Penn Bioengineering Senior Raveen Kariyawasam Named 2022 Rhodes Scholar

2022 Rhodes Scholar, Raveen Kariyawasam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at Penn Today.

Penn’s 2021 iGEM Team Takes Home Multiple Prizes

Four of Penn’s 2021 iGEM team (left to right): Juliette Hooper, Grace Qian, Saachi Datta, and Gloria Lee.

The University of Pennsylvania’s 2021 iGEM team has been awarded several distinctions in this year’s highly competitive iGEM Competition. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is the largest synthetic biology community and the premiere synthetic biology competition for both university and high school level students from around the world. Each year, hundreds of interdisciplinary teams of students combine molecular biology techniques and engineering concepts to create novel biological systems and compete for prizes and awards through oral presentations and poster sessions.

The Penn team’s project, “OptoReader,” is a combined light-simulation device and plate reader, which makes optogenetic experiments more powerful and accessible. The abstract reads:

“Metabolic engineering has the potential to change the world, and optogenetic tools can make metabolic engineering research easier by providing spatiotemporal control over cells. However, current optogenetic experiments are low-throughput, expensive, and laborious, which makes them inaccessible to many. To tackle this problem, we combined a light-stimulation device with a plate reader, creating our OptoReader. This device allows us to automate ~100 complex optogenetic experiments at the same time. Because it is open source and inexpensive, our device would make optogenetic experiments more efficient and available to all.”

Watch the team’s presentation on OptoReader here.

This year’s Penn team was mentored by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. In addition, the team was supported by Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Chow has supported previous undergraduate iGEM teams at Penn, and was involved in the creation of the iGEM program during his time as a graduate student at MIT.

OptoReader took home the top prizes in three of the four categories in which it was nominated. These prizes include:

  • Best Foundational Advance (best in track)
  • Best Hardware (best from all undergraduate teams)
  • Best Presentation (best from all undergraduate teams)

They were also awarded a Gold Medal Distinction and were included in the Top 10 Overall (from all undergraduate teams, and the only team from the United States to make the top 10) and Top 10 Websites (from all undergraduate teams).

The awards were announced during iGEM’s online Jamboree Award Ceremony on November 14, 2021 (watch the full award ceremony here).

In addition to the outstanding awards recognition, OptoReader was also selected for an iGEM Impact Grant which awards teams $2,500 to continue development of their projects. This new initiative from the iGEM Foundation was announced earlier this year, and with the support of the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, is distributing a total of $225,000 in grant funds to 90 iGEM teams during the 2021 competition season. Learn more about the Impact Grant and read the full list of winning teams here.

Penn’s 2021 iGEM team was made up of an interdisciplinary group of women undergraduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS):

  • Saachi Datta (B.A. in Biology and Religious Studies 2021)
  • Juliette Hooper (B.S.E. and M.S.E. in Bioengineering 2022)
  • Gabrielle Leavitt (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2021 and current Master’s student in Bioengineering)
  • Gloria Lee (B.A. in Physics and B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
  • Grace Qian (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
  • Lana Salloum (B.A. in Neuroscience 2022)

They were mentored by three doctoral students in Bioengineering: Will Benman (Bugaj Lab), David Gonzalez Martinez (Bugaj Lab), Gabrielle Ho (Chow Lab). Saurabh Malani, a graduate student in the Avalos Lab at Prince University, was also very involved in mentoring the team.

OptoReader

The graduate mentors were instrumental in quickly bringing the undergraduates up to speed on a diverse array of skills needed to accomplish this project including circuit design, optics, optogenetics, programming, and additive manufacturing. They then coached the team through building and testing prototypes, as well as accomplishing other objectives required for success at iGEM. These other objectives included establishing collaborations with other iGEM teams, performing outreach, and effectively communicating their project through a website and online presentations.

“This team and their work is outstanding,” said William Benman. “Not only did they sweep several awards, but they did it all with a small team and while working with technology they had no prior experience with. They created a device that not only increases accessibility to optogenetics but also allows optogenetic systems to interface directly with computer programs, allowing for completely new research avenues within the field. They are truly a remarkable group.”

Due to the COVID pandemic, the team operated virtually through the summer of 2020, and then continued in person in the summer of 2021 as the project progressed and more students returned to Penn’s campus. Upon return to campus, the work was conducted in both the Bugaj lab in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching laboratory in Penn Bioengineering and an interdisciplinary makerspace open to anyone at Penn. The team also collaborated with the Avalos Lab at Princeton University, which conducts research in the application of optogenetics to optimize production of valuable  chemicals in microbes.

“I’m beyond excited about this phenomenal showing from team Penn at the iGEM Jamboree awards ceremony,” said faculty mentor Lukasz Bugaj. “This is truly outstanding recognition for what the team has accomplished, and it wouldn’t have happened without essential contributions from everyone on the team.”

