Given the closing of schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic, professors teaching lab-based courses were forced to make some changes. One such course, the Department of Bioengineering’s Medical Device Development (BE 472) taught by Matthew R. Maltese, Ph.D., usually requires students to develop a medical device and learn how to lead a startup venture for it. Over the semester, students design prototypes for unmet needs in the medical device community, and then go on to learn about business-related aspects of the project, like fundraising, regulations, teamwork, and leadership. Maltese often encourages junior engineering students to take the course, in the hopes that their projects might become launchpads for their senior design projects the following year.
But with the pandemic’s interruptions to education restricting access to the lab, or even to some of the schematics for their earlier designs, Maltese’s Spring 2020 students had to re-focus on the business side of their projects.
Fortunately, the shift to online learning came late enough in the semester that most students had already come up with solid project ideas. Maltese then shifted gears to the less hands-on parts of the course. “There’s lots of elements to this course that are not focused on putting hands on hardware,” he says. “They’re focused on distilling and disseminating information about your endeavor to people that are interested.”
While some of those more hands-off assignments originally had some face-to-face aspects, like the final pitch competition, they’re also easy to transition to an online format. Maltese had students record videos of their pitches, which he notes is perhaps more akin to what they might have to do for external pitch competitions. And even though students couldn’t make their physical prototypes, Maltese says that they were all able to make virtual prototypes through CAD or other modeling software.
In his opinion, this renewed focus on out-of-lab prototype models might be a good thing for real-world experience. Investors and stakeholders often want the full picture of a device or startup before they even have to start working with physical material, for the sake of cost efficiency.
Students had already been working on their projects for a couple of months before the pandemic started to affect classes, so most of them stuck to their original ideas instead of adapting them to meet the needs of the current medical crisis. “Next year, I think we’re going to focus the class on COVID-19 ideas though,” says Maltese.
In fact, Medical Device Development will likely be one of many Penn Bioengineering courses that adapts its curriculum to the challenges the pandemic presented. “As a medical device community, a pharmaceutical community, a healthcare community, we were not ready for this,” Maltese notes, “but history teaches us that some of our greatest innovations emerge from our greatest trials.” He is excited for the future.
Hammer will offer a course on COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic during Penn’s Summer II session, which will be held online this year. The course will be co-taught with Miriam Wattenbarger, senior lecturer in CBE.
The course, “Biotechnology, Immunology, and COVID-19,” will culminate with a case study of the coronavirus pandemic including the types of drugs proposed and their mechanism of action, as well as the process of vaccine development.
“Obviously, the pandemic has been a life-altering event, causing an immense dislocation for everyone in our community, especially the students. Between me and Miriam, who has been trumpeting the importance of vaccines for some time in her graduate-level CBE courses, we have the expertise to inform students about this disease and how we might combat it,” says Hammer.
For more than ten years, Wattenbarger has run courses and labs focused on drug delivery and biotechnology, key elements of the vaccine development process.
“I invite both researchers and industry speakers to meet with my students,” Wattenbarger says, “so that they learn the crucial role engineers play in both vaccine development and manufacturing.”
Beyond studying the interactions between the immune system and viruses — including HIV, influenza, adenovirus and coronavirus — students will cover a variety of biotechnological techniques relevant to tracking and defending against them, including recombinant DNA technology, polymerase chain reaction, DNA sequencing, gene therapy, CRISPR-Cas9 editing, drug discovery, small molecule inhibitors, vaccines and the clinical trial process.
Students will also learn the mathematical principles used to quantify biomolecular interactions, as well as those found behind simple epidemiological models and methods for making and purifying drugs and vaccines.
“We all have to contribute in the ways that we can. Having taught biotechnology to freshmen for the past decade, this is something that I can do that can both inform and build community,” says Hammer. “Never has it been more important to have an informed and scientifically literate community that can fight this or any future pandemic.”
In response to the unprecedented challenges presented by the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, Penn Bioengineering’s faculty, students, and staff are finding innovative ways of pivoting their research and academic projects to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Though these projects are all works in progress, I think it is vitally important to keep those in our broader communities informed of the critical contributions our people are making. Whether adapting current research to focus on COVID-19, investing time, technology, and equipment to help health care infrastructure, or creating new outreach and educational programs for students, I am incredibly proud of the way Penn Bioengineering is making a difference. I invite you to read more about our ongoing projects below.
