Every Penn Bioengineering semester culminates in a series of “demo days” — dedicated time in which undergraduate Bioengineering students demonstrate projects made in their Bioengineering lab courses or in Senior Design for their classmates and faculty. These are held in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace (or the Penn BE Labs), the dedicated teaching lab for the Bioengineering Department which also functions as an interdisciplinary bio-makerspace open to the entire Penn community.
For the Fall 2023 demos, Popular Mechanics paid a visit to the BE Labs to witness the (in)famous “cockroach lab,” a staple of the third year course “Bioengineering, Modeling, Analysis, and Design Laboratory” (affectionately known as BE MAD). This year’s cockroach demos featured a miniature Taylor Swift — flaunting a cockroach limb — and several projects featuring the faces of course faculty, David Meaney, Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering and Senior Associate Dean in Penn Engineering, and Michael Patterson, Director of Educational Laboratories in Bioengineering.
On September 14, Wexford Science & Technology, LLC and the University of Pennsylvania announced that the University has signed a lease for new laboratory space that will usher in a wave of novel vaccine, therapeutics, and engineered diagnostics research to West Philadelphia. Research teams from Penn are poised to move into 115,000 square feet of space at One uCity Square, the 13-story, 400,000 square foot purpose-built lab and office building within the vibrant uCity Square Knowledge Community being developed by Wexford. This is the largest lease in the building, encompassing four floors, and bringing the building to over 90% leased. The building currently includes industry tenants Century Therapeutics (NASDAQ: IPSC), Integral Molecular, Exponent (NASDAQ: EXPO), and Charles River Laboratories (NYSE: CRL).
The new University space will house Penn Medicine’s Institute for RNA Innovation and Penn Engineering’s Center for Precision Engineering for Health, underscoring the University’s commitment to a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach to research that will attract and retain the best talent and engage partners from across the region. Penn’s decision to locate at One uCity Square reinforces uCity Square’s evolution as a central cluster of academic, clinical, commercial, entrepreneurial, and amenity spaces for the area’s innovation ecosystem, and further cements Philadelphia’s position as a top life sciences market.
Jonathan Epstein, MD, Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer of Penn Medicine, shared his anticipation for the opportunities that lie ahead: “Penn Medicine is proud to build on its existing clinical presence in uCity Square and establish an innovative and collaborative research presence at the heart of uCity Square’s multidisciplinary innovation ecosystem. This strategic move underscores our commitment to accelerating advancements in biomedical research, industry collaboration, and equipping our talented teams with the resources they need to shape the future of healthcare.”
Locating the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation in the heart of the uCity Square community brings together researchers across disciplines who are already pursuing new vaccines and treatments, and better ways to deliver them. Their shared work will help to power the next phase of vaccine discovery and development.
Likewise, anchoring the work of Penn Engineering’s Center in the One uCity Square space will allow the School’s multi-disciplinary researchers and their collaborators to advance new clinical and diagnostic methods that will focus on intelligent therapeutics, genome design, diagnostics for discovery of human biology, and engineering the human immune shield.
“Penn Engineering has made a substantial commitment to precision engineering for health, an area that is not only important and relevant to engineering, but also critical to the future of humanity,” said Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “The space in One uCity Square will add another 30,000 square feet of space for our engineers to develop technologies that will fight future pandemics, cure incurable diseases, and extend healthy life spans around the world.”
Spearheading the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation will be Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor for Vaccine Research, who along with Katalin Karikó, PhD, adjunct professor of Neurosurgery, discovered foundational mRNA technology that enabled the creation of vital vaccine technology, including the FDA-approved mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
In this new space at One uCity Square, Weissman and his research team and collaborators will further pursue their groundbreaking research efforts with a goal to develop new therapeutics and vaccines and initiate clinical trials for other devastating diseases.
In addition, two established researchers will join the Institute at One uCity Square: Harvey Friedman, MD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, who leads a team researching various vaccines. He will be joined by Vladimir Muzykantov, MD, PhD, Founders Professor in Nanoparticle Research, who focuses on several projects related to targeting the delivery of drugs, including mRNA, to create more effective, targeted pathways to deliver drugs to the vascular system, treating a wide range of diseases that impact the brain, lung, heart, and blood.
Dan Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Penn Engineering and Director of the Center for Precision Engineering for Health, will oversee the Center’s innovations in diagnostics and delivery, cellular and tissue engineering, and the development of new devices that integrate novel materials with human tissues. The Center will bring together scholars from all departments within Penn Engineering and will help to foster increased collaboration with campus colleagues at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and with industry partners.
Joining the Center researchers in One uCity Square are Noor Momin, Sherry Gao, and Michael Mitchell. Noor Momin, who will join Penn Engineering in early 2024 as an assistant professor in Bioengineering, will leverage her lab’s expertise in cardiovascular immunology, protein engineering and pharmacokinetic modeling to develop next-generation treatments and diagnostics for cardiovascular diseases.
