing and improving the ethics curriculum for all students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Most recently, this includes adapting the core ethics engineering ethics course “Technological Innovation and Civil Discourse in a Dynamic World” (EAS 204) for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program. SNF Paideia courses, open to all Penn undergraduates, “integrate students’ personal, professional, and civic development […] focus[ing] on dialogue, wellness, service, and citizenship from different disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.” A recent SNF Paideia blog post goes into detail about the changes made by Shields and co-instructor Christopher Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer and Information Science, to suit the SNF Paideia Program, including its “explicit focus on civil discourse and technology.” According to Shields:

“I really wanted to break down the false dichotomy between technological expertise or humanities training for the students and open up the opportunity for Engineering students to consider themselves to have an important role, not just creating technological systems but also being important participants in civil discourse.”

Michelle Johnson, Ph.D.

The course also includes guest lectures by Penn faculty, including Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and students learn to analyze how guest lecturers communicate their research to the public, for example, in the case of Johnson, in the form of a TED Talk and scholarly articles: “Through her TedTalk, journal articles and visit to the class, Michelle Johnson demonstrates how researchers are attuned to the specific preferences of the rehabilitative robots they are creating for patients…engaged scholarship at its finest.”

Read “Educating the Next Generation of Civically Engaged Technologists” in SNF Paideia Perspectives.