Novel Chest X-Ray Contrast
David Cormode, Associate Professor of Radiology and Bioengineering
The Cormode and Noel labs are working to develop dark-field X-ray imaging, which may prove very helpful for COVID patients. It involves fabricating diffusers that incorporate gold nanoparticles to modify the X-ray beam. This method gives excellent images of lung structure. Chest X-ray is being used on the front lines for COVID patients, and this could potentially be an easy to implement modification of existing X-ray systems. The additional data give insight into the health state of the microstructures (alveoli) in the lung. This new contrast mechanics could be an early insight into the disease status of COVID-19 patients. For more on this research, see Cormode and Noel’s chapter in the forthcoming volume Spectral, Photon Counting Computed Tomography: Technology and Applications, edited by Katsuyuki Taguchi, Ira Blevis, and Krzysztof Iniewski (Routledge 2020).
Computational Models for Targeting Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). The severe forms of COVID-19 infections resulting in death proceeds by the propagation of the acute respiratory distress syndrome or ARDS. In ARDS, the lungs fill up with fluid preventing oxygenation and effective delivery of therapeutics through the inhalation route. To overcome this major limitation, delivery of antiinflammatory drugs through the vasculature (IV injection) is a better approach; however, the high injected dose required can lead to toxicity. A group of undergraduate and postdoctoral researchers in the Radhakrishnan Lab (Emma Glass, Christina Eng, Samaneh Farokhirad, and Sreeja Kandy) are developing a computational model that can design drug-filled nanoparticles and target them to the inflamed lung regions. The model combines different length-scales, (namely, pharmacodynamic factors at the organ scale, hydrodynamic and transport factors in the tissue scale, and nanoparticle-cell interaction at the subcellular scale), into one integrated framework. This targeted approach can significantly decrease the required dose for combating ARDS. This project is done in collaboration with Clinical Scientist Dr. Jacob Brenner, who is an attending ER Physician in Penn Medicine. This research is adapted from prior findings published in Volume 13, Issue 4 of Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine: “Mechanisms that determine nanocarrier targeting to healthy versus inflamed lung regions” (May 2017).
Sydney Shaffer, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Arjun Raj, David Issadore, and Sydney Shaffer are working on developing an integrated, rapid point-of-care diagnostic for SARS-CoV-2 using single molecule RNA FISH. The platform currently in development uses sequence specific fluorescent probes that bind to the viral RNA when it is present. The fluorescent probes are detected using a iPhone compatible point-of-care reader device that determines whether the specimen is infected or uninfected. As the entire assay takes less than 10 minutes and can be performed with minimal equipment, we envision that this platform could ultimately be used for screening for active COVID19 at doctors’ offices and testing sites. Support for this project will come from a recently-announced IRM Collaborative Research Grant from the Institute of Regenerative Medicine with matching funding provided by the Departments of Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) (PI’s: Sydney Shaffer, Sara Cherry, Ophir Shalem, Arjun Raj). This research is adapted from findings published in the journal Lab on a Chip: “Multiplexed detection of viral infections using rapid in situ RNA analysis on a chip” (Issue 15, 2015). See also United States Provisional Patent Application Serial No. 14/900,494 (2014): “Methods for rapid ribonucleic acid fluorescence in situ hybridization” (Inventors: Raj A., Shaffer S.M., Issadore D.).
HEALTH CARE INFRASTRUCTURE
Penn Health-Tech Coronavirus COVID-19 Collaborations
Brian Litt, Professor of Bioengineering, Neurology, and Neurosurgery
In his role as one of the faculty directors for Penn Health-Tech, Professor Brian Litt is working closely with me to facilitate all the rapid response team initiatives, and in helping to garner support the center and remove obstacles. These projects include ramping up ventilator capacity and fabrication of ventilator parts, the creation of point-of-care ultrasounds and diagnostic testing, evaluating processes of PPE decontamination, and more. Visit the Penn Health-Tech coronavirus website to learn more, get involved with an existing team, or submit a new idea.
Dr. Maltese is rapidly developing a low-cost ventilator that could be deployed in Penn Medicine for the expected surge, and any surge in subsequent waves. This design is currently under consideration by the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). This example is one of several designs considered by Penn Medicine in dealing with the patient surge.
David F. Meaney, Solomon R. Pollack Professor of Bioengineering and Senior Associate Dean
Led by David Meaney, Kevin Turner, Peter Bruno and Mark Yim, the face shield team at Penn Health-Tech is working on developing thousands of rapidly producible shields to protect and prolong the usage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Learn more about Penn Health-Tech’s initiatives and apply to get involved here.