A team of recent Penn Bioengineering graduates have been included in list of prominent young Philadelphia innovators as chosen by The Philadelphia Business Journal and PHL Inno.
Gabriella Daltoso, Sophie Ishiwari, Gabriela Cano, Caroline Amanda Magro, and Tifara Eliana Boyce founded Sonura as their Senior Design Project in Bioengineering. The team, who all graduated in 2023, picked up a competitive President’s Innovation Prize for their beanie that promotes the cognitive and socioemotional development of newborns in the NICU by protecting them from the auditory hazards of their environments while fostering parental connection. Now, they have been included in the list of fourteen Inno Under 25 honorees for 2023.
“To determine this year’s list, the Philadelphia Business Journal and PHL Inno sought nominations from the public and considered candidates put forth by our editorial team. To be considered, nominees must be 25 years of age or younger and work for a company based in Greater Philadelphia and/or reside in the region.
Honorees span a wide range of industries, including consumer goods, biotechnology and environmental solutions. Many are products of the region’s colleges and universities, though some studied farther afield before setting up shop locally.”
The distinction is an important one for the assistant professor at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, for reasons both scientific and artistic. With a doctorate in biomedical engineering, several degrees in architecture, and a devotion to sustainable design, Mogas-Soldevila brings biology to everyday life, creating materials for a future built halfway between nature and artifice.
The architectural technology she describes is unassuming at first look: A freeze-dried pellet, small enough to get lost in your pocket. But this tiny lump of matter, the result of more than a year’s collaboration between designers, engineers and biologists, is a biomaterial that contains a “living-like” system.
When touched by water, the pellet activates and expresses a glowing protein, its fluorescence demonstrating that life and art can harmonize into a third and very different thing, as ready to please as to protect. Woven into lattices made of flexible natural materials promoting air and moisture flow, the pellets form striking interior design elements that could one day keep us healthy.
“We envision them as sensors,” explains Mogas-Soldevila. “They may detect pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses, or alert people to toxins inside their home. The pellets are designed to interact with air. With development, they could monitor or even clean it.”
For now, they glow, a triumphant first stop on the team’s roadmap to the future. The fluorescence establishes that the lab’s biomaterial manufacturing process is compatible with the leading-edge cell-free engineering that gives the pellets their life-like properties.
A rapidly expanding technology, cell-free protein expression systems allow researchers to manufacture proteins without the use of living cells.
Gabrielle Ho, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Bioengineering and co-leader of the project, explains how the team’s design work came to be cell-free, a technique rarely explored outside of lab study or medical applications.
“Typically, we’d use living E. coli cells to make a protein,” says Ho. “E. coli is a biological workhorse, accessible and very productive. We’d introduce DNA to the cell to encourage expression of specific proteins. But this traditional method was not an option for this project. You can’t have engineered E. coli hanging on your walls.”
Cell-free systems contain all the components a living cell requires to manufacture protein —energy, enzymes and amino acids — and not much else. These systems are therefore not alive. They do not replicate, and neither can they cause infection. They are “living-like,” designed to take in DNA and push out protein in ways that previously were only possible using living cells.
“One of the nicest things about these materials not being alive,” says Mogas-Soldevila, “is that we don’t need to worry about keeping them that way.”
Unlike living cells, cell-free materials don’t need a wet environment or constant monitoring in a lab. The team’s research has established a process for making these dry pellets that preserves bioactivity throughout manufacturing, storage and use.
Bioactive, expressive and programmable, this technology is designed to capitalize on the unique properties of organic materials.
Mogas-Soldevila, whose lab focuses exclusively on biodegradable architecture, understands the value of biomaterials as both environmentally responsible and aesthetically rich.
“Architects are coming to the realization that conventional materials — concrete, steel, glass, ceramic, etc. — are environmentally damaging and they are becoming more and more interested in alternatives to replace at least some of them. Because we use so much, even being able to replace a small percentage would result in a significant reduction in waste and pollution.”
Her lab’s signature materials — biopolymers made from shrimp shells, wood pulp, sand and soil, silk cocoons, and algae gums — lend qualities over and above their sustainable advantages.
“My obsession is diagnostic, but my passion is playfulness,” says Mogas-Soldevila. “Biomaterials are the only materials that can encapsulate this double function observed in nature.”
This multivalent approach benefited from the help of Penn Engineering’s George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, and the support of its director, Sevile Mannickarottu. In addition to contributing essential equipment and research infrastructure to the team, Mannickarottu was instrumental in enabling the interdisciplinary relationships that led the team to success, introducing Ho to the DumoLab Research team collaborators. These include Mogas-Soldevila, Camila Irabien, a Penn Biology major who provided crucial contributions to experimental work, and Fulbright design fellow Vlasta Kubušová, who co-led the project during her time at Penn and who will continue fueling the project’s next steps.
