Joseph Lance Casila, a doctoral student and Fontaine Fellow in Bioengineering, was profiled by his alma mater, the University of Guam (UOG. Casila was the first person in his family to graduate from a U.S.-accredited university and is now studying tissue engineering and regenerative medicine in the Bioengineering and Biomaterials Laboratory of Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering and Pediatrics in Penn Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). His research in the Gottardi lab employs “tissue engineering and drug delivery for biomedical problems relating to knees, ears, nose, and throat but specifically to pediatric airway disorders.” The article discusses Casila’s journey from valedictorian of his high school, to a first-generation undergraduate interested bioengineering, and now a graduate student studying at Penn on a full scholarship. After completing his degree, Casila hopes to bring what he’s learned back home to advance health care in Guam.
“My mentors, and especially my friends, helped me make the most of what UOG had to offer, and it paid off rewardingly,” he said. “You get what you put in.”
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.”
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.
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!
The Penn Bioengineering student spotlight series continues with David Alanis Garza. David is a senior from Monterrey, Mexico finishing his dual degree in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Health Care Management at the Wharton School, with minors in Chemistry and Math. He currently serves as the Captain of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), managing clinical operations and the organization’s response to COVID-19. He is also a Penn tour guide and a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. In his free time, he enjoys mountain climbing, camping, and playing guitar.
What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?
I first became interested in BE during my high school physics class, in which my teacher motivated our lesson in electromagnetism by explaining the basics behind an MRI machine and how defibrillators are basically glorified capacitors. I realized that my lifelong dream to be a surgeon would best be served if I armed myself with a scalpel and screwdriver alike. With the fast paced advances in the medical field, the best physicians must not only understand the underlying pathophysiology of disease, but also how to interact with and keep up with innovations in the biomedical engineering field. At Penn, I have enjoyed discovering that BE is much more wide than what I initially appreciated.
Have you ever done research with a professor on campus? What did you like, and what didn’t you like about it?
I have had the opportunity to work in the Center for Resuscitation Science on a research project investigating diagnostic patterns in the electrocardiogram of Pulseless Electrical Activity (PEA). I truly enjoyed the opportunity to take on more responsibility as the first author of the manuscript we are currently working on, and learned so much about communication in science when presenting the research during American Heart Association’s Resuscitation Science Symposium this last weekend. What I learned in Bioengineering, especially in BE 309/310 (Lab) and BE 301 (Signals and Systems), has been incredibly useful for my research. I am also currently completing a Wharton senior thesis exploring how financial derivative securities could be used to hedge risk in emergency departments. Penn is incredibly supportive of students seeking to gain more research experience, offering an abundance of opportunities for guided and independent projects. I truly enjoyed the opportunity of finding answers to very specific questions in my fields, as well as the valuable relationships with my mentors I formed along the way.
What have been some of your favorite courses and/or projects in Bioengineering so far?
BE 305 (Engineering Principles of Human Physiology) has been my favorite course at Penn. In this class, we were able to understand, quantify, and hack the body’s physiology through an engineering lens. From building a pulseoximeter with our phone cameras, to determining the blood volume of the left ventricle over time with MRI images, this class was very much hands on. A close second is BE 301 (Bioengineering Signals and Systems). I hadn’t previously grasped how this discipline was relevant to medicine until this class, but now I find myself applying what I learned in my research. Lastly, as many other BE students will tell you, the human-cockroach machine interface project in BE lab has been one of my most challenging and rewarding undertakings at Penn. Our team linked a wearable device that measured the forearms position and muscle contractions, so that when the wearer painted a picture, a cockroach leg would be moved and stimulated to paint an imitation of the image. Overcoming my phobia of cockroaches and the countless hours of trial and error were all worth it, for I can now brag about how my team made an artist out of a cockroach leg.
What advice would you give to your freshman self?
It is a great idea to identify which area of BE research you are interested in, and plan your academics so that you can take the closely related courses early on. This will empower you to conduct research with greater responsibilities or give you marketable skills that employers may look for when hiring for internships of your interest. BE upperclassmen are always willing to help, so feel free to reach out to us for any advice.
What do you hope to pursue after obtaining your undergraduate degree?
I will be taking a gap year in which I will be working in the area of hospital administration and clinical engineering before I begin my medical school journey. As of right now, I am interested in specializing in emergency medicine or surgery, but I know my interests may change as my understanding of medicine grows throughout the next years.
Have you done or learned anything new or interesting during quarantine?