Update 4/29/20: The Penn Engineering community has sprung into action over the course of the past few weeks in response to COVID-19. Dr. Meaney shared his perspective on those efforts and the ones that will come online as the pandemic continues to unfold. Read the full post on the Penn Engineering blog.
OUTREACH & EDUCATION
Student Community Building
Yale Cohen, Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, Department of Psychology, BE Graduate Group Member, and BE Graduate Chair
Yale Cohen, and Penn Bioengineering’s Graduate Chair, is working with Penn faculty and peer institutions across the country to identify intellectually engaging and/or community-building activities for Bioengineering students. While those ideas are in progress, he has also worked with BE Department Chair Ravi Radhakrishnan and Undergraduate Chair Andrew Tsourkas to set up a dedicated Penn Bioengineering slack channel open to all Penn Bioengineering Undergrads, Master’s and Doctoral Students, and Postdocs as well as faculty and staff. It has already become an enjoyable place for the Penn BE community to connect and share ideas, articles, and funny memes.
Undergraduate Course: Biotechnology, Immunology, Vaccines and COVID-19 (ENGR 35)
Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
This Summer Session II, Professor Dan Hammer and CBE Senior Lecturer Miriam R. Wattenbarger will teach a brand-new course introducing Penn undergraduates to a basic understanding of biological systems, immunology, viruses, and vaccines. This course will start with the fundamentals of biotechnology, and no prior knowledge of biotechnology is necessary. Some chemistry is needed to understand how biological systems work. The course will cover basic concepts in biotechnology, including DNA, RNA, the Central Dogma, proteins, recombinant DNA technology, polymerase chain reaction, DNA sequencing, the functioning of the immune system, acquired vs. innate immunity, viruses (including HIV, influenza, adenovirus, and coronavirus), gene therapy, CRISPR-Cas9 editing, drug discovery, types of pharmaceuticals (including small molecule inhibitors and monoclonal antibodies), vaccines, clinical trials. Some quantitative principles will be used to quantifying the strength of binding, calculate the dynamics of enzymes, writing and solving simple epidemiological models, methods for making and purifying drugs and vaccines. The course will end with specific case study of coronavirus pandemic, types of drugs proposed and their mechanism of action, and vaccine development.
Update 4/29/20: Read the Penn Engineering blog post on this course published April 27, 2020.
Konrad Kording, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science
Dr. Kording facilitated Neuromatch 2020, a large virtual neurosciences conferences consisting of over 3,000 registrants. All of the conference talk videos are archived on the conference website and Dr. Kording has blogged about what he learned in the course of running a large conference entirely online. Based on the success of Neuromatch 1.0, the team are now working on planning Neuromatch 2.0, which will take place in May 2020. Dr. Kording is also working on facilitating the transition of neuroscience communication into the online space, including a weekly social (#neurodrinking) with both US and EU versions.
Konrad Kording, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science
Dr. Kording is working to launch the Neuromatch Academy, an open, online, 3-week intensive tutorial-based computational neuroscience training event (July 13-31, 2020). Participants from undergraduate to professors as well as industry are welcome. The Neuromatch Academy will introduce traditional and emerging computational neuroscience tools, their complementarity, and what they can tell us about the brain. A main focus is not just on using the techniques, but on understanding how they relate to biological questions. The school will be Python-based making use of Google Colab. The Academy will also include professional development / meta-science, model interpretation, and networking sessions. The goal is to give participants the computational background needed to do research in neuroscience. Interested participants can learn more and apply here.
Journal of Biomedical Engineering Call for Review Articles
Beth Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education and Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering
The American Society of Medical Engineers’ (ASME) Journal of Biomechanical Engineering (JBME), of which Dr. Winkelstein is an Editor, has put out a call for review articles by trainees for a special issue of the journal. The call was made in March 2020 when many labs were ramping down, and trainees began refocusing on review articles and remote work. This call continues the JBME’s long history of supporting junior faculty and trainees and promoting their intellectual contributions during challenging times.
Update 4/29/20: CFP for the special 2021 issue here.
Are you a Penn Bioengineering community member involved in a coronavirus-related project? Let us know! Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Office of the Provost awards the Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students in recognition of their profound impact on education across the University. Nominations come directly from undergraduate and graduate students in their courses and are narrowed down to ten awardees each year.
Muir has served as a teaching assistant for coursework in Biomaterials with Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation Michael Mitchell and Tissue Engineering with Robert D. Bent Professor Jason Burdick. She is conducting her thesis on granular hydrogels for musculoskeletal tissue repair under Burdick’s advisement. Muir has also received both NSF and Tau Beta Pi Fellowships for her graduate studies.