Machines beeping and whirring in a rhythmic chorus, the droning hum of medical equipment, and the bustles of busy health care providers are the familiar sounds of an extended stay at a hospital. This cacophony can create a sense of urgency for medical professionals as they move about with focused determination, closely monitoring their patients, but for infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) this constant noise can be overwhelming and developmentally detrimental.
Enter Tifara Boyce, from New York City; Gabriela Cano, from Lawrenceville, New Jersey; Gabriella Daltoso, from Boise, Idaho; Sophie Ishiwari, from Chicago, and Caroline Magro, from Alexandria, Virginia, bioengineering graduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, who have created the Sonura Beanie. Their device filters out harmful noises for NICU infants while supporting cognitive and socioemotional development by allowing parents to send voice messages to their newborns.
The Sonura team members are recipients of the 2023 President’s Innovation Prize, which includes an award of $100,000 and an additional $50,000 living stipend per team member. The recent graduates will spend the year developing their product.
“The Penn engineers behind Sonura are determined to make a difference in the world,” says President Liz Magill. “They identified a substantial medical challenge that affects many parents and their newborn children. With the guidance of their mentors, they are taking key steps to address it and in doing so are improving the developmental prospects for children in the NICU. I am proud the University is able to support their important work.”
She was particularly struck by the noisiness of the environment and considered the neurodevelopmental outcomes that may arise following long-term exposure to the harsh sounds at a critical developmental stage for infants. This concern prompted Magro to consult her team about potential solutions.
“I was really eager to tackle this problem because it bears some personal significance to me,” says Cano, who works on the device’s mobile application. “My sister was a NICU baby who was two months premature, so, when Caroline and I started talking about the issues a disruptive environment could cause, it seemed like the pieces of a puzzle started to come together.”
Each year, Penn Engineering’s seniors present their Senior Design projects, a year-long effort that challenges them to test and develop solutions to real-world problems, to their individual departments. The top three projects from each department go on to compete in the annual Senior Design Competition, sponsored by the Engineering Alumni Society, which involves pitching projects to a panel of judges who evaluate their potential in the market.
We are proud that two of the four awards went to Penn Bioengineering teams!
This year’s panel included over forty judges, and each winning team received a $2,000 prize, generously sponsored by Penn Engineering alumnus Kerry Wisnosky.
Congratulations to all of the 2023 participants and winners!
Technology & Innovation Award
This award recognized the team whose project represents the highest and best use of technology and innovation to leverage engineering principles.
Winner: Team BAMBI Department: Bioengineering Team Members: Ria Dawar, Pallavi Jonnalagadda, Jessica Ling, Grace Qian Mentor: Erin Anderson Instructors: Erin Berlew, Sevile Mannickarottu, and David Meaney Abstract: BAMBI (Biointelligent Apnea Monitor for Bradycardia-Prone Infants) is a tripartite system that leverages machine learning and automated mechanical stimulation to detect and treat apnea of prematurity in the NICU.
Judges’ Choice Award
This award recognizes the group whose all-around presentation captures the best of the senior design program’s different facets: ideation, scope of project, team problem-solving, execution and presentation.
Winner: Team StablEyes Department: Bioengineering Team Members: Ella Atsavapranee, Jake Becker, Ruoming Fan, Savan Patel Mentor: Erin Anderson, Dr. Drew Scoles and Dr. Tomas Aleman (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn Medicine) Instructors: Erin Berlew, Sevile Mannickarottu, and David Meaney Abstract: StablEyes consists of a stabilization mount that provides fine, motorized control of the handheld OCT to improve ease of use for physicians and machine learning-based software to aid in diagnosis from retinal images.
Technical.ly Philly journalist Sarah Huffman recently paid another visit to Penn Bioengineering’s George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, this time for the 2023 Senior Design Expo. Following the annual Senior Design presentations held in the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, in which graduating fourth-year undergraduates in Bioengineering presented their final capstone projects, the Expo offered an opportunity for the teams to do live demonstrations (or demos) for the department’s internal competition judges and the wider BE community.
“In the course of the day, students presented the challenge they were aiming to solve and the technical details of their solution. After, demonstrations sought to find if the devices really worked.
‘[It’s] looking at the device as a whole, because quite frankly, you can say whatever you want at a presentation, does it really work,’ said [BE Labs Director Sevile] Mannickarottu. ‘You can make it look pretty, “but does it work?” is the big question.'”
University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill announced on April 21, the recipients of the 2023 President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes.
Awarded annually, the Prizes empower Penn students to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Each Prize-winning project will receive $100,000, as well as a $50,000 living stipend per team member. The Prizes are the largest of their kind in higher education. All Prize recipients collaborate with a Penn faculty mentor.
