In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Vijay Balasubramanian discusses his work as a theoretical physicist, noting his study of the foundations of physics and the fundamentals of space and time. He speaks of the importance of interdisciplinary study and about how literature and the humanities can contextualize scientific exploration in the study of physics, computer science, and neuroscience.
Balasubramanian is Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Penn School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
Our body’s natural line of defense against infection and disease, as well as cancer, is our immune system equipped with T cells, a type of white blood cell that determines how we react to foreign substances, or antigens, in the body. While we have an arsenal of T cells to protect us from these various infections, some people lack certain T cells or simply do not have enough to fight off infections, such as the flu or HIV, or defend against the body’s own mutated cancer cells.
Understanding the diversity of T cells and which antigens they target can provide insight into developing personalized immunotherapy to help those patients with weak spots or gaps in their T cell community. Jenny Jiang, Peter and Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, is characterizing this diversity.
Jiang recently received a Cancer Research Institute’s (CRI) Lloyd J. Old STAR grant to support her research on this topic. The CRI STAR grant identifies mid-career “Scientists TAking Risks” in innovative cancer immunotherapy research areas, providing freedom and flexibility to pursue high-risk, high-reward research with financial support of $1.25 Million over the course of five years.
Jiang spoke with CRI science writer Arthur Brodsky about her research and how the STAR grant will support it.
“In our studies of healthy individuals, who have some natural immune protection against commonly encountered viruses like the flu, we noticed that not everyone has T cells that cover all the possible antigens,” says Jiang. “There are differences in the number and types of flu-targeting T cells that each individual has. For some “exotic” antigens, like those of HIV for example, although the general population doesn’t actually have exposure to them, they should still have a very low level of minimum T cells that can offer some protection from possible future infection. So that part of our T cell arsenal acts as a safety net. But some individuals may completely lack those T cells. In those cases, as you can imagine, those people will have a hard time overcoming a future infection.”
Jiang describes how this is similar to how our bodies prevent cancerous tumor growth.
Thomas A.V. Cassel, Practice Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, recently sat down with Dayo Adetu (BSE 2019, MSE 2021), President of the Penn Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE), to give his insight into engineering entrepreneurship. Cassel is the Director of Penn’s Engineering Entrepreneurship Program, which he founded twenty one years ago. He joined Penn’s faculty in 1999 following a 20-year career of entrepreneurial business leadership.
Watch the video to hear about Cassel’s favorite Penn memories, the day-to-day experience of working at a startup, advice for venturing into entrepreneurship, and more.
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.”
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, 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.
César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Microbiology, and Psychiatry, was the inaugural recipient of the Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity (NEMO) Prize from Penn Health-Tech in 2020 for his low-cost, rapid COVID test. Now with promising results recently published in the journal Matter (showing 90 percent accuracy in as little as four minutes), Penn Health-Tech caught up with de la Fuente to discuss his experience over the past year:
“How did [your project] evolve in the past year?
‘We started with one prototype and now have three entirely different prototypes for the test. Two use electrochemistry, and we are now working on a new technology that uses calorimetry. With calorimetry, when the cotton swabs are exposed to the virus, they change color. This means users are able to see if they’re affected by a virus through a simple color change, making it more of a visual detection method.'”
Electromagnetic fields are everywhere, and especially so in recent years. To most of us, those fields are undetectable. But a small number of people believe they have an actual allergy to electromagnetic fields. Ken Foster, a Professor Emeritus of Bioengineering, has heard these arguments before. “Activists would point to all these biological effects studies and say, ‘There must be some hazard’; health agencies would have meticulous reviews of literature and not see much of a problem.”
While reflecting on her undergraduate journey at Penn, senior Yasmina Al Ghadban says that she has a “ton of memories” she will take with her: lifelong friends made and skills developed through coursework, research, and teaching experiences, the chance to engage with public health communities on campus, and traveling for courses and internships. “That’s the beauty of Penn,” she says. “There’s just so many opportunities everywhere.”
As a double major in bioengineering and psychology, Al Ghadban, who is from Beirut, has certainly taken advantage of many such opportunities. Now, she is poised to leverage her “interdisciplinary lens” towards a future career in public health.
Looking for a place to grow and become more independent, Al Ghadban decided to come to Penn after graduating from the International College in Lebanon. After taking an introduction to bioengineering course during her freshman year, she became enthralled by the hands-on nature of the program and enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “I really enjoyed working with circuits and Arduino, being able to synthesize things, and I felt like being in engineering was the place where I was going to gain the most skills,” she says.
Al Ghadban is applying those skills as she completes her senior design project. She and a team of four seniors are building an autonomous robot equipped with Lidar sensors that it uses to create a map of a physical space. The team also programmed their robot to recognize high-touch surfaces that it then disinfects with UV light. “It’s a technology that is completely autonomous, cheaper than what’s on the market, and doesn’t put people at risk when they go in to disinfect,” she says. The team recently put the finishing touches on the project and presented their robot as part of a demonstration on April 14.
In addition to her degree in engineering, Al Ghadban’s interests in public and mental health spurred her to take courses and eventually pursue a double major in psychology, a field that she sees as complementary to engineering. “In psychology, we focus a lot on research and study design, research bias, and these things are similar in engineering and psychology,” she says. “Overall, I think they gave me different perspectives in terms of problem solving, and it’s nice to have that interdisciplinary lens.”
One place where Al Ghadban was able to use this interdisciplinary lens was while working as an research assistant in the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab with Michelle Johnson during her sophomore year. “The focus of the lab is to create robots for post-stroke rehabilitation, and the robotics part is very engineering-focused, but there is another part where people struggle doing the exercises,” she says. “Being able to engage with people and increasing their likelihood of doing that intervention, you rely on a lot from psychology, like interventions from positive psychology or research on how people stay engaged.”
Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in the departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, investigates how the shape of networks impact the phenomena that arises from them. Much of that research is focused on networks of neurons, and how the different ways they are wired together in different people can influence their mental traits, such as memory or executive function.
Bassett is also interested in networks of people, however, as the shapes of those networks can have a major impact on a society’s traits. Last year, she and her colleagues published a study that investigated the network of citations neuroscience researchers produced in the course of their work, demonstrating a systemic gender bias that left women underrepresented in the literature.
When a group of researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi published a paper in Nature Communications last fall suggesting that young women scientists should seek out men as mentors, the backlash was swift and vociferous. Countless scientists, many of them women, registered their indignation on Twitter—some even penning open letters and their ownpreprints in response. The original paper had found that female junior scientists who authored papers with male senior scientists saw their papers cited at higher rates. But a number of critics contested the assertion that this result established a link between male mentors and career performance. Scientists routinely coauthor articles with people who are not their mentors, they argued, and citation rates are just one metric of achievement. In response to these criticisms, the authors eventually retracted their paper. (They declined to comment to WIRED.)
But the paper had already stirred up a broader discussion about gender and mentorship in academia. For Danielle Bassett, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, the methodological concerns that prompted the paper’s retraction were far from its worst sin. She herself has researched citation practices and found that, in neuroscience, papers with male senior authors are cited at a disproportionately high rate—primarily because other male scientists preferentially cite them. To suggest that young women should therefore try to author papers with men is, she believes, a grave error. “That was a problem in assigning blame,” she says. “The onus is on us to create a scientific culture that lets students choose a mentor that’s right for them.”
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!