Like many other fields, biomedical research is experiencing a data explosion. Some estimates suggest that the amount of data generated from the health sciences is now doubling every eighteen months, and experts expect it to double every seventy-three days by 2020. One challenge that researchers face is how to meaningfully analyze this data tsunami.
The challenge of interpreting data occurs at all scales, and a recent collaboration shows how new approaches can allow us to handle the volumes of data emerging at the level of individual cells to infer more about how biology “works” at this level. Wharton Statistics Department researchers Mo Huang and Jingshu Wang (PhD Student and Postdoctoral Researcher, respectively) collaborated with Arjun Raj’s lab in Bioengineering and published their findings in recent issues of Nature Methods and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. One study focused on a de-noising technique called SAVER to provide more precise data from single cell experiments and significantly improves the ability to detect trends in a dataset, similar to how increasing sample size helps improve the ability to determine differences between experimental groups. The second method, termed DESCEND, creates more accurate characterization of gene expression that occur in individual cells. Together these two methods will improve data collection for biologists and medical professionals working to diagnose, monitor, and treat diseased cells.
Dr. Raj’s team contributed data to the cause and acted as consultants on the biological aspects of this research. Further collaboration involved Mingyao Li, PhD, Professor of Biostatistics at the Perelman School of Medicine, and Nancy Zhang, PD, Professor Statistics at the Wharton School. “We are so happy to have had the chance to work with Nancy and Mingyao on analyzing single cell data,” said Dr. Raj. “The things they were able to do with our data are pretty amazing and important for the field.”
Advancements in Biomaterials
This blog features many new biomaterials techniques and substances, and there are several exciting new developments to report this week. First, the journal of Nature Biomedical Engineering published a study announcing a new therapy to treat or even eliminate lung infections, such as those acquired while in hospital or as the result of cystic fibrosis, which are highly common and dangerous. Researchers identified and designed viruses to target and kill the bacteria which causes these infections, but the difficulty of administering them to patients has proven prohibitive. This new therapy, developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is administered as a dry powder directly to the lungs and bypasses many of the delivery problems appearing in past treatments. Further research on the safety of this method is required before clinical trials can begin.
A team at Harvard University published another recent study in Nature Biomedical Engineering announcing their creation of a tissue-engineered scale model of the left human heart ventricle. This model is made from degradable fibers that simulate the natural fibers of heart tissue. Lead investigator Professor Kevin Kit Parker, PhD, and his team eventually hope to build specific models culled from patient stem cells to replicate the features of that patient’s heart, complete with the patient’s unique DNA and any heart defects or diseases. This replica would allow researchers and clinicians to study and test various treatments before applying them to a specific patient.
Lastly, researchers at the Tufts University School of Engineering published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on their creation of flexible magnetic composites that respond to light. This material is capable of macroscale motion and is extremely flexible, allowing its adaptation into a variety of substances such as sponges, film, and hydrogels. Author and graduate student Meg Li explained that this material differs from similar substances in its complexity; for example, in the ability for engineers to dictate specific movements, such as toward or away from the light source. Co-author Fiorenzo Omenetto, PhD, suggests that with further research, these movements could be controlled at even more specific and detailed levels.
CFPS: Getting Closer to “On Demand” Medicine
A recent and growing trend in medicine is the move towards personalized or “on demand” medicine, allowing for treatment customized to specific patients’ needs and situations. One leading method is Cell-Free Protein Synthesis (CFPS), a way of engineering cellular biology without using actual cells. CFPS is used to make substances such as medicine, vaccines, and chemicals in a sustainable and portable way. One instance if the rapid manufacture of insulin to treat diabetic patients. Given that many clinics most in need of such substances are found in remote and under-served locations far away from well-equipped hospitals and urban infrastructure, the ability to safely and quickly create and transport these vital substances to patients is vitally important.
The biggest limiting factor to CFPS is difficulty of replicating Glycosylation, a complex modification that most proteins undergo. Glycosylation is important for proteins to exert their biological function, and is very difficult to synthetically duplicate. Previously, achieving successful Glycosylation was a key barrier in CFPS. Fortunately, Matthew DeLisa, PhD, the Williams L. Lewis Professor of Engineering at Cornell University and Michael Jewett, PD, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern University, have created a “single-pot” glycoprotein biosynthesis that allows them to make these critical molecules very quickly. The full study was recently published in NatureCommunications. With this new method, medicine is one step closer to being fully “on demand.”
