In the most recent episode of the Penn Engineering podcast Innovation & Impact, titled “RNA: Past, Present and Future,” David F. Meaney, Senior Associate Dean of Penn Engineering and Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering, is joined by Mike Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, and Noor Momin, who will be joining Penn Engineering as an Assistant Professor in Bioengineering early next year, to discuss the impact that RNA has had on health care and biomedical engineering technologies.
Mitchell outlines his lab’s research that spans drug delivery, new technology in protecting RNA and its applications in treating cancer. Momin details her research, which is focused on optimizing the immune system to protect against illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer. With Meaney driving the discussion around larger questions, including the possibility of a cancer vaccine, the three discuss what they are excited about now and where the field is going in the future with these emerging, targeted treatments.
MakerSpaces–collaborative, educational work environments–have recently grown in popularity. Penn BE Labs distinguishes itself as a Bio-MakerSpace, embracing the interdisciplinary character of bioengineering by offering itself freely as a space for both academic and personal projects. It is stocked with tools ranging from 3D printers, laser cutters, and electrical equipment, including supplies to support work in molecular biology, physiology, chemistry, and microfluidics.
In the episode, hosts Tricia Friedman and Jeff Utecht talk with Mannickarottu about the organic process by which the Penn BE Labs evolved from a standard teaching space for undergraduate engineering laboratory courses into a student-driven hub of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that is open to the entire Penn community regardless of discipline or major.
Mannickarottu and his team have found that “creativity needs to let go of control – that’s when fun things happen.” As the lab staff and faculty started to allow more creative freedom in the undergraduate bioengineers’ education, the requests for more supplies started pouring in and the lab’s activities and resources grew. “Honestly, we’re driven almost entirely by student requests and student demands,” says Mannickarottu. So when a student requested a sewing machine for a project? They went out and bought one, adding to their ever-growing stockpile of tools. Over time, more and more diverse projects have emerged from the BE Labs, many of them going on to win awards and grow beyond Penn’s campus as independent startups.
In case this sounds out of reach for smaller institutions, Mannickarottu shares words of encouragement. “The biggest thing,” he says, “is to allow for creativity on the part of the students.” A lab or program can start their own MakerSpace surprisingly inexpensively and build their inventory over time. His number one recommendation for those looking to replicate the success of Penn BE Labs is to allow students freedom to innovate, and administrators will be drawn to invest in the MakerSpace to allow for even more opportunities for them to create and thrive.
To help others get started, the Penn BE Labs staff have put a wide range of resources online, including extensive video and photo archives, FAQ’s, tutorials, information about student projects and startups, and equipment inventories. A 2019 post written for the BE Blog by BE alumna Sophie Burkholder (BSE ‘20 & MSE ‘21) gives the reader tips on “how to build your own MakerSpace for under $1500.”
Though it may currently be “the world’s only interdisciplinary Bio-MakerSpace,” the greatest legacy of the Penn BE Labs would be to be known as the first of many.
Listen to “The legacy of your lab” in Shifting Schools to learn more about the Penn BE Labs and for tips on starting your own MakerSpace.
Twin academics Dani S. Basset, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor and director of the Complex Systems Lab, and Perry Zurn, a professor of philosophy at American University, were recently featured as guests on NPR radio show “Detroit Today” to discuss their new book, “Curious Mind: The Power of Connection.”
In their book, Basset and Zurn draw on their previous research, as well as an expansive network of ideas from philosophy, history, education and art to explore how and why people experience curiosity, as well as the different types it can take.
Basset, who holds appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, as well as the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn Arts & Science, and the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry in Penn Perelman’s School of Medicine, and Zurn spoke with “Detroit Today” producer Sam Corey about what types of things make people curious, and how to stimulate more curiosity in our everyday lives.
According to the twin experts, curiosity is not a standalone facet of one’s personality. Basset and Zurn’s work has shown that a person’s capacity for inquiry is very much tied to the overall state of their health.
“There’s a lot of scientific research focusing on intellectual humility and also openness to ideas,” says Bassett. “And there are really interesting relationships between someone’s openness to ideas, someone’s intellectual humility and their curiosity and also their wellbeing or flourishing,”
Koo shared findings from one of his recent studies conducted in collaboration with Penn Engineering, which showed that a shapeshifting robotic microswarm can brush and floss teeth.
“Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have a hard time cleaning their teeth” says Koo. “You have to brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it’s a manual, multistep process. The big innovation here is that the robotics system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way.”
The building blocks of these microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles that have both catalytic and magnetic activity. Using a magnetic field, researchers could direct their motion and configuration to form either bristlelike structures that sweep away dental plaque from the broad surfaces of teeth, or elongated strings that can slip between teeth like a length of floss.
“Nanoparticles can be shaped and controlled with magnetic fields in surprising ways,” says Edward Steager, a senior research investigator at Penn Engineering and co-corresponding author. “We form bristles that can extend, sweep, and even transfer back and forth across a space, much like flossing. The way it works is similar to how a robotic arm might reach out and clean a surface. The system can be programmed to do the nanoparticle assembly and motion control automatically.”
Kevin Johnson is used to forging his own path in the fields of healthcare and computer science.
If you ask him to locate his niche within these fields, Johnson, David L. Cohen and Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor with appointments in Penn Engineering and the Perelman School of Medicine, would say “informatics.” But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the board-certified pediatrician, who has dedicated his career to innovations in how patients’ information is created, documented and shared, all with the goal of improving the quality of healthcare they receive.
