“You get what you put in”: A First-generation Penn Bioengineering Graduate Student Discusses His Journey

Joseph Lance Casila

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.”

Read “A first-generation student’s path to an Ivy League Ph.D. program” in the University of Guam News & Announcements.

Penn Bioengineering Senior Raveen Kariyawasam Named 2022 Rhodes Scholar

2022 Rhodes Scholar, Raveen Kariyawasam

One of the two University of Pennsylvania seniors who were awarded Rhodes Scholarships for graduate study at the University of Oxford is Penn Engineering‘s own Raveen Kariyawasam, from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Kariyawasam is a double major in Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, with concentrations in computational medicine and medical devices, and in the Wharton School, with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship and innovation.

“We are so proud of our newest Penn Rhodes Scholars who have been chosen for this tremendous honor and opportunity,” said President Amy Gutmann. “The work Raveen has done in health care innovation and accessibility and Nicholas has done to support student well-being while at Penn is impressive, and pursuing a graduate degree at Oxford will build upon that foundation. We look forward to seeing how they make an impact in the future.”

The Rhodes is highly competitive and one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. The scholarships provide all expenses for as long as four years of study at Oxford University in England.

According to the Rhodes Trust, about 100 Rhodes Scholars will be selected worldwide this year, chosen from more than 60 countries. Several have attended American colleges and universities but are not U.S. citizens and have applied through their home country, including Kariyawasam in Sri Lanka.

With an interest in health care innovation and accessibility, Kariyawasam is involved in several research projects, including his Wharton honors thesis that focuses on optimizing a low-cost electronic medical record system in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. He has received several research grants, including the Vagelos Undergraduate Research Grant, the Berkman Opportunity Fund grant, and the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps grant. At Penn, he is editor-in-chief of Synapse, a student-run health care magazine and is vice president of the Phi Sigma Biological Honor Society. He is a disc jockey for the student-run radio station, WQHS, and an executive board member of the Wharton Undergraduate Healthcare Club. He also is a former student ambassador at the Penn Health-Tech Center for Health Devices and Technology. At Oxford, Kariyawasam plans to pursue a D.Phil. degree.

Read more at Penn Today.

Penn’s 2021 iGEM Team Takes Home Multiple Prizes

Four of Penn’s 2021 iGEM team (left to right): Juliette Hooper, Grace Qian, Saachi Datta, and Gloria Lee.

The University of Pennsylvania’s 2021 iGEM team has been awarded several distinctions in this year’s highly competitive iGEM Competition. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is the largest synthetic biology community and the premiere synthetic biology competition for both university and high school level students from around the world. Each year, hundreds of interdisciplinary teams of students combine molecular biology techniques and engineering concepts to create novel biological systems and compete for prizes and awards through oral presentations and poster sessions.

The Penn team’s project, “OptoReader,” is a combined light-simulation device and plate reader, which makes optogenetic experiments more powerful and accessible. The abstract reads:

“Metabolic engineering has the potential to change the world, and optogenetic tools can make metabolic engineering research easier by providing spatiotemporal control over cells. However, current optogenetic experiments are low-throughput, expensive, and laborious, which makes them inaccessible to many. To tackle this problem, we combined a light-stimulation device with a plate reader, creating our OptoReader. This device allows us to automate ~100 complex optogenetic experiments at the same time. Because it is open source and inexpensive, our device would make optogenetic experiments more efficient and available to all.”

Watch the team’s presentation on OptoReader here.

This year’s Penn team was mentored by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. In addition, the team was supported by Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Chow has supported previous undergraduate iGEM teams at Penn, and was involved in the creation of the iGEM program during his time as a graduate student at MIT.

OptoReader took home the top prizes in three of the four categories in which it was nominated. These prizes include:

  • Best Foundational Advance (best in track)
  • Best Hardware (best from all undergraduate teams)
  • Best Presentation (best from all undergraduate teams)

They were also awarded a Gold Medal Distinction and were included in the Top 10 Overall (from all undergraduate teams, and the only team from the United States to make the top 10) and Top 10 Websites (from all undergraduate teams).

The awards were announced during iGEM’s online Jamboree Award Ceremony on November 14, 2021 (watch the full award ceremony here).

In addition to the outstanding awards recognition, OptoReader was also selected for an iGEM Impact Grant which awards teams $2,500 to continue development of their projects. This new initiative from the iGEM Foundation was announced earlier this year, and with the support of the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, is distributing a total of $225,000 in grant funds to 90 iGEM teams during the 2021 competition season. Learn more about the Impact Grant and read the full list of winning teams here.

Penn’s 2021 iGEM team was made up of an interdisciplinary group of women undergraduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS):

  • Saachi Datta (B.A. in Biology and Religious Studies 2021)
  • Juliette Hooper (B.S.E. and M.S.E. in Bioengineering 2022)
  • Gabrielle Leavitt (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2021 and current Master’s student in Bioengineering)
  • Gloria Lee (B.A. in Physics and B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
  • Grace Qian (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
  • Lana Salloum (B.A. in Neuroscience 2022)

They were mentored by three doctoral students in Bioengineering: Will Benman (Bugaj Lab), David Gonzalez Martinez (Bugaj Lab), Gabrielle Ho (Chow Lab). Saurabh Malani, a graduate student in the Avalos Lab at Prince University, was also very involved in mentoring the team.

OptoReader

The graduate mentors were instrumental in quickly bringing the undergraduates up to speed on a diverse array of skills needed to accomplish this project including circuit design, optics, optogenetics, programming, and additive manufacturing. They then coached the team