Brian Chow added that this achievement is “no small feat,” especially for a hardware project. “The iGEM competition leans toward genetic strain engineering, but the advances in the field made by these incredible students were undeniable,” he said.

Going forward, the team plans to publish a scientific article and file a patent application describing their device. “It’s clear that there is excitement in the scientific community for what our students created, and we’re excited to share the details and designs of their work,” said Bugaj.

Congratulations to all the team members and mentors of OptoReader on this incredible achievement! Check out the OptoReader project website and Instagram to learn more about their project.

This project was supported by the Department of Bioengineering, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR). 

Penn Takes Part in National Science Foundation’s First I-Corps Hubs

by Evan Lerner

A decade ago, the National Science Foundation started its Innovation Corps program to help translate academic research into the wider world. Functioning as a national start-up accelerator, I-Corps provides training and funding to researchers who have a vision for applying their ideas, starting businesses and maximizing social impact. 

Several successful start-ups launched by Penn Engineering students, including Strella BiotechnologyInventXYZ, and Percepta AI have participated in the I-Corps program.

Now, to further develop innovation ecosystems and share regional resources, the NSF has launched a network of five I-Corps Hubs.

Penn is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Hub, which will be led by the University of Maryland at College Park, and include Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, North Carolina State University, Penn State, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Virginia Tech.

The Penn Center for Innovation is currently accepting applications to join the next I-Corps cohort, which begins in October 2021. Teams will receive up to $2,000 to support their start-up, and can apply online.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

N.B.:  Founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and winner of a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, Strella Biotech seeks to reduce food waste through innovative biosensors, and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the bio-makerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering. Read more BE blog stories featuring Strella Biotechnology.

Penn Establishes the Center for Precision Engineering for Health with $100 Million Commitment

by Evan Lerner

The Center for Precision Engineering for Health will bring together researchers spanning multiple scientific fields to develop novel therapeutic biomaterials, such as a drug-delivering nanoparticles that can be designed to adhere to only to the tissues they target. (Image: Courtesy of the Mitchell Lab)

The University of Pennsylvania announced today that it has made a $100 million commitment in its School of Engineering and Applied Science to establish the Center for Precision Engineering for Health.

The Center will conduct interdisciplinary, fundamental, and translational research in the synthesis of novel biomolecules and new polymers to develop innovative approaches to design complex three dimensional structures from these new materials to sense, understand, and direct biological function.

“Biomaterials represent the ‘stealth technology’ which will create breakthroughs in improving health care and saving lives,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann. “Innovation that combines precision engineering and design with a fundamental understanding of cell behavior has the potential to have an extraordinary impact in medicine and on society. Penn is already well established as an international leader in innovative health care and engineering, and this new Center will generate even more progress to benefit people worldwide.”

Penn Engineering will hire five new President’s Penn Compact Distinguished Professors, as well as five additional junior faculty with fully funded faculty positions that are central to the Center’s mission. New state-of-the-art labs will provide the infrastructure for the research. The Center will seed grants for early-stage projects to foster advances in interdisciplinary research across engineering and medicine that can then be parlayed into competitive grant proposals.

“Engineering solutions to problems within human health is one of the grand challenges of the discipline,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “Our faculty are already leading the charge against these challenges, and the Center will take them to new heights.”

This investment represents a turning point in Penn’s ability to bring creative, bio-inspired approaches to engineer novel behaviors at the molecular, cellular, and tissue levels, using biotic and abiotic matter to improve the understanding of the human body and to develop new therapeutics and clinical breakthroughs. It will catalyze integrated approaches to the modeling and computational design of building blocks of peptides, proteins, and polymers; the synthesis, processing, and fabrication of novel materials; and the experimental characterizations that are needed to refine approaches to design, processing, and synthesis.

“This exciting new initiative,” says Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, “brings together the essential work of Penn Engineering with fields across our campus, especially in the Perelman School of Medicine. It positions Penn for global leadership at the convergence of materials science and biomedical engineering with innovative new techniques of simulation, synthesis, assembly, and experimentation.”

Examples of the types of work being done in this field include new nanoparticle technologies to improve storage and distribution of vaccines, such as the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines; the development of protocells, which are synthetic cells that can be engineered to do a variety of tasks, including adhering to surfaces or releasing drugs; and vesicle based liquid biopsy for diagnosing cancer.

N.B.: This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Beth Winkelstein is the Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Bioengineering.

The featured illustration comes from a recent study led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Margaret Billingsley, a graduate student in his lab.

Developing New Technologies to Solve the Mysteries of the Brain

Flavia Vitale, assistant professor of neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation, and founder of the multidisciplinary Vitale Lab. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation might not seem like three disciplines that fit together, but for Flavia Vitale, an assistant professor of all three, it makes perfect sense. As the director and principal investigator at the Vitale Lab, her research focuses on developing new technologies that help to study how the brain and neuromuscular systems function.