People and Places
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) interviewed our own Penn faculty member Danielle Bassett, PhD, the Edwardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in Bioengineering, for their website. Dr. Bassett, who shares a joint appointment with Electrical Systems Engineering (ESE) at Penn, has published groundbreaking research in Network Neuroscience, Complex Systems, and more. In the video interview (below), Dr. Bassett discusses current research trends in neuroscience and their applications in medicine.
Finally, a new partnership between Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic seeks to promote education and research in biomedical engineering in the Cleveland area. Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute‘s Chair of Biomedical Engineering, Geoff Vince, PhD, sees this as an opportunity to capitalize on the renown of both institutions, building on the region’s already stellar reputation in the field of BME. Dozens of researchers from both institutions will have the opportunity to collaborate in a variety of disciplines and projects. In addition to professional academics and medical doctors, the leaders of this new partnership hope to create an atmosphere that can benefit all levels of education, all the way down to high school students.
A paper published this month in Scientific Reports announced a new a strategy for the treatment of segmental bone defects. The new technique, called Segmental Additive Tissue Engineering (or SATE) comes from a team of researchers with the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute (NYSCF). A press release from the NYSCF and an accompanying short video (below) describe the breakthrough technique, which will “[allow] researchers to combine segments of bone engineered from stem cells to create large scale, personalized grafts that will enhance treatment for those suffering from bone disease or injury through regenerative medicine.”
Ralph Lauren Senior Investigator Guiseppe Maria de Peppo, PhD, and first author Martina Sladkova, PhD, express their hope that this new procedure will help address some of the limitations of bone grafts, such as immune system rejection, the need for growing bones in pediatric patients, and the difficulty of creating larger bone grafts made from patient stem cells.
Elsewhere in stem cell research, the Spanish Agency for Medicines and Medical Devices has given the company Viscofan BioEngineering approval to start clinical trials for stem cell therapy to treat heart failure. Already a world leader in the market for medical collagen, Viscofan is now turning its research toward using collagen (a protein found in the connective tissue of mammals) to strengthen the weakened heart muscle of those with ischemic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart failure and the leading cause of death in the world. This new “Cardiomesh” project includes collaborators from industry, academia, and hospitals to create this elastic and biodegradable product. Viscofan expects to start clinical trials after the summer of this year, and the full details can be found in Viscofan’s press release.
Federal Grant Supports International Bioengineering Research
The Canadian government awarded a $1.65 million federal grant to two top Canadian universities to develop a center based on engineering RNA. The University of Lethbridge and the Université de Sherbrooke will team up with international collaborators from the United States, Germany, France, Australia, and more and to found and develop the Ribonucleic Acid Bioengineering and Innovation Network Collaborative Research and Training Experience over the next six years. This comes as part of the Canadian government’s CREATE initiative, which awards grants to research teams across the country to support research, innovation, and jobs-creation in the sciences. These two universities are national leaders in the field of RNA research, a diverse and interdisciplinary field. This new network will focus on training of both young academics transitioning to industry and entrepreneurs looking to develop new technologies. This project is led by Hans-Joachim Wieden, PhD, Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty at the University of Lethbridge and an Alberta Innovates Strategic Chair in RNA Bioengineering.
Lehigh University Awarded Grant in Ebola Research
Close to Philadelphia in Allentown, PA, researchers at Lehigh University received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support their research into one of the deadliest of modern diseases, the Ebola virus, which is highly infectious and currently without vaccine or cure. Entitled “TIM Protein-Mediated Ebola Virus-Host Cell Adhesion: Experiments and Models,” the goal of this research is to create a “predictive and quantitative model of the Ebola Virus (EBOV)-host cell interactions at the molecular through single-virus levels.” Building on past research, the investigators ultimately hope to provide the first quantitative study of this type of cell interaction. By studying how EBOV enters the body through healthy cells, the aim is to understand how it works and ultimately develop a technique to stop its entry. The lead investigator, Anand Jagota, PhD, is the current Professor and Founding Chair of Lehigh University’s Bioengineering program.
New Research in Brain Tumor Removal
The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) awarded a grant to Fake (Frank) Lu, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton in support of his research to design more accurate techniques for the removal of brain tumors. His technique, called Stimulated Raman Scattering or SRS, is a mode of identifying molecules during surgery which can be used to create a highly detailed and accurate image. Dr. Lu’s SRS techniques will improve both the speed of the surgery and the accuracy of the tissue removal. With this grant support, Dr. Lu’s team will collaborate with local universities and hospitals on collecting more data as their next step before making the technology more widely available.