Informatics, the study of the structure and behavior of interactions between natural and computational systems, is an umbrella term. Within it, there’s bioinformatics, which applies informatics to biology, and biomedical informatics, which looks at those interactions in the context of healthcare systems. Finally, there is clinical informatics, which further focuses on the settings where healthcare is delivered, and where Johnson squarely places himself.
“But you can just call it ‘informatics,’” says Johnson. “It will be easier.”
He mainly studies how computational systems can improve ambulatory care — sometimes known as outpatient care, or the kind of care hospitals give to patients without admitting them — in real time. If you’ve ever heard your doctor complain about the amount of time it takes them to input the information they get from you during your visit, or wondered why they need to capture this information during the visit in the first place, these are some of the questions Johnson is investigating.
“We’re taking care of patients but we’re getting frustrated by things that we thought these new computers should be able to fix,” says Johnson.” I think there’s a very compelling case for using engineering principles to reimagine electronic health records.”
Kevin Johnson is the David L. Cohen University of Pennsylvania Professor in the Departments of Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Informatics and Computer and Information Science. As a Penn Integrates Knowlegde (PIK) University Professor, Johnson also holds appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Pediatrics, as well as in the Annenberg School of Communication. Johnson is the Vice President for Applied Informatics for the University of Pennsylvania Health System and has been elected to the American College of Medical Informatics (2004), the Academic Pediatric Society (2010), the National Academy of Medicine (Institute of Medicine) (2010), and the International Association of Health Science Informatics (2021).
Sally and Kayla wrap up the You Do Belong in Science series with listener stories and lessons learned from this series. Listeners write in with stories about the importance of professors’ LGBTQ allyship and dealing with chronic illness in graduate school. Sally and Kayla reveal who does not belong in science (spoiler alert/content advisory: it’s sexual harassers). They also welcome allyship correspondent Jon Muncie to discuss actions everyone can take to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace, fairly judge peers’ research, and increase representation and promote the inclusion of people from underrepresented groups in STEM. He reminds Double Shelix that we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable when it comes to discussing and addressing these important issues facing our science workplaces.
Sally and Kayla thank the Berkeley Student Tech Fund, as well as Gustavo Villarreal @wikirascals for their graphics. Get your Double Shelix and You Do Belong in Science stickers at doubleshelix.com/stickers.
Share your thoughts on this episode — or your belonging story — on voicemail 415-895-0850 or email Double Shelix email@example.com. Sally and Kayla are on Twitter @doubleshelixpod and coming soon to Instagram @doubleshelixpodcast — give them a follow!
Professor Suhair Sunoqrot joins Sally and Kayla to discuss her experiences running her research lab at Al Zaytoonah University of Jordan and what she wishes international colleagues understood about the research climate in Jordan. Also on this episode, a listener is having a hard time fitting in while researching in another country, and Suhair’s experience finding belonging in research labs in the US and Europe is discussed. Suhair successfully balances her nanoparticle and drug delivery research with a heavy teaching load, and Sally and Kayla learn her secrets for making it work. Suhair is an outstanding researcher and mentor.
A STEM graduate degree can be a gateway to an amazing career, but many undergraduate students are unaware that these opportunities exist or how to navigate the grad school admission process. Guests Christina Fuentes and Shaheen Jeeawoody join Sally and Kayla to discuss strategies for enabling students to learn about and successfully apply to graduate school. Shaheen and Christina are both leaders in Graduate Pathways to STEM, a grad student-run organization that brings students from non-research institutions to Berkeley or Stanford for a 1-day conference to learn about the opportunities a graduate degree presents, what grad school is like, and how to navigate the admissions process. Conference attendees are paired with peer mentors and have the opportunity to interact with STEM leaders. They also discuss strategies for successful grad school applications, writing strong essays that advocate for yourself, Shaheen and Christina’s pathways to graduate school, and the value of peer mentorship: “Peer mentorship kept me in the PhD.” If you’re considering applying to graduate school, want to improve your writing, or want to understand how your community can be more welcoming to graduate students of all backgrounds, you will LOVE this episode.
Many students arrive in college under-prepared for success, and professors have the responsibility– and opportunity — to help them gain skills to enable their success and find belonging in STEM. However, few professors are trained to help students develop these skills, so Double Shelix’s guest, Sherri Messersmith, incorporates them into her series of developmental math textbooks! On this episode, Sherri shares her journey in math, from besting elementary school bullies on every math test, to high school math teacher, to college math professor, and now author of 15 college math textbooks. Kayla and Sally discuss with Sherri how staying true to your passions outside your main focus area — like writing, cooking, and travel, for Sherri — can make you better at your job, and even open the door to new opportunities — like textbook authorship! Sherri tells Sally and Kayla what departments can do to engage with students in introductory courses and how to build students’ confidence in difficult material. As Sherri says, life is not linear, so follow your passions, work hard, and be ready if fortune strikes with an amazing opportunity! Sherri is an experienced educator and speaker on the topic of enabling student success, and Double Shelix was honored to have her.
Also on this episode, Sally and Kayla hear from a listener who was told by professors that they didn’t belong in their grad program because they went to a small liberal arts college, not a big research institution — what?! We discuss how students take these kinds of comments from faculty really harshly, and how faculty can do better. Also, the importance of peer support in making it through trying times when you’re singled out or are the “only one.”
Upcoming #YouDoBelongInScience episodes will feature your stories! Fill out this form or call Double Shelix’s voicemail, 415-895-0850, to share your story of (dis)belonging in STEM. Sally and Kayla are hoping to share a diverse set of experiences from our listeners, but they need your help to make that happen!