Years ago, while she was working at Rice University developing new materials and devices that work in the body in a safer, more effective way, former president Barack Obama launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, aimed at revolutionizing the understanding of the human brain. This emphasis on how little is known about brain structure and function inspired Vitale to refocus her research on developing technology and materials that will help researchers solve the mysteries of the brain.

In 2018, she joined the faculty at the Perelman School of Medicine as an assistant professor of neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation, and founded the multidisciplinary Vitale Lab, where her team develops cutting edge materials and devices that will someday help clinicians diagnose and treat patients with complicated brain and neurological conditions. She is also one of the engineers looking forward to using new combined clinical/research facilities in neuroscience at Penn Medicine’s new Pavilion where new neurotechnoloigies will be developed and tested.

“My main goal is to create tools that can help solve mysteries of the brain, and address the needs of clinicians,” she says.

“My lab was recently awarded two grants totaling $4.5 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In order to obtain more precise insights, noninvasively, into brain activity to improve gene therapy treatments for a range of diagnoses, from Parkinson’s disease to glioblastoma. The first grant is designated for the development of a novel surgical device for delivering gene-based therapeutics to the brain. The second is for optimization and pre-clinical validation of a novel EEG electrode technology, which uses a soft, flexible, conductive nanomaterial rather than metal and gels. We hope to confirm that these technologies work as well as, if not better than existing ones.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Penn Dental Medicine, Penn Engineering Award First IDEA Prize to Advance Oral Health Care Innovation

Henry Daniell and Daeyeon Lee

by Beth Adams

Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering, which teamed earlier this year to launch the Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD), recently awarded the Center’s first IDEA (Innovation in Dental Medicine and Engineering to Advance Oral Health) Prize. Dr. Henry Daniell, W.B. Miller Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Basic & Translational Sciences at Penn Dental Medicine, and his collaborator, Dr. Daeyeon Lee, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Penn Engineering, are the inaugural recipients, awarded the Prize for a project titled “Engineered Chewing Gum for Debulking Biofilm and Oral SARS-CoV-2.”

“The IDEA Prize was created to support Penn Dental and Penn Engineering collaboration, and this project exemplifies the transformative potential of this interface to develop new solutions to treat oral diseases,” says Dr. Michel Koo, Professor in the Department of Orthodontics and Divisions of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health at Penn Dental Medicine and Co-Director of the CiPD.

“The prize is an exciting opportunity to unite Drs. Lee and Daniell and their vision to bring together state-of-the-art functional materials and drug-delivery platforms,” adds Dr. Kathleen Stebe, CiPD Co-Director and Goodwin Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn Engineering.

Open to faculty from Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering, the IDEA Prize, to be awarded annually, supports collaborative teams investigating novel ideas using engineering approaches to kickstart competitive proposals for federal funding and/or private sector/industry for commercialization. Awardees are selected based on originality and novelty; the impact of the proposed innovation of oral/craniofacial health; and the team composition with complementary expertise. Indeed, the project of Drs. Daniell and Lee reflects all three.

The collaborative proposal combines Dr. Daniell’s novel plant-based drug development/delivery platform with Dr. Lee’s novel polymeric structures to create an affordable, long-lasting way to reduce dental biofilms (plaque) and oral SARS-CoV-2 transmission using a uniquely consumer-friendly delivery system — chewing gum.

“Oral diseases afflict 3.5 billion people worldwide, and many of these conditions are caused by microbes that accumulate on teeth, forming difficult to treat biofilms,” says Dr. Daniell. “In addition, saliva is a source of pathogenic microbes and aerosolized particles transmit disease, including COVID-19, so there is an urgent need to develop new methods to debulk pathogens in the saliva and decrease their aerosol transmission.”

Continue reading at Penn Dental Medicine News.

N.B. Henry Daniell and Daeyeon Lee are members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Developing Endotracheal Tubes that Release Antimicrobial Peptides

by Evan Lerner

Scanning electron microscope images of endotracheal tubes at three levels of magnification. After 24 hours of Staphylococcus epidermidis exposure, tubes coated with the researchers’ AMPs (right) showed decreased biofilm production, as compared with tubes coated with just polymer (center) and uncoated tubes (left).

Endotracheal tubes are a mainstay of hospital care, as they ensure a patient’s airway is clear when they can’t breathe on their own. However, keeping a foreign object inserted in this highly sensitive part of the anatomy comes is not without risk, such as the possibility of infection, inflammation and a condition known as subglottic stenosis, in which scar tissue narrows the airway.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics are one way to mitigate these risks, but come with risks of their own, including harming beneficial bacteria and contributing to antibiotic resistance.

