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.

Looking Towards the Future Through an Interdisciplinary Lens

by Erica K. Brockmeier

Yasmina Al Ghadban, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Beirut, was able to connect her undergraduate education in bioengineering and psychology with her passion for public health through teaching, research, and extracurricular activities. Now, she is poised to leverage her “interdisciplinary lens” towards a future career in public health.

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.

Problem-solving perspectives

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.”

Continue reading at Penn Today.

Maria Ovando: Research and Self-discovery

by Elisa Ludwig

Maria Ovando

The process of discovery sometimes starts with a hunch. Maria Ovando arrived at Penn Engineering with an affinity for math and science, extensive experience volunteering at her local health clinic and an assumption that she was preparing for a career in medicine. She was drawn to Penn Engineering because of the flexibility in the curriculum and the ability to both tailor her course of study and pursue cross-disciplinary subjects.

As a pre-med student, bioengineering seemed to be the natural choice for a major, but during her freshman year, Ovando found that she genuinely enjoyed bioengineering as a discipline in its own right, and only then did her future goals come into view.

“I’ve discovered that I have a passion for research, working on low-cost devices that can have a direct impact on individuals,” she says.

One of the most important opportunities she’s had at Penn is her work with Dr. Michelle J. Johnson at the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab in the Perelman School of Medicine. There, Ovando has been working to improve aspects of the Community-based Affordable Robot Exercise System, which helps stroke patients with lower extremity impairment. She’s also worked on a project that involved analyzing and reevaluating data in the early detection of cerebral palsy in infants. As an undergraduate, she found it both meaningful and moving to have a role in this groundbreaking research.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering today.

Guest Post: Penn Bioengineering Lab Classes in the Time of Coronavirus

By Solumtochukwu (Somto) Egboga

Stephenson Lab student employees (L to R): Seth Fein (BSE 20, MSE 21), Nicole Wojnowski (BSE 22), and Somto Egboga (MSE 21)

Since the country began shutting down in March, I have joined the majority of the world in calling the times “unprecedented”: The word, which I rarely used before the pandemic, is now a staple of my lockdown lexicon. In March, we all got the email that changed the trajectory of the rest of our semester and the school year. Since then, COVID-19 has been impacting lives here at Penn, around the nation, and the world. Hanging out with friends and family on Zoom, managing work and school from home, social distancing, wearing masks everywhere, and constantly washing hands have been the reality of our new normal for months.

It has been almost ten months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and this has posed a global crisis like nothing most of us have experienced in our lifetime. At Penn, the campus community including students and staff have rallied to keep each other safe, all while doing what is possible to ensure that lectures, teaching, and research are possible in ways that uphold the university’s mission of “strengthening the quality of education and producing innovative research and models of healthcare delivery by fostering a vibrant inclusive environment and fully embracing diversity.”

BE students Alexa Rybicki, Ifeoluwa Popoola, and Caitlin Frazee meet for BE 309 in the Gather.Town virtual lab space.

In Penn Engineering’s Bioengineering Department, the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace has been at the heart of ensuring that lab-based classes run as smoothly as possible given the circumstances. First off, during the summer, the lab launched a Slack site that not only kept students engaged and connected through fun, daily “Questions of the Day” but also gave them the opportunity to reach out to our staff and obtain their expertise for coursework and personal projects. The staff at the Stephenson Lab also supported and continue to support Senior Design students (BE 495) with their projects by ordering, receiving, packaging, arranging pickups, or mailing supplies needed to complete their Senior Design projects. In addition, class time takes place using Gather.Town to recreate our Bio-MakerSpace virtually. In other classes, video tutorials of some of the experiments students were missing out on were produced over the summer and made available to students so they could learn by seeing what the lab staff were doing in the videos. For the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design (BE MAD) class (BE 309), in addition to videos, our lab Engineer, Michael Patterson, developed software through which students can enter design criteria and have experimental data emailed to them.

Picking up lab supplies outside in the Engineering complex

The staff at the lab also supported a Rehabilitation Engineering course (BE 514) taught by Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Bioengineering, by putting together supplies that enabled students in the class to reengineer toy bunny rabbits to be more accessible to children with disabilities. Optical Microscopy (BE 518), another Bioengineering course, taught by Christopher Fang-Yen, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Neuroscience, offers students an introduction to the fundamental concepts of optics and microscopy. The staff at the lab put together kits and made them available for pickup by the students in the class.

In a time when the shape of education looks vastly different from what we anticipated this year, the Bio-MakerSpace has been instrumental in ensuring that students still have access to resources that make their learning experience an enriching one. In these unprecedented times, the lab has been able to encourage students to keep up and be engaged with their coursework while also fostering creativity in students, virtually and remotely. While we may not know what life after the pandemic will look like, one thing to be sure of is that the Stephenson Lab will always be a reliable place for Penn students to get support for personal projects and coursework when needed.

Solumtochukwu (Somto) Egboga is a Master’s Student in Bioengineering, graduating December 2020. She also is a student employee for the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace.