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.

“The Bio-MakerSpace — Fostering Learning and Innovation Across Many Disciplines”

Penn Bioengineering’s BioMakerSpace in action (photo taken pre-pandemic)

Writing for the Penn Health-Tech blog, Hannah Spector profiled the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching lab for the Department of Bioengineering at Penn Engineering. This interdisciplinary Bio-MakerSpace (aka BioMakerSpace) is open to the entire Penn community for independent research and has become a hub for student startups in recent years:

One example is Strella Biotechnology, founded in 2019 by Katherine Sizov (Biology 2019 & President’s Innovation Prize winner). Strella is developing sensors with the ability to reduce the amount of food waste due to going bad in storage. “Having a Bio-MakerSpace that gives you the functionalities of both a wet lab and a traditional electronics lab is extremely helpful in developing novel technologies” says Sizov on the BE Labs Youtube channel.

The Bio-MakerSpace provides students of all academic backgrounds the resources to turn their ideas into realities, including highly knowledgeable lab staff. Seth Fein (BSE ’20, MSE ’21) has worked at the lab since Fall 2020. “Because bioengineering spans many fields, we encourage interdisciplinary work. Students from Mechanical, Electrical, and Chemical Engineering have all found valuable resources in the lab,” says Fein.

The article also discusses the many resources the BioMakerSpace provides to Penn students and their efforts to keep the lab functional, safe, and open for research and education during the current semester.

Penn Health-Tech is an interdisciplinary center launched in 2017 to advance medical device innovation across the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences by forging collaborative connections among Penn researchers and providing seed funding to incubate novel ideas to advance health care.

Continue reading “The Bio-MakerSpace — Fostering Learning and Innovation Across Many Disciplines” at the Penn Health-Tech blog.

Read more BE blog posts featuring the BioMakerSpace.

Alumni Spotlight: Danielle Rossi

Danielle Rossi (M.S.E. 2018)

Danielle Rossi earned her M.S.E. in Bioengineering in December 2018 and is now a R&D Leadership and Development Program Engineer with Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices. Here she reminisces about her research opportunities at Penn and her fond memories of Philly.

“When I first started at Penn, I was amazed by all of the opportunities to learn, to challenge myself, to network, and to innovate. My time at Penn was filled with interesting classes, dedicated faculty, challenging problems to solve, and collaboration. From writing a mock NIH research grant for a tissue engineered Intervertebral Disk in BE 553, to designing an electromechanical device controlled with muscle movement in BE 570, to writing up a business plan and pitching to investors in EAS 546, every new day came with a new venture.

On top of the exciting classes and projects, Penn has numerous research labs and healthcare facilities so that students can apply their skills to real-world problems. While I was a student, I had the opportunity to work at the Abramson Cancer Center in the Cancer Risk Evaluation Program. The program focused on patient risk evaluations, including genetic testing for certain cancers such as breast, ovarian, and sarcoma. This exposed me to the healthcare environment and gave me a new perspective on preemptive medicine.

During my free time, I loved to tour the historically and culturally rich city of Philadelphia. I have the fondest memories of exploring the city with my BE friends and storming the Philly streets when the Eagles won the Super Bowl!

While at Penn, I was sure to utilize Career Services to help me spruce up my resume and interview skills. I was lucky enough to meet with Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices at a Penn career fair and was offered a spot in the R&D Leadership and Development Program. The program allows me to rotate through three different J&J Medical Device companies as an R&D Engineer to gain exposure to new product development, mechanical design, computational modeling, manufacturing, design quality and more. ”

This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.

Student Spotlight: Sonia Bansal

Sonia Bansal, Ph.D.

Next up in the Penn Bioengineering student spotlight series is Sonia Bansal. Sonia got her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University in 2014. She then came to Penn, where she recently got her Ph.D. in September of 2020 in Bioengineering under the advisement of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Professor of Bioengineering. Her dissertation is entitled “Functional and Structural Remodeling of the Meniscus with Growth and Injury” and focuses on the ways the knee meniscus changes while being actively loaded (growth) and under aberrant loading (injurious) conditions. She has presented her work internationally and has first authored four papers, with two more in preparation. She is passionate about K-12 STEM outreach and teaching at the collegiate level. She has been on the teaching team for six classes in the department, and is the first recipient of the Graduate Fellowship for Teaching Excellence from the Bioengineering department.

What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?
I first got interested in Bioengineering when I realized that it would let me merge my interests in biology and the human body with my desire to solve big questions by building and creating solutions. I applied to college knowing it was what I wanted to study.

What kind of research do you conduct, and what is the focus of your thesis?
My research is focused on the knee meniscus, specifically the impacts of its complex extracellular matrix and how that matrix changes during growth and after meniscal injury. My interests are largely translational, and in the future, I’d like to think about how we can use preclinical animal models to create effective therapeutics and drive clinical decision making in the orthopedic space.

What did you study for your undergraduate degree? How does it pair with the work you’re doing now, and what advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
I studied Biomedical Engineering during my undergraduate education and worked in cartilage tissue engineering. These experiences helped guide me to my Ph.D. work here at Penn. The two pieces of advice I’d give my undergraduate self is to ask for help and that it’s important to get more than five hours of sleep a night.

What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?
My favorite thing to do on campus was to read papers/write lectures/work on grants at a local coffee shop. I used to go to HubBub when it still existed, Saxby’s, and United By Blue.

Have you done or learned anything new or interesting during quarantine?
I have embarked on a journey in culinary fermentation (variety of pickles and sourdough, of course), and recently started homebrewing!