With this conundrum in mind, Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and of Bioengineering at Penn Engineering, along with Bioengineering graduate students and lab members Matthew Aronson and Paul Gehret, are developing endotracheal tubes that can provide a more targeted antimicrobial defense.

In a proof-of-concept study published in the journal The Laryngoscope, the team showed how a different type of antimicrobial agent could be incorporated into the tubes’ polymer coating, as well as preliminary results suggesting these devices would better preserve a patient’s microbiome.

Instead, the investigators explored the use of antimicrobial peptides (AMPs), which are small proteins that destabilize bacterial membranes, causing bacterial cells to fall apart and die. This mechanism of action allows them to target specific bacteria and makes them unlikely to promote antimicrobial resistance. Prior studies have shown that it is possible to coat endotracheal tubes with conventional antibiotics, so the research team investigated the possibility of incorporating AMPs into polymer-coated tubes to inhibit bacterial growth and modulate the upper-airway microbiome.

The researchers, led by Matthew Aronson, a graduate student in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, tested their theory by creating a polymer coating that would release Lasioglossin-III, an AMP with broad-spectrum antibacterial activity. They found that Lasio released from coated endotracheal tubes, reached the expected effective concentration rapidly and continued to release at the same concentration for a week, which is the typical timeframe that an endotracheal is used before being changed. The investigators also tested their drug-eluting tube against airway microbes, including S. epidermidis, S. pneumoniae, and human microbiome samples and observed significant antibacterial activity, as well as prevention of bacterial adherence to the tube.

Read “CHOP Researchers Develop Coating for Endotracheal Tubes that Releases Antimicrobial Peptides” at CHOP News.

This post originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

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.

Emeritus Faculty Member Susan Margulies Named NSF Directorate of Engineering

Susan Margulies, Ph.D. (Credit Emory University)

Susan Margulies, Professor Emeritus in Bioengineering, has been selected to lead the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate of Engineering, “the first biomedical engineer to head the directorate.” Margulies is chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. She earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Penn Bioengineering before joining the department as an Assistant Professor in 1993.

In a press release from Emory University, Margulies stated that, “The opportunity to serve the NSF resonates with my values — catalyzing impact through innovation, rigor, partnership, and inclusion.” The announcement continues:

“Building on initiatives she developed at the University of Pennsylvania, Margulies prioritized career development for faculty and Ph.D. graduates during her years leading Coulter BME. She added dedicated staff to help doctoral students prepare for increasingly popular career paths outside of academia. The department increased the diversity of Ph.D. students and improved faculty diversity at all ranks during her tenure. Margulies oversaw hiring of 20 new faculty members and launched formalized mentoring for early career professors, including creating a new associate chair position dedicated to faculty development.”

Margulies will step down from her position as chair in Coulter BME though she will remain in the Georgia Tech and Emory faculty. Her Injury Biomechanics Lab studies “the influence of mechanical factors on the structure and function of human tissues from the macroscopic to microscopic level, with an emphasis on the brain and lungs.”

Read the full announcement in the Emory News Center.

Read the NSF press release here.

‘I Look Like an Engineer’

Penn Engineering students (clockwise) Nyasha Zimunhu, Fahmida Lubna, Celestina Saven, Sanjana Hemdev, Sabrina Green and Sydney Kariuki all participated in the “I Look Like an Engineer” campaign, locally organized by AWE.

Penn Engineering’s Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) program, dedicated to recruiting, retaining and promoting all female-identified students in the School, participated in the “I Look Like an Engineer” social media movement for the third year in a row. The movement, aimed at promoting diversity around underrepresented groups like women and people of color, was started by software developer Isis Anchalee in 2015.

Francesca Cimino

Francesca Cimino, member of AWE and a rising senior in the Department of Bioengineering, has always been passionate about changing the stereotypes and breaking down the barriers that prevent engineers of diverse backgrounds from thriving. She wanted to continue AWE’s tradition of participating in the movement to showcase the diversity already present within the field and prove that there is no single characteristic that defines an engineer.

At the conclusion of the campaign, Cimino responded to questions about the importance of diversity and what a more equal world in engineering looks like.

Why did you decide to get involved with AWE?

I applied to be a part of AWE’s Student Advisory Board during the spring semester of my freshman year. Being on the board was very enticing to me because I was looking to make connections with more women engineers at the time. I wanted to create my own community of women engineers while also wanting to help foster a community for all. AWE’s message and goals really resonated with me as well, so I knew it would be a perfect fit.

How important has mentorship from other female engineers been for you?

Being able to interact and learn from women who have experience in the industries I am most interested in has been very valuable to me. It has been inspiring to learn about their stories and the fact that I can relate to many of them has definitely allowed me to become more confident as I get closer to starting my career. Mentorship is something AWE really values and the board has worked to develop a mentoring network for women engineers, which I really admire.

Read the full Q&A in Penn Engineering Today.