People and Places
Undergraduate students at our neighbor Drexel University received the Robert Noyce Scholarship, an NSF program that supports students seeking their teacher certification in science and math at the middle school level. The co-investigators and undergraduates are from a variety of disciplines and programs across the university, including co-investigator Donald L. McEachron, PhD, Teaching Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. The students’ curriculum in the DragonsTeach Middle Years program will combine rigorous preparation for teaching STEM subjects and the foundational knowledge to work with under-served schools.
Another group of students, this time from California State University, Long Beach, used their victory in the university’s annual Innovation Challenge as an opportunity to launch a startup called Artemus Labs. Their first product, “Python,” uses body heat other physical sensations to regulate a prosthetic liner, useful in making sure prosthetic limbs are comfortable for the wearer. The students explained that their idea was driven by need, as few prosthetic manufacturers prioritize such factors as temperature or sweat regulation in the creation of their products.
Finally, the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering has a new Chair of Biomedical Engineering: Professor K. Kirk Shung, PhD. Dr. Shung obtained his doctorate from the University of Washington and joined USC in 2002. With a background in electrical engineering, Dr. Shung’s research focuses on high frequency ultrasonic imaging and transducer development, and has been supported by a NIH grant as well as won multiple awards from the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), among others.
In the aftermath of the presidential election, quite a few experts cited the lack of economic opportunity for many as a primary factor that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency. These changes in economic opportunity did not occur months prior to the election, but they resulted from years of continual changes in the US economy.
For example, manufacturing represented more than 50% of the economic output and jobs after World War II; it now represents only 10% of the economy. Professional services — in finance, health, insurance, education, and similar industries — represented less than 5% of the economy in 1950, while it now captures almost 40% of the economy. Our country went from makers to providers. Many other workplace traditions have also changed; e.g., one often doesn’t work for the same employer for decades, nor do workers have confidence that they will remain in the career they start in their 20s. A physician could become a business owner and then (if we are lucky) a teacher. These changes are causing many of us to ask: What should we be teaching our students for this future?
First, let’s understand how economies can change. One theory in economics puts these job sector shifts as part of Kondriateff waves, which pass through the US economy in (roughly) 50- to 80-year cycles. These “K-waves” reach back to late 18th century and continue to the current day. The economist Joseph Schumpeter reasoned that these waves were triggered by technological revolutions; e.g., the invention of the steam engine and new steel production processes led to a K-wave from 1850 to 1900 that included the development of the railroad system, the settling of the American West, and the emergence of the American economy as a global force. Similarly, the widespread availability of consumer computer power and the invention of the Internet in the late 20th century created a K-wave that began in 1990 and is cresting now with the emergence of alternative media (e.g., cutting the digital cord with online media access), the Internet of Things, and the Big Data wave.
Where Engineers Fit In
As engineers, we are naturally attracted to the idea that technology starts the wave that affects everything else. But this belief raises a question: If technology triggers waves, then how can we predict where the next wave will start? And a second question follows: How do we organize and educate ourselves so that we make the most of these technologies so society can ride this wave effectively, rather than absorb the displacements these waves create? Well, we all know it is hard to predict the future. However, a recent report from the Brookings Institute helps us pinpoint areas of the economy that are most powerful in creating downstream economic output, whether it is additional jobs, more exports, or the forming of completely new industries. Given their potency, it is likely that new economic opportunities will emerge more frequently from this sector than any other.
Rather than using the traditional categorization scheme that breaks up the economy into bins associated with worker output (e.g., we manufacture, provide financial services, trade energy goods, supply food), the Brookings report asked a slightly different question: Which parts of the economy provide the downstream spark for the rest of us? If we understood the origin of this spark, we would be much more informed about how to make strategic investments that will have broad economic trickle-down effects on the national economy. The answer? The most potent part of our economy consists of the industries that invest heavily in research and development and contain a high percentage of employees with STEM degrees. The Brookings report termed these advanced industries. And this part of the economy is indeed potent. It generates 2.7 additional downstream jobs for every job in this sector, far outpacing the highly publicized downstream impact of the manufacturing sector (1.7 downstream jobs per manufacturing job). Advanced industries contain 8% of the workforce but generate 19% of the national GDP, and advanced industries span everything from communications, defense, and security to health, medicine, and the environment.
