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.
New cancer immunotherapies involve extracting a patient’s T cells and genetically engineering them so they will recognize and attack tumors. This type of therapy is not without challenges, however. Engineering a patient’s T cells is laborious and expensive. And when successful, the alterations to the immune system immediately make patients very sick for a short period of time, with symptoms including fever, nausea and neurological effects.
Now, Penn researchers have demonstrated a new engineering technique that, because it is less toxic to the T cells, could enable a different mechanism for altering the way they recognize cancer, and could have fewer side effects for patients.
The technique involves ferrying messenger RNA (mRNA) across the T cell’s membrane via a lipid-based nanoparticle, rather than using a modified HIV virus to rewrite the cell’s DNA. Using the former approach would be preferable, as it only confers a temporary change to the patient’s immune system, but the current standard method for getting mRNA past the cell membrane can be too toxic to use on the limited number of T cells that can be extracted from a patient.
The researchers demonstrated their technique in a study published in the journal Nano Letters. It was led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation of bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Margaret Billingsley, a graduate student in his lab.
They collaborated with one of the pioneers of CAR T therapy: Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in the Abramson Cancer Center and the director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at the Perelman School of Medicine.
As he processed down Locust Walk the day of Commencement, Michael Wong didn’t miss a beat. He took in with pride all his interactions with friends, every cheer from the crowd, and each step on his final day as an undergraduate at Penn.
The first in his family to go to college, Wong would not only graduate that day with a degree from the Wharton School. Thanks to a President’s Innovation Prize (PIP), he’d also graduate with a full-fledged startup and significant funding in hand, ready and willing to take on his next chapter.
“The whole day of graduation I was like ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” recalls Wong. “It’s one of my favorite moments.”
Wong, from Oakland, California, founded InstaHub in 2016. Working with Dayo Adewole, a doctoral candidate in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the pair designed a snap-on motion sensor device that attaches onto existing light switches. It is battery powered, with occupancy sensing capabilities, and is easy to install. With PIP, which awarded Wong $100,000 (plus $50,000 for living expenses), he says he’s been able to do rapid prototyping to move InstaHub forward.
On the second floor of the Pennovation Center, Strella Biotechnology is hard at work turning their student-led startup into a full-fledged company that’s ready to make a major impact in the agricultural sector.
May graduates Katherine Sizov and Malika Shukurova, respectively the CEO and head of R&D at Strella, share a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, which includes $100,000 of financial support, a $50,000 living stipend for both awardees, and a year of dedicated co-working and lab space at the Pennovation Center. The alumnae and their company are now poised to take on the challenge of $1 trillion worth of food waste.
Strella’s biosensors are designed to give packers real-time data on how ripe their fruits are while being stored between harvesting and selling. Using bio-inspired sensors that measure the ethylene gas produced by fruits as they ripen, Strella successfully “hacked the fruit” to create their patent-pending biosensors. Now, only six months after graduation, Strella has six paying customers and is aiming for $100,000 in sales by the end of the season.
Beyond the work needed to deploy their first paid product, Strella also has a clear view of what needs to be done for future progress of the company. This means running experiments in the lab to refine their current sensors while conducting other experiments that will help the company be able to monitor other types of fresh foods. It’s a job that Shukurova says involves a lot of multitasking and requires an “all-hands” approach to problem solving.
“We set up experiments that run for several days, and during that period we work on different tasks. I prepare for the next set of experiments, Jacob [Jordan] and Katherine travel to our customers to deploy sensors, and Zuyang [Liu]]works on IoT [Internet of Things]. At the end of the day we all come together to discuss results and future plans,” says Shukurova about their company’s work flow.
Last spring, we congratulated Penn Bioengineering graduating senior Oladunni Alomaja (BSE ’19) and her partners at Rebound Liberia on their President’s Engagement Prize. Check out the article and video below on their exciting project.
By Brandon Baker
Fueled by the encouragement and support they received this spring and summer, the three Penn alumni behind Rebound Liberia are now laser-focused on carrying their mission of promoting education and empowerment straight to the basket.
The Rebound Liberia team is led by Princess Aghayere, Oladunni Alomaja, and Summer Kollie, all May Penn graduates who received the President’s Engagement Prize — a $100,000 project prize and $50,000 living stipend per team member, awarded for post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. The trio, each of whom has connections to West Africa and strives to give back, proposed an NGO that would bridge the literacy gap in post-conflict Liberia between male and female youth through workshops and a basketball program for women.
On Sept. 4, after months of preparation, the team relocated to Monrovia, Liberia, and is settling in.
“I think there’s some cultural shock,” says Aghayere, musing about the adjustment. “But Penn is a great place to travel and a lot of us took advantage of opportunities to travel. I’m not surprised, because this is not my first time on the continent, but there are things unique about Liberia. Getting used to the accents, the weather, the currency — but it’s fun.”