The COVID pandemic gave me a unique opportunity to manage the clinical operations of MERT’s emergency medical services during an unprecedented challenge. As a result, I learned a lot about how different hospitals and health care systems are managing their response, not to mention the standard protocols to ensure the safety and wellness of our patients and providers. On a less professional note, I have been able to get a bit better at chess and guitar.
As an undergraduate studying bioengineering, Gabriel DeSantis spent a semester abroad at ETH Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland. Now in the Bioengineering master’s program, DeSantis is also a Penn Abroad Leader, serving on the office’s student advisory board and supporting fellow students interested in global experiences.
Penn Abroad’s Selene Li recently interviewed DeSantis about what drew him to Switzerland and his time there:
How did you discover the Switzerland abroad program?
I think it was probably in my sophomore year when I started seriously thinking about going abroad as something I could do during my time at Penn. I had cousins and other friends who had gone abroad, and just heard great things about it, so it seemed like something worth looking into. So as a bioengineer, I remember I first looked at what programs even offer bioengineering credit, and there’s really only a handful of options. I think I really wanted to be in Europe, and the Zurich program was at a super strong school. There was also someone in one of my classes who was a year older than me that was planning on going and was going through the whole application process. They were telling me about their whole application process and that really showed me how feasible going abroad was as a bioengineer.
What kinds of classes did you take?
I went in as a Health Sciences and Technology major. I had a decent amount of freedom in terms of the courses I could take because of that. While there, I took four credits that I ended up bringing back, and then two courses that were a little smaller that I didn’t do for credit but were just sort of interesting.
What was a really good or favorite memory from going abroad?
I really like hiking. During the first few weeks, we would do day trips to mountains nearby, but we did one weekend trip where we did two nights in Interlaken and had two full days to do some more intense hikes. Interlaken is just one of the most beautiful places in the world. We were staying at a nice little hostel, so I had an amazing day doing an 18-mile hike, and then coming back and hanging out with a bunch of people who I was also abroad with, as well as other people who were at the hostel. I think it was just being around constant beauty and around such great people and feeling accomplished because of the hike that made it such a great memory.
When the coronavirus pandemic began in March, María Suarez, junior in bioengineering, left Penn’s campus and returned home to Costa Rica. What should have been the final weeks of club activities, social events and end-of-year celebrations shifted to months spent at home, far away from Philadelphia. But Suarez, like many others, wanted to do something productive with her time in quarantine. Drawing on her bucolic roots, she decided to start a garden.
“I was born and raised in a very rural area,” Suarez says. “There is a huge river in my backyard where I learned how to count by throwing pebbles in the river with my mother and sister. Nature is a big part of my life, and it’s really shaped my personality. As a child, I planted herbs, like basil, mint and oregano, with my parents. When you are close to the land like this, gardening was something that grew naturally out of our lifestyle.”
As the spring semester shifted into summer, Suarez returned to her love of planting and embarked on an ambitious project to grow a vegetable garden in her backyard. Unlike the smaller herb gardens she had grown as a child, this vegetable garden required deeper horticultural knowledge as well as intense work under the hot sun.
“To begin the garden, I had to clear the land I wanted to use and remove all the grass and stones from the soil,” Suarez shares. “It was the dry season in Costa Rica and the ground was very difficult to work with.”
After clearing the land, Suarez had to bring nutrients back into the soil of her garden plot. Luckily, her family has been maintaining a natural compost pile for many years.
“Basically, the compost pile is a hole in the ground where we put our natural food waste. There are worms and animals there that help us naturally decompose the waste and they produce a very nutrient rich soil.” Suarez explains. “The compost is a five-minute walk from my garden, and I had to take at least ten trips with a wheelbarrow to bring enough back. It was a great arm workout.”
Once the soil was placed and watered, Suarez was finally able to plant her seeds. After a few days, she saw celery and zucchini plants beginning to sprout. Throughout the summer, Suarez’s crops grew well, and she was able to harvest the vegetables and share them with her family.
“It was very fulfilling to see the products of my efforts,” Suarez says.
Rising Bioengineering Sophomore Catherine Michelluti (BSE 2023) has been featured on Penn’s SNF Paideia Program Instagram which discusses her diverse interests in machine learning in medicine, computer science, playing the violin and more. Catherine is a pre-med student who is pursuing an uncoordinated dual degree between the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Wharton School of Business (BS in Economics 2023). She is also an incoming fellow in the SNF Paideia Program, which is supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, is an interdisciplinary program which “encourage[s] the free exchange of ideas, civil and robust discussion of divergent views, and the integration of individual and community wellness, service, and citizenship through SNF Paideia designated courses, a fellows program, and campus events” (SNF Paideia website).
