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.
Diabetes is one of the more common diseases among Americans today, with the American Diabetes Association estimating that approximately 9.5 percent of the population battles the condition today. Though symptoms and causes may vary across types and patients, diabetes generally results from the body’s inability to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check. A new experimental treatment from the lab of Sha Jin, Ph.D., a biomedical engineering professor at Binghamton University, aims to use about $1.2 million in recent federal grants to develop a method for pancreatic islet cell transplantation, as those are the cells responsible for producing insulin.
But the catch to this new approach is that relying on healthy donors of these islet cells won’t easily meet the vast need for them in diabetic patients. Sha Jin wants to use her grants to consider the molecular mechanisms that can lead pluripotent stem cells to become islet-like organoids. Because pluripotent stem cells have the capability to evolve into nearly any kind of cell in the human body, the key to Jin’s research is learning how to control their mechanisms and signaling pathways so that they only become islet cells. Jin also wants to improve the eventual culture of these islet cells into three-dimensional scaffolds by finding ways of circulating appropriate levels of oxygen to all parts of the scaffold, particularly those at the center, which are notoriously difficult to accommodate. If successful in her tissue engineering efforts, Jin will not only be able to help diabetic patients, but also open the door to new methods of evolving pluripotent stem cells into mini-organ models for clinical testing of other diseases as well.
A Treatment to Help Others See Better
Permanently crossed eyes, a medical condition called strabismus, affects almost 18 million people in the United States, and is particularly common among children. For a person with strabismus, the eyes don’t line up to look at the same place at the same time, which can cause blurriness, double vision, and eye strain, among other symptoms. Associate professor of bioengineering at George Mason University, Qi Wei, Ph.D., hopes to use almost $2 million in recent funding from the National Institute of Health to treat and diagnose strabismus with a data-driven computer model of the condition. Currently, the most common method of treating strabismus is through surgery on one of the extraocular muscles that contribute to it, but Wei wants her model to eventually offer a noninvasive approach. Using data from patient MRIs, current surgical procedures, and the outcomes of those procedures, Wei hopes to advance and innovate knowledge on treating strabismus.
A Newly Analyzed Brain Mechanism Could be the Key to Stopping Seizures
Among neurological disorders, epilepsy is one of the most common. An umbrella term for a lot of different seizure-inducing conditions, many versions of epilepsy can be treated pharmaceutically. Some, however, are resistant to the drugs used for treatment, and require surgical intervention. Bin He, Ph. D., the Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, recently published a paper in collaboration with researchers at Mayo Clinic that describes the way that seizures originating at a single point in the brain can be regulated by what he calls “push-pull” dynamics within the brain. This means that the propagation of a seizure through the brain relies on the impact of surrounding tissue. The “pull” he refers to is of the surrounding tissue towards the seizure onset zone, while the “push” is what propagates from the seizure onset zone. Thus, the strength of the “pull” largely dictates whether or not a seizure will spread. He and his lab looked at different speeds of brain rhythms to perform analysis of functional networks for each rhythm band. They found that this “push-pull” mechanism dictated the propagation of seizures in the brain, and suggest future pathways of treatment options for epilepsy focused on this mechanism.
Hyperspectral Imaging Might Provide New Ways of Finding Cancer
A new method of imaging called hyperspectral imaging could help improve the prediction of cancerous cells in tissue specimens. A recent study from a University of Texas Dallas team of researchers led by professor of bioengineering Baowei Fei, Ph.D., found that a combination of hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence led to an 80% to 90% level of accuracy in identifying the presence of cancer cells in a sample of 293 tissue specimens from 102 patients. With a $1.6 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Fei wants to develop a smart surgical microscope that will help surgeons better detect cancer during surgery.
Fei’s use of hyperspectral imaging allows him to see the unique cellular reflections and absorptions of light across the electromagnetic spectrum, giving each cell its own specific marker and mode of identification. When paired with artificial intelligence algorithms, the microscope Fei has in mind can be trained to specifically recognize cancerous cells based on their hyperspectral imaging patterns. If successful, Fei’s innovations will speed the process of diagnosis, and potentially improve cancer treatments.
People and Places
A group of Penn engineering seniors won the Pioneer Award at the Rothberg Catalyzer Makerthon led be Penn Health-Tech that took place from October 19-20, 2019. SchistoSpot is a senior design project created by students Vishal Tien (BE ‘20), Justin Swirbul (CIS ‘20), Alec Bayliff (BE ‘20), and Bram Bruno (CIS ‘20) in which the group will design a low-cost microscopy dianostic tool that uses computer vision capabilities to automate the diagnosis of schistosomiasis, which is a common parasitic disease. Read about all the winners here.
Virginia Tech University will launch a new Cancer Research Initiative with the hope of creating an intellectual community across engineers, veterinarians, biomedical researchers, and other relevant scientists. The initiative will focus not only on building better connections throughout departments at the university, but also in working with local hospitals like the Carilion Clinic and the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Through these new connections, people from all different areas of science and engineering and come together to share ideas.