Alumni Spotlight: Lamis Elsawah

Lamis Elsawah (BSE 2019)

Lamis Elsawah graduated with a B.S.E. in Bioengineering with a concentration in Medical Devices in 2019. She is currently a Design Engineer at Johnson & Johnson’s DePuy Synthes. We caught up with Lamis to hear about why she chose Penn Bioengineering and what she enjoyed about the curriculum.

“Penn had been my dream school for years prior to even applying to college, so their having a top notch bioengineering program was icing on the cake when it was time for me to apply. Prior to applying, I actually had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Meaney (who was the Bioengineering Department Chair up until I graduated) the summer before my senior year in high school and he was always a constant support throughout my bioengineering education up until graduation. Since Bioengineering had less than 100 students per class, it really allowed us to develop that familial feel with our core Bioengineering professors and lab staff. I honestly don’t think I would have survived junior and senior year without the help of Sevile and the entire lab staff, so I will be forever grateful.

I always like to say that junior year labs are really what made me an engineer. Those were some of the most challenging classes I took, but it was really rewarding once I reached the end. Between those lab courses and Biomechatronics taught by Professor Dourte, it prepared me to become a design engineer and apply all that I had learned. I also had the opportunity to get my minor in Engineering Entrepreneurship and be taught by Professor Cassel, which increased my interest in the business side of developing medical devices. The combination of my studies ultimately led me to Imperial College, London where I received my Master’s in Medical Device Design and Entrepreneurship.

The bioengineering curriculum at Penn allowed me to have a vast knowledge of the field that I will always be grateful for. It not only provided me with the mechanical experience, but also the electrical and biological background. I plan on staying an active alumna in both the Engineering Alumni Society and the Penn Alumni Board as a result of my wonderful experience at Penn Engineering and Penn as a whole.”

This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.

Penn Bioengineering’s Applicant-Support Program Supports “Underserved and Underrepresented Communities”

A recent piece in the Daily Pennsylvanian highlights Penn Bioengineering’s new Applicant-Support Program. Introduced for the Fall 2020 admissions cycle, this new program supports the department’s mission of increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion by pairing Ph.D. applicants to current doctoral students who will serve as a mentors to help navigate the process, give feedback on application materials, and provide other support to prospective students.

As Jason Andrechak, President of Penn’s Graduate Association of Association of Bioengineers (GABE) chapter, explains in the DP’s profile: “A lot of what a successful application looks like at this level is just knowing what a successful application looks like.” This and other new policies and programs implemented by GABE and Yale Cohen, Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, Neuroscience and Bioengineering and BE’s current Graduate Group Chair, seek to support applications from “underserved or underrepresented communities.”

Read the full story in the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Bioengineering Student Jamie Moni Participates in the 34th Africana Studies Summer Institute

Jamie Moni (BAS 2024)

Jamie Moni, a freshman in Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, spent his summer before starting Penn participating in the 2020 Africana Studies Summer Institute, a pre-freshman program hosted by the Center for Africana Studies. A recent piece by Penn Today’s KristineGarcía profiling the thirty-four-year-old program and its transition to a virtual format featured Moni’s thoughts on the program:

“Jamie Moni is a bioengineering major who participated from his home in Hillsborough, New Jersey. The Institute was one of the first programs he sought out after enrolling at Penn, Moni says. ‘My parents were really happy that there’s a program like this at Penn, especially because there’s not a lot of Black people in my town. Most of the African Americans that I interact with on a daily basis are my family,’ Moni says, whose ancestry is from Cameroon. ‘It’s been interesting, to say the least.’

Moni has a close relationship with his peer mentor, Niko Simpkins, who ‘has been really one of the best things that I took out of the Africana Institute.’ A fellow engineering major, Simpkins gives Moni study tips and introduced him to the National Society of Black Engineers as well as STEM-specific workshops.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Yale Cohen and Douglas Smith Awarded 2020 Penn Medicine Awards of Excellence

Yale Cohen, Ph.D.
Douglas H. Smith, M.D.

The Perelman School of Medicine has announced the winners of the 2020 Penn Medicine Awards of Excellence. The Office of the Dean says:

“These awardees exemplify our profession’s highest values of scholarship, teaching, innovation, commitment to service, leadership, professionalism and dedication to patient care. They epitomize the preeminence and impact we all strive to achieve. The awardees range from those at the beginning of their highly promising careers to those whose distinguished work has spanned decades.

Each recipient was chosen by a committee of distinguished faculty from the Perelman School of Medicine or the University of Pennsylvania. The contributions of these clinicians and scientists exemplify the outstanding quality of patient care, mentoring, research, and teaching of our world-class faculty.”

Two faculty members affiliated with Penn Bioengineering are among this year’s recipients.

Yale Cohen, PhD, Professor of Otorhinolaryngology with secondary appointments in Neuroscience and Bioengineering, is the recipient of the Jane M. Glick Graduate Student Teaching Award. Cohen is an alumnus of the Penn Bioengineering doctoral program and is currently the department’s Graduate Chair.

“Dr. Cohen’s commitment to educating and training the next generation of scientists exemplifies the type of scientist and educator that Jane Glick represented. His students value his highly engaging and supportive approach to teaching, praising his enthusiasm, energy, honesty, and compassion.”

Douglas H. Smith, MD, Robert A. Groff Endowed Professor of Research and Teaching in Neurosurgery and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, is the recipient of this year’s William Osler Patient Oriented Research Award:

“Dr. Smith is the foremost authority on diffuse axonal injury (DAI) as the unifying hypothesis behind the short- and long-term consequences of concussion.  After realizing early in his career that concussion, or mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), was a much more serious event than broadly appreciated, Dr. Smith and his team have used computer biomechanical modeling, in vitro and in vivo testing in parallel with seminal human studies to elucidate mechanisms of concussion.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine Communications.