Melanie Hilman was born to be a Biomedical Engineer. The daughter of an electrical engineering father and physician mother, Melanie was inspired by her parents work and is now pursuing the intersection of their two careers: bioengineering.
Her passion for engineering began long before Melanie stepped onto Smith Walk.
“I always really loved math and science as a middle school and high school student,” Melanie says.
Melanie quickly discovered that Penn was the perfect place for her. After visiting campus as a prospective student, Melanie knew that she wanted to attend a research-driven university where innovation and discovery was at the top of the curriculum.
“Being in a place so rich with research and really smart minds motivated me to apply here and be a part of this program,” Melanie remembers.
On top of her bioengineering research, Melanie submatriculated into Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics with a focus on Mechanics of Materials because she wants to develop a deep foundation in the mathematical concepts. After gaining this experience, Melanie hopes to conduct complex research and eventually pursue a PhD.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
“I really like thinking about the interface between biology and today’s technologies,” Melanie comments. Right now, she’s focused on doing research but she is interested in, one day, developing biomedical technologies for the start-up industry.
As if building the future of bioengineering weren’t enough for Melanie, she is a dedicated member of the Penn community outside of the lab. Throughout her time at Penn, Melanie is a student leader of Penn Hillel, a devoted performer in the Penn Symphony Orchestra and Penn Chamber Music, and a multimedia staff member of the Daily Pennsylvanian. Even when school is out of session, Melanie represents Penn during Alternative Spring Break trips where she took on a leadership position renovating houses in West Virginia. All of this extracurricular work is important to Melanie, as she says these experiences have given her a valuable perspective to carry with her through academic, professional and personal life.
“It makes me feel really fortunate for my upbringing and my experiences,” Melanie shares.
WOMEN IN STEM
When asked about her favorite part of being at Penn Engineering, Melanie was certain about her answer: empowered women engineers.
“Having a really strong female engineering network is super valuable to me,” Melanie says.
Melanie says she’s found friendship and support among her fellow women engineers and that working with women is as fun as it is enriching. While Penn Engineering has proved itself to be an inclusive space for Melanie and others, current research shows that only 13% of professional engineers are women, and, among them, biomedical engineering ranks fourth in terms of career path of women engineers. Faced with these jarring numbers, Melanie is even more committed to encouraging other women to join her in STEM.
Most of all, she is grateful for the community she has found on campus.
“I know I’m going to have a good group of friends after I graduate. I have found other women that I hope to have lasting friendships with.”
Armed with friends and research partners, Melanie Hillman may very well turn the tides for women in engineering and usher in a new era of women in the lab who lead the charge for biomedical innovation.
What originally drew me to this field was a “Women in Engineering Day” I attended at a local college while in high school. I had the opportunity to hear incredible women speak about their research regarding biomaterials and tissue engineering. This event showed me the impact this field can have on the world. This drove me to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering, which only strengthened my passion. As I furthered my studies and began working full-time at a biotechnology company, I learned more about bioengineering. With encouragement from my coworkers and family, I decided to pursue my Master’s in Bioengineering and am delighted to have the opportunity to study at Penn.
What kind of research do you conduct, and what do you hope to focus on for your thesis?
I am actually a part-time student, who works full-time at a drug packaging and medical device company out in Exton, PA. Though I am not doing research on campus, my coursework has tied into previous research projects I have participated in at my job. My latest project entailed understanding different material properties used in container closure systems for mAb-based biologics and how they interact. This work was done to support an understanding of how to pick appropriate vial/syringe systems for various drug products in development.
What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?
My favorite thing to do is trying all the new restaurants and incredible foods this city has to offer. I think Philadelphia is so unique and has such rich cultural influences. With so many different neighborhoods and restaurant options you really can’t go wrong.
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?
My undergraduate degree was in Biomedical Engineering. It has supported my graduate coursework very well and has given me a great opportunity to dive deeper into certain parts of my studies.
My advice to my younger self would be to take your time! It took me a little while to evaluate different graduate programs and choose which was right for me. Though it took some time, I ultimately decided what was best for me and couldn’t be happier with my choices.
What are you thinking about doing after graduate school?
Currently, I work full-time as an Associate Packaging Engineer at West Pharmaceutical Services in Exton, PA. I hope to take my degree to further my career and to help support my future aspirations at this company.