Associate Professor of Penn Bioengineering Dani Bassett, Ph.D., recently sat down with the Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor Duncan Watts, Ph.D., for an interview published in Penn Engineering. Bassett discusses the origins of network science, her research in small-world brain networks, academic teamwork, and the pedagogy of science and engineering. You can read the full interview here.
NB: Penn Bioengineering would like to congratulate one of its current Senior Design teams (Alec Bayliff, Bram Bruno, Justin Swirbul, and Vishal Then) which took home the $500 Pioneer Award at this year’s Rothberg Catalyzer competition this past weekend! Keep reading for more information on the competition, awards, and winners.
Penn Health-Tech’s Rothberg Catalyzer is a two-day makerthon that challenges interdisciplinary student teams to prototype and pitch medical devices that aim to address an unmet clinical need.
MAR Designs took home the top prize of $10,000 for their project, an orthotic device that children with cerebral palsy can more comfortably wear as they sleep.
According to the team’s presentation, existing wrist orthoses “improve function and treat/prevent spasticity. However, patients report that these devices are uncomfortable which leads to lack of compliance and may also prevent patient’s eligibility for surgeries.” MAR Designs’ device initially allows full range of motion, but gradually straightens the wrist as the child is falling asleep.
In second place was Splash Throne. Team members Greg Chen, Nik Evitt, Jake Crawford and Meghan Lockwood proposed a toilet safety frame intended for elderly users. Embedded sensors track basic health information, like weight and heart-rate, as part of a preventative health routine.
Integrated Product Design students Jonah Arheim, Laura Ceccacci, Julia Lin and Alex Wan took third place with ONESCOPE, an untethered, hands-free laproscope designed to make minimally-invasive surgeries faster and safer.
Finally, SchistoSpot took home the Catalyzer’s Pioneer Award. Bioengineering and Computer and Information Science seniors Alec Bayliff, Bram Bruno, Justin Swirbul and Vishal Then designed a low-cost microscopy system that can aid in the diagnosis of the parasitic disease schistosomiasis by detecting eggs in urine samples, eliminating the need for a hospital visit.
The event was made possible by a three-year donation by scientist and entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, with the intent of inspiring the next generation of healthcare innovators.
The annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) will be held in our hometown of Philadelphia October 16-19, 2019. The professional society for bioengineers and biomedical engineers will be taking over the city of Brotherly Love, and lots of faculty and students from Penn’s Bioengineering will be attending and presenting their research.
As previously mentioned here, Jason Burdick, Ph.D., the Robert D. Bent Professor of Bioengineering, is one of three chairs of the 2019 annual meeting. He shares this position with two other local faculty: Alisa Morss Clyne, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics at Drexel University; and Ruth Ochia, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Instruction in Bioengineering at Temple University. They have worked together since their appointment in 2017 to plan and chair the Philadelphia conference. Check out the video below with details of what to expect from BMES in Philly.
For those of you who have never been to BMES, the event is comprised of a mixture of academic and networking events, including keynote talks from top researchers, thousands of oral and poster presentations, participants from around the world, and social receptions. To plan your itinerary, click here for the program and agenda and here for the schedule at a glance. With the meeting being held locally this year, there are far too many presentations by Penn Bioengineering faculty and staff to list here, so check out BMES’s searchable scientific program or our searchable schedule of Penn faculty student activities at this year’s meeting (separated by day).
For those interested in social events and networking, check out two back-to-back events on Friday night. From 6:30-8:30 pm, Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, CEMB, and LRSM will host a reception at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Salon E. This will be followed by the meeting’s big BMES Dessert Bash at the Franklin Institute from 8:30-10:30 pm. (Please note: These events are open to registered conference participants only.) For those sticking around, there are no shortage of things to do in Philly, whether you are looking to site-see, shop, or dine.
We hope everyone has a wonderful time at the conference and enjoys Philadelphia! Let us know what activities you are enjoying most by tagging us on Twitter @pennbioeng or Instagram (pennbioengineering) and using the hashtag #pennbioengineering.
A New Sprayable Gel Can Help Prevent Surgical Adhesions
Adhesions are a common kind of scar tissue that can occur after surgery, and though usually not painful, they have the potential to result in complications like chronic pain or decreased heart efficiency, depending on where the scar tissue forms. Now, a sprayable gel developed by researchers at Stanford University will help to prevent adhesions from forming during surgical procedures. The gel, called PNP 1:10 in reference to its polymer-nanoparticle structure, has a similar stiffness to mayonnaise and achieves an ideal balance of slipperiness and stickiness that allows it to adhere easily to tissue of irregular shapes and surfaces. The flexible gel will actually dissolve in the body after two weeks, which is about how long most adhesions take to heal. Though lead author Lyndsay Stapleton, M.S., and senior authors Joseph Woo, M.D., and Eric Appel, Ph.D., have only tested the gel in rats and sheep so far, they hope that human applications are not too far in the future.