Creating Economic Opportunity Waves
Knowing that this is the proverbial spark certainly places a premium on educating scientists and engineers and placing them in these advanced industries. Some of them could become the next Elon Musk, a Penn alum (SAS ’97) whose vision will eventually electrify the entire fleet of motor vehicles in the US. Others could follow in the footsteps of Carl June, MD, a Penn faculty member who invented a radically new form of cancer immunotherapy that may be the biggest change in cancer treatment in several decades. But what can colleges and universities teach students today to make them thrive in the epicenters of these advanced industries? How can we teach so that our students are ahead of the curve and, in some cases, creating these curves?
We are constantly discussing the content of undergraduate and graduate education here at Penn. In these conversations, it is often easy to fall into the trap of saying “Well, I can’t imagine a degree in X not having a course in Y” or “If I had to learn X, then my students should learn X too.” I think we should step away from specific courses and distribution sequences for a moment and think about the core principles in an engineering education that will allow our graduates to successfully navigate any economic wave that falls across all of us. In the most successful form, we would educate people that successfully create waves to benefit everyone. I suggest focusing on three core principles in an undergraduate’s engineering education toward achieving this goal.
Introduce the uncertainty of researchto counterbalance the certainty of formal didactic instruction. For engineering, teaching the fundamentals makes the world a safer place, whether we are teaching safety factors, repeatability, or design standards. But the advanced industries are at the bleeding edge of uncovering knowledge not in textbooks. And this new knowledge eventually creates something useful and interesting. Yet there is always a major transition for students when they realize that technological advances never come from a script in a textbook. Many will ask, “How can I learn anything that isn’t known?” Historically, we would use undergraduate education to teach what is known, and graduate education to answer the unknown. But if creating new ideas in advanced industries requires one to determine some of the unknowns, we shouldn’t restrict research experiences to just graduate education anymore.
Research forces one to learn the inexact science of breaking down a complex problem into more manageable parts, finding out which of these parts is most critical in solving the problem, and the finding a solution. Research uses failure as a mechanism to learn, and teaches persistence and patience. These are good things to learn if you want to be in industries that are searching for the Next Big Idea. In many ways, research experiences resemble learning a foreign language — the first language (research experience) is a real bear, but they get easier as you learn more of them (additional experiences). Jumping across different fields would parallel the learning of more than one foreign language and would be a good primer for a career in the advanced industries. If more of us became comfortable with uncertainty and failure, we would accelerate the creation and filtering of new ideas and products, in turn creating more opportunities for everyone in the economy.
Teach invention, as it will continue to drive economic development. Over a decade ago, the American university system was recognized for its almost unique ability to educate students who would thrive as innovators over their careers. American higher education was sought after by students around the world, and world universities started to tweak their own models of education, inspired by the US success story. Much of what was written about the ‘secret sauce’ for American higher education was the magical ingredient of innovation that existed on college campuses in the US. However, we are overlooking the one critical ingredient upstream of innovation that makes the innovation engine go: inventing new ideas. So much activity surrounding innovation involves how to package ideas for marketplace needs or how to use marketplace needs to filter through existing technologies to create new products.Our science and engineering infrastructure is driven by inventing technologies and algorithms that appear years to decades later in innovative products. And we are sorely overlooking how to best educate to invent, e.g., the classroom environment that forms the best ideas, or the best methods to teach the abstraction of several seemingly unrelated problems into a common group of invention challenges that will serve hundreds of innovations. Just as philosophy class in college can shape people’s views of morality for the rest of their lives, the practical experience of conceiving and executing a new idea for a market can leave a lifelong impression on a college student for seeing and creating opportunity in the world. Many students graduate nowadays with a much better idea about how to take ideas and commercialize them into products. Adding the teaching of invention will replenish the ideas that feed the future of these innovation pipelines.
Include the economists, artists, and philosophers. Jason Silva has a wonderful quote about engineering: “The scientist and engineers who are building the future need the poets to make sense of it.” I couldn’t agree more. Artists and philosophers have an interesting reflection role in society, whether it is to challenge one’s perception of the ordinary or to make the ordinary unusual (artist) or to provide a more holistic view of a human’s purpose (philosopher). Likewise, economists can explain how technology can drive development locally and globally and the subsequent changes expected in the workforce. In other words, they all provide different optics on the same idea.