A team of fourth-year Bioengineering majors, Gabriella Daltoso, Sophie Ishiwari, Gabriela Cano, Caroline Amanda Magro, and Tifara Eliana Boyce, have received the President’s Innovation Prize for their project, Sonura.
“This year’s President’s Engagement and Innovation Prize recipients are fueled by a desire to make a difference—in their community, across the country, and around the world,” Magill said. “Communities for Childbirth, Act First, and Sonura embody an inspiring blend of passion and purpose. They are addressing consequential challenges with compelling solutions, and their dedication and smarts are exemplary. I congratulate them and wish them success as they launch and grow their ventures.”
The 2023 Prize recipients—selected from an applicant pool of 76—will spend the next year implementing the projects:
Gabriella Daltoso, Sophie Ishiwari, Gabriela Cano, Caroline Amanda Magro, and Tifara Eliana Boyce for Sonura: Daltoso, from Boise, Idaho; Ishiwari, from Chicago; Cano, from Lawrenceville, New Jersey; Magro, from Alexandria, Virginia; and Boyce, from Jamaica, Queens, New York, are bioengineering majors in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Their startup, Sonura, is developing a beanie that promotes the cognitive and socioemotional development of newborns in the NICU by protecting them from the auditory hazards of their environments while fostering parental connection. The Sonura Beanie is composed of a frequency-dependent filter and a mobile application. The Sonura team is mentored by Brian Halak, a lecturer in the Engineering Entrepreneurship program. Sonura was developed in Penn’s Stephenson Foundation Bio-MakerSpace and was part of their Bioengineering Senior Design class.
To learn more about the 2023 President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes, visit Penn Today.
Congratulations to the Bioengineering student recipients of undergraduate awards from the School of Engineering and Applied Science for the 2022-2023 academic year. These awards are given annually by the school and the department in recognition of outstanding scholarship and service. Read the full list of Bioengineering undergraduate award winners below.
The Wolf-Hallac Award: Sofia Mouchtaris. This award was established in October 2000 to recognize the graduating female senior from across Penn Engineering’s departments who is seen as a role model, has achieved a high GPA (in the top 10% of their class), and who has demonstrated a commitment to school and/or community.
The Management and Technology Scholarship Award: Savan Patel. This prize is awarded by the SEAS faculty to that member of the senior class in the Jerome Fisher Management and Technology Program who has created an innovative system and attained high scholastic achievement.
The Hugo Otto Wolf Memorial Prize: Joshua Freedman & Le He. This prize is awarded to one or more members of each department’s senior class, distinguishing students who meet with great approval of the professors at large through “thoroughness and originality” in their work.
The Herman P. Schwan Award: Laila Norford. This department award honors a graduating senior who demonstrates the “highest standards of scholarship and academic achievement.”
Exceptional Service Awards recognize students for their outstanding service to the University and their larger communities: Dylan Hurok, Julia Lottman, Caroline Magro & Grace Qian.
The Student Leadership Award: Moses Zeidan. This award is given annually to a student in Bioengineering who has demonstrated, through a combination of academic performance, service, leadership, and personal qualities, that they will be a credit to the Department, the School, and the University.
Additionally, the Bioengineering Department also presents a single lab group with the Albert Giandomenico Award which reflects their “teamwork, leadership, creativity, and knowledge applied to discovery-based learning in the laboratory.” This year’s group consists of Ella Atsavapranee, Jake Becker, Ruoming Fan & Savan Patel, aka Team StablEyes.
The awardees above were recognized at the annual Penn Engineering Awards Ceremony held Wednesday, March 29, 2023 in the Harrison Auditorium, Penn Museum.
Three Bioengineering Senior Design teams were chosen for recognition in the Bioengineering Senior Design Competition:
Team BAMBI: Ria Dawar, Pallavi Jonnalagadda, Jessica Ling, & Grace Qian. BAMBI (Biointelligent Apnea Monitor for Bradycardia-Prone Infants) is a tripartite system that leverages machine learning and automated mechanical stimulation to detect and treat apnea of prematurity in the NICU.
Team StablEyes: Ella Atsavapranee, Jake Becker, Ruoming Fan, & Savan Patel. StablEyes consists of a stabilization mount that provides fine, motorized control of the handheld OCT to improve ease of use for physicians and machine learning-based software to aid in diagnosis from retinal images.
Team inSPIRE: Jackson Dooley, Joshua Freedman,Yi-An Hsieh,Isabella Mirro, & Parth Mody.inSPIRE is the first smart incentive spirometer, used post-operatively to improve patient outcomes and reduce costs associated with complications and readmissions.
These teams will compete in the Penn Engineering Senior Design Competition on Friday, April 28, 2023.