Learning to Understand Blood Clots in a New Model
Blood clots are the source of some of the deadliest human conditions and diseases. When a clot forms, blood flow can be interrupted, cutting off supply to the brain, heart, or other vital organs, resulting in potentially serious damage to the mind and body. For patients with certain bleeding disorders, clotting or the lack thereof can hold tremendous importance in surgery, and affect some of the typical procedures of a given operation. To help plan for such situations, researchers at the University of Buffalo created an in vitro model to help better illustrate the complex fluid mechanics of blood flow and clotting. Most importantly, this new model better demonstrates the role of shear stress in blood flow, and the way that it can affect the formation or destruction of blood clots – an aspect that current clinical devices often overlook. Led by Ruogang Zhao, Ph.D., the model can allow surgeons and hematologists to consider the way that certain chemical or physical treatments can affect clot formation on a patient-to-patient basis. The two key factors of the model are its incorporation of blood flow, and its relationship to shear stress, with clot stiffness through microfabrication technology using micropillars as force sensors for the stiffness. Going forward, Zhao and his research team hope to test the model on more patients, to help diversify the different bleeding disorders it can exhibit.
Training the Next Generation of Researchers
Rebecca Zappala, a junior from Miami, Florida who is majoring in bioengineering, worked in Grenoble this summer on new ways to harvest water from fog. She describes her research project as a “futuristic” way to collect water and says that she’s thankful for the opportunity to work on her first independent research project through the Research and Education in Active Coatings Technology (REACT) program.
After learning the technical skills she needed for her project, Zappala spent her summer independently working on new ways to modify her material’s properties while working closely with her French PI and a post-doc in the lab. She was surprised to see how diverse the lab was, with researchers working on everything from biomolecular research to energy in the same space.
“I learned a lot,” she says about being in such an interdisciplinary setting. “I hadn’t been part of a research team before, and I got a lot of exposure to things that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.”
Virginia Tech Course Addresses the Needs of Wounded Veterans
A new course at Virginia Tech encourages students to apply engineering skills to real-life problems in the biomedical world by designing medical devices or other applications to assist veterans suffering from serious injuries or illnesses. Funded by the National Institute of Health, faculty from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics hope that the course will allow students to see how theoretical knowledge from the classroom actually works in a clinical setting, and to understand how different stakeholder interests factor into designing a real device. What makes this new class unique from other traditional design-focused courses at other universities is its level of patient interaction. Students at Virginia Tech who choose to take this class will have the chance to gain input from field professionals like clinicians and engineers from the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center, while also being able to get direct feedback from the patients that the devices will actually help. Beginning in the spring of 2020, students can take the new course, and volunteer in the veterans clinics to gain even more experience with patients.
People and Places
Sevile Mannickarottu, the Director of the Educational Laboratories in Penn’s Department of Bioengineering and recent recipient of the Staff Recognition Award from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, presented a paper to highlight the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Educational Lab and Bio-Makerspace at the 126th annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education. Thanks to the dedication of Mannickarottu and the lab staff to creating a space for simultaneous education and innovation, the Bioengineering Lab continues to be a hub for student community and projects of all kinds.
A week-long program for high school girls interested in STEM allows students to explore ideas and opportunities in the field through lab tours, guest speakers, and hands-on challenges. A collaboration across the University of Virginia Department of Biomedical Engineering, Charlottesville Women in Tech, and St. Anne’s Belfield School, the program gave this year’s students a chance to design therapies for children with disorders like hemiplegia and cerebral palsy, in the hopes that these interactive design challenges will inspire the girls to pursue future endeavors in engineering.
We would like to congratulate Nancy Albritton, Ph.D., on her appointment as the next Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington. Albritton brings both a deep knowledge of the research-to-marketplace pipeline and experience in the development of biomedical microdevices and pharmacoengineering to the new position.
We would also like to congratulate Jeffrey Brock, Ph.D., on his appointment as the dean of the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. Already both a professor of mathematics and a dean of science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale, Brock’s new position will help him to foster collaborations across different departments of academia and research in science and engineering.
On May 8, 2019, first year Bioengineering students at the University of Pennsylvania gathered together for a marathon two-hour session in which no fewer than twenty-one groups presented the results of their final projects. These projects were the culmination of two semesters’ work in the courses BE 100 and 101, the department’s year-long introduction to Bioengineering. The topics were as diverse and creative as the students, ranging from medical devices and pediatric monitors to plant-care and diagnostic apps. They covered a variety of issues and needs, including tools to help the blind; lockboxes that incorporate breathalyzers (to stop you getting to your keys when intoxicated); mechanisms to sense epileptic seizures and monitor heart rate; and more. Each group had only four minutes to present the research, concept, and results of their project and give a brief demonstration. In the end, the entire class voted and two clear winners emerged. In first place was Group R7 with Heart Guide, a heart-shaped ultrasonic collision device for the blind. Group R3 came in second place with Pulsar the Robot, an adorable pediatric heart rate monitor. The course’s instructor, Dr. Michael Rizk, ended by saying that all of the students should be very proud of their work and that these final projects and the skills learned in year one are the foundation on which the rest of their BE curriculum will be based.
Congratulations to all of our first years on their amazing work. Check out some photos of their impressive work below! For more information on the Penn Bioengineering Undergraduate Curriculum, visit the department website. Most BE student projects are created in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Education Laboratory and “Bio-MakerSpace”, the department’s primary teaching lab.