Engineering may enjoy a sterling reputation as creating a world that others do not see, but we are sometimes too enamored with this vision to ask a very simple question: If we can do it, should we do it? Technologists can cite several inventions in the past as drivers of economic change that pushed society forward (see K-waves, above) and never backward. The mechanization of the agriculture industry coincided with the emergence of manufacturing and heavy industries in the US and elsewhere in the 19th century, and this advanced the world. People moved from working on farms to working in factories, and the urbanization movement swept across the country. In a similar manner, artificial intelligence could cause a similar shift in the services sector today and create a supply of highly educated people to tackle the world’s next big problem. For this reason, they can help engineers understand the impact of their ideas even before they are implemented.
Creating new technologies without a thoughtful mulling about how they could really change the world seems irresponsible to me, given how some of these technologies could completely change large parts of the economic landscape quickly. And it could lead to other societal crises — e.g., do we really want to interrupt nature’s evolutionary clock without considering the impact of editing our own genome? Similar questions exist when we start to understand how our minds work and the principles by which we can (and should) study and influence the human traits of identity, reasoning, and self. One of our faculty recently wrote about the ethical constructs by which we should view these advances in understanding how we think, and how they can influence the science of mind control. Broadly speaking, initiating these conversations in advance will help engineers realize that these technologies should not be created in a vacuum, and they must be developed in parallel with conversations about the impact of their use.
A Mirror, Not a Trigger
All of this brings us back to the beginning. The election wasn’t the trigger but the mirror, and we must answer the call to think about engineering education to create future economic opportunity instead of passively watching it happen. We now know that advanced industries are the most powerful part of our economy for generating downstream economic output. We are fortunate that engineers are a central part of these industries. And we now know the dramatic changes in the demographics of opportunity among the electorate that occurred in the past two decades. By re-emphasizing core principles to impress upon our engineering students, we can be part of a future that focuses more on opportunities for the society rather than the individual. And we can use this new mindset to tackle some of the most pressing problems we see in front of us (e.g., affordable health care, energy, climate change) and those problems that we don’t see yet.
When ABC premiered The Six Million Dollar Man more than 40 years ago, the idea of replacing or augmenting human limbs with fully functional biomechanical/biomechatronic versions probably seemed a distant possibility. In fact, the concept had already been in development for decades, but research in this area is only now coming to fruition. Three years ago, researchers in Chicago reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that they had fitted a 31-year-old amputee with a robotic leg that the patient could control with electromyographic, or EMG, signals from salvaged nerves.
Reflecting these developments, undergraduate students in the Department of Bioengineering (BE) have spent the last few weeks developing their own prosthetic devices, although both the mechanics and the “patient” are a bit cruder. Over the course of five lab sessions, these students are creating an “HCMI” — a human-cockroach machine interface that can translate an individual’s own nerve signals into ones that can control a cockroach leg.
The students performing these experiments are enrolled the first of two lab courses that BE students take as juniors. In the George H. Stephenson Foundation Undergraduate Bioengineering Laboratory, the students spend the first few sessions familiarizing themselves with cockroach anatomy. Each group then attaches an individual cockroach leg to a mechanical motor interface, creating a biomechatronic prosthesis, i.e., one that combines electronic, mechanical, and biological systems.
This part of the experiment was considered successful when the students were able to write the letters “BE” with the cockroach leg, using signals generated by computer. This is a more difficult task than it might seem, both because each cockroach leg responds at slightly different frequency-voltage ranges.
Why a cockroach leg?
“They’re easily attainable and easy to deal with,” says Sevile Mannickarottu, who is director of the Stephenson lab. “They’re also relatively large, which makes accessing their legs easy.”
The cockroach’s nervous system is also much simpler than those of birds or mammals, thus simplifying the process of creating the HCMI.
Once the students can write with the biomechantronic device, the final step of the experiment begins. Using human input, students are required to combine two devices to move the prosthetic. One of the devices is an EMG electrode; the other device is up to the student, and it can be a microphone, a motion sensor, or a range of other devices. Working directly with EMG signals is a challenge according to Mannickarottu, who described it as “incredibly noisy and difficult to interpret into meaningful data.”
After choosing their human input device, students send the signals from the device to a computer, which then converts the signal into an EMG signal, which is sent back out to the prosthetic leg. The students tried several different approaches to get the leg to move, including a musical keyboard, a force sensor, and a flex sensor. One group chose to use a Myo armband, a gesture recognition device produced by Thalmic Labs that is commonly used for video games.
With human prostheses and brain-machine interfaces rapidly advancing, overcoming a bit of entomophobia was a worthwhile endeavor for these undergrads.