Aghayere and Alomaja were born in Nigeria, while Kollie is from Liberia.
Their days so far, they explain, have been consistently jam-packed with meetings. At present, they’re planning an inter-school basketball tournament to introduce their program to Liberia; in recent weeks, they’ve made connections with school administrators, found their footing in the community, and worked through the logistics of organizing a tournament — which, they note, they had some practice with in 2018, creating a summer basketball clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, for girls that was hosted twice a week.
The upcoming tournament, which will include 120 female players on Nov. 22–24, represents a first step toward their larger intention to build a basketball court and program, and marry that with literacy resources. They aim to serve approximately 60 girls in their program.
“We didn’t think it would be wise to move in September and not have an event until the next June or so, so we thought [of] the tournament,” says Aghayere, explaining the origins of the tournament. “At first, we were thinking we’d have a team and foster the game amongst girls here in Monrovia, and we wanted to include a lot more girls and create this sort of league of our own while introducing ourselves as this new social enterprise in Liberia. We thought a tournament would be a launch of Rebound Liberia and introduce us to the community here.”
Nearly four years ago, when Angelica Du was a freshman, she recalled being completely “awestruck” upon walking into her first Scholarship Celebration.
“It’s just really warm,” the now-senior noted at this year’s event, which took place Wednesday, Nov. 20. “My donors have always been so warm with me.”
Du—with a smile that’s constant, as well as contagious—scanned the red-and-blue draped walls of the John R. Rockwell Gymnasium, completely transformed for the yearly event on campus, and eyed the appetizers being passed. She glanced at her proud mom, a few folks over. Hosted by the Undergraduate Named Scholarship Program, the Celebration is one that has grown to attract hundreds of scholarship donors and their recipients and families, for an evening of networking and good-old-fashioned catching up.
“[Angelica] tells me that she’s proud,” said Jerry Riesenbach, a Wharton School alumnus who helped support Du’s cost of education through the Class of 1960 scholarship fund. “And I said to her, she makes us proud. Being able to provide funds is one thing, but seeing the benefit that goes to these young people, who have such tremendous aspirations and are so grateful, is another.”
At Penn, Du, who will graduate with her bachelor’s in bioengineering in May and her master’s in December 2020, designs robots and conducts neurobiology research. She teaches thermodynamics and critical writing to her peers. She sings for a Disney-themed a cappella group, serves her community in a Christian union, celebrates her culture in the Penn Philippine Association, and advocates within several honor societies. This past summer, she worked at Thermo Fisher Scientific, running experiments for a next-generation sequencer that will take a patient’s DNA, sequence it, and diagnose it within 24 hours.
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.
Growing up in Sri Lanka and being surrounded by relatives who were doctors, I have been fascinated by both modern and traditional medicine. However, during physician shadowing in high school, I came to the realization that I was far more fascinated with the technology doctors use rather than practicing medicine. Therefore, I made the decision to turn down studying medicine in the U.K. and come to Penn to study Bioengineering in the hopes of being more hands-on with medical technology.
Have you done research with a professor on campus? What did you like, and what didn’t you like about it?
I currently work in the Interventional Radiology Lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) under Assistant Professor of Radiology Chamith Rajapakse. The best thing about research here is that I get to be hands-on with some of the most cutting edge technology in the world and help pioneer medical diagnostic techniques that aren’t traditionally being used anywhere else. The only downside is that the learning curve can be a little too steep.
What have been some of your favorite courses and/or projects in Bioengineering so far?
Without a doubt, my favorite BE class has to be BE 309 (Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis and Design Laboratory I) and especially the Computer-Cockroach Interface we have to develop for this lab.
What advice would you give to your freshman self?
There are way too many things happening at a given time at Penn. Take it easy and plan it out so you can do everything you want to! It’s totally possible. Who says you can’t work hard and play hard?!
What do you hope to pursue after obtaining your undergraduate degree?
My hope is to head my own health-tech startup and create technologies that will aid developing countries, starting out with my humble island of Sri Lanka first.
MeVR is a bioresponsive virtual reality platform for administering biofeedback therapy. Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of involuntary physiological functions using sensors that provide information on the activity of those bodily systems, with the goal of gaining voluntary control over functions such as heart rate, muscle tension, and pain perception. This therapy is used to treat a variety of conditions such as chronic pain, stress, anxiety, and PTSD. These treatments cost on the order of hundreds to thousands of dollars, require the presence of a therapist to set up and deliver the therapy session, and are generally not interactive or immersive. MeVR is a platform to reduce these limitations of biofeedback therapy through an individualized, immersive, and portable device which guides users through biofeedback therapy using wearable sensors and a virtual reality environment which responds in real-time to biological feedback from the user’s body.