How a Diversity Program Enabled a Childhood Orthopaedics Patient’s Research Dreams

by Julie Wood

As a child, Sonal Mahindroo would go to her orthopaedics appointments with her family, slowly becoming more and more fascinated by the workings and conditions of the musculoskeletal system. While being treated for scoliosis, she would receive children’s books from her doctor that helped provide clear and simplified explanations of orthopaedic topics, which supported her interest.

Nearly a decade later, Mahindroo is still interested in expanding her orthopaedic knowledge, and a Penn Medicine program is helping fuel that expansion. Now a senior at St. Bonaventure University in New York, Mahindroo spends her time at the university’s lab. But in addition to that, this year, she was able to take part in more learning opportunities with Penn Medicine’s support, via the McKay Orthopaedic Research Lab’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee’s conference grant program.

McKay’s DEI committee — consisting of faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and staff — offers a welcoming environment and resources that support people of all identities, empowering them to bring forward unique perspectives to orthopaedic research.

“Our goal is to improve diversity and culture both within McKay and in the orthopaedic research community outside of Penn,” said Sarah Gullbrand, PhD, a research assistant professor at the McKay Lab. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for students to attend a conference and make connections to help them pursue their interest in orthopaedic research.”

The McKay conference grant supports undergraduate students who have been unable to get hands-on research experience. Participants are provided with the opportunity to network with leaders in the field of orthopaedic research, listen to cutting-edge research presentations, and learn about ways to get involved in orthopaedic research themselves.

“When launching the conference grant program earlier this year, I was motivated by my own experience attending a conference as an undergraduate. That experience really increased my interest in attending graduate school and taught me a lot about the breadth of research in orthopaedics,” said Hannah Zlotnick, a PhD student at the McKay Lab and member of the DEI committee. Through the McKay Conference Grants, the committee has supported two cohorts of students. “So far, we’ve been able to fund 11 undergraduate students from around the country to virtually attend orthopaedics conferences and receive early exposure to careers in STEM.”

Along with the conference grant, the McKay Lab holds workshops, book clubs, and other programs focused on DEI-related topics. As part of their efforts for promoting gender diversity in the field, the McKay Lab has previously partnered with the Perry Initiative to offer direct orthopaedic experiences for girls in high school, where they can learn how to suture, and perform mock fracture fixation surgeries on sawbones.

As a primarily male-populated field, orthopaedics could benefit greatly from diversity efforts. While women comprise approximately 50 percent of medical school graduates in the United States, they represent only 14 percent of orthopaedic surgery residents.

“The only women on staff at my orthopaedist’s office were receptionists. There were no female physicians or engineers to make my scoliosis brace,” Mahindroo said. “It was really cool coming to the McKay Lab and seeing how much the field has progressed since then.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.

N.B. Hannah Zlotnick is a PhD student in Bioengineering studying in the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery.

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.

2021 CAREER Award recipient: Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering

by Melissa Pappas

Alex Hughes (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

The National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award is given to early-career researchers in order to kickstart their careers in innovative and pivotal research while giving back to the community in the form of outreach and education. Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Cell and Developmental Biology, is among the Penn Engineering faculty members who have received the CAREER Award this year.

Hughes plans to use the funds to develop a human kidney model to better understand how the development of cells and tissues influences congenital diseases of the kidney and urinary tract.

The model, known as an “organoid,” is a lab-grown piece of human kidney tissue on the scale of millimeters to centimeters, grown from cultured human cells.

“We want to create a human organoid structure that has nephrons, the filters of the kidney, that are properly ‘plumbed’ or connected to the ureteric epithelium, the tubules that direct urine towards the bladder,” says Hughes. “To achieve that, we have to first understand how to guide the formation of the ureteric tubule networks, and then stimulate early nephrons to fuse with those networks. In the end, the structures will look like ‘kidney subunits’ that could potentially be injected and fused to existing kidneys.”

The field of bioengineering has touched on questions similar to those posed by Hughes, focusing on drug testing and disease treatment. Some of these questions can be answered with the “organ-on-a-chip” approach, while others need an even more realistic model of the organ. The fundamentals of kidney development and questions such as “how does the development of nephrons affect congenital kidney and urinary tract anomalies?” require an organoid in an environment as similar to the human body as possible.

“We decided to start with the kidney for a few reasons,” says Hughes. “First, because its development is a beautiful process; the tubule growth is similar to that of a tree, splitting into branches. It’s a complex yet understudied organ that hosts incredibly common developmental defects.

“Second,” he says, “the question of how things form and develop in the kidney has major medical implications, and we cannot answer that with the ‘organ-on-a-chip’ approach. We need to create a model that mimics the chemical and mechanical properties of the kidney to watch these tissues develop.”

The fundamental development of the kidney can also answer other questions related to efficiency and the evolution of this biological filtration system.

“We have the tendency to believe that systems in the human body are the most evolved and thus the most efficient, but that is not necessarily true,” says Hughes. “If we can better understand the development of a system, such as the kidney, then we may be able to make the system better.”

Hughes’ kidney research will lay the foundation for broader goals within regenerative medicine and organ transplantation.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Bioengineering Graduate Dayo Adetu Wins Graduate Leadership Award

Dayo Adetu (BSE 2019, MSE 2021)

Congratulations to recent Penn Bioengineering graduate Dayo Adetu, who was awarded a 2021 Graduate Leadership Award, one of only sixteen recipients across the university. Adetu is a recipient of the Dr. Andy Binns Award for Outstanding Service to Graduate and Professional Student Life. This award is presented to “graduate or professional students, upon their graduation from Penn, who have significantly impacted graduate and professional student life through service involvement in student life initiatives or organizations.” Adetu wins this award for her “service and leadership in advancing wellness and diversity initiatives across departments in the School of Engineering.”

Adetu graduated with a BSE in Bioengineering (BE) in 2019, concentrating in Biomedical Devices and minoring in Engineering Entrepreneurship, Math, and African Studies. She went on to pursue two Master’s degrees in BE and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) (concentration: Design and Manufacturing), graduating with both in 2021. She also received a certificate in Integrated Product Design. For the 2020-2021 academic year, she served as President of the Penn chapters of both the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) and the Mechanical Engineering Graduate Association (MEGA). She was the 2021 MEAM MSE Graduation student speaker and also received the Penn Engineering Graduate Award for Outstanding Service for both BE and MEAM Departments.

Learn more about the Penn Graduate Leadership Awards and read the full list of recipients on the Grad Center at Penn website.

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.

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.

Connecting Communities Impacted by COVID-19

Three Penn seniors combine their desire to help with their unique skill sets to create Corona Connects, an online platform that connects volunteers with organizations in need of support.

Developed by (from left) Steven Hamel from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Megan Kyne from the Wharton School, and Hadassah Raskas from the College of Arts & Sciences, Corona Connects bridges the gap between those looking for ways to help and organizations in need of support.

by Erica K. Brockmeier

With college campuses shut due to the novel coronavirus, many students with new-found time on their hands have found themselves asking, “What can I do to help?”

To connect people with organizations that need support, three students have combined their desire to help with the skills they’ve learned both inside and outside the classroom. Developed by Penn seniors Steven Hamel from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Megan Kyne from the Wharton School, and Hadassah Raskas from the College of Arts & Sciences, the online platform Corona Connects bridges the gap between people looking for ways to help and organizations looking for support.

After returning to her hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, Raskas was eager to find some way to help but noticed that it was difficult to find opportunities online. With friends and colleagues voicing similar struggles, Raskas reached out to University of Maryland junior Elana Sichel and started putting together a list of organizations in need of help. Then, after reaching out on the Class of 2020 Facebook page about the project, Hamel, from Philadelphia, and Kyne, from Pittsburgh, offered their support to get an online platform up and running.

The team of students quickly realized that there was both a large number of individuals who wanted to find ways to help alongside an unprecedented level of need from numerous types of organizations. “We knew there was need, and we knew there was an availability of people, but the connection was missing, so we built Corona Connects to bridge this gap,” says Raskas.

Continue reading on Penn Today.

Steven Hamel graduated with his B.S.E. in Bioengineering and a Math minor in in 2020 and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Bioengineering.

InnoWorks Academy Engages Local Teens

InnoWorks

The week of August 21-25, 20 students from area middle schools visited Penn to participate in InnoWorks, an educational initiative of the United InnoWorks Academy (UIA), a non-profit organization founded in 2003 by William Hwang, M.D., Ph.D., when he was an undergraduate engineering major at Duke.  Today, InnoWorks offers programs at 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Caribbean. In the program, undergraduate student volunteers host middle schoolers from disadvantaged backgrounds to foster the teenagers’ interest in science and engineering.

InnoWorksEach day of the week, from 9:15 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., the group of teens attended presentations, conducted experiments, and competed against one another in activities designed to have them apply the principles they learned about. Each day was dedicated to different topics: materials science on Monday; biology on Tuesday; chemistry and earth science on Wednesday; physics and computer science on Thursday; and a wrap-up day on Friday. In addition, over the course of the week, the students were scored for their activities, with a winner announced at the end of the week.

For instance, on Friday, students participating in InnoWorks competed in the Egg Drop Challenge. Using materials provided for them, the students designed their own parachutes for eggs, which they used in dropping the eggs from the second floor of Skirkanich Hall to the ground floor. The students did so well that the competition had to be extended to the third floor.

On another day, Dr. Kushol Gupta, a research assistant professor at Penn conducting research on HIV and assistant director of the Penn Band, talked to the students about the physics of music. Sarah Tang and Monroe Kennedy of Dean Vijay Kumar’s GRASP lab discussed the current state of robotics and drones and showed video clips of some of their work. It was among the most popular popular parts of the week.

InnoWorksHere at Penn, the codirectors of the chapter are Jacqueline Valeri, a senior bioengineering major, and Monica Shen, a senior biology major. Asked about InnoWorks this year, Jackie said, “The InnoWorks program is a great camp to be involved with because the hands-on, interactive engagement really gets our students excited about science. We try to do really minimal lecturing time and maximize the opportunity for the students to actually do experiments, demonstrations, and design challenges. As codirector of this year’s program, it was really awesome to see what a great group of students we had this year and how they flourished throughout the week. This is my third year participating in Penn’s InnoWorks chapter and it has been one of the most rewarding, fun experiences that I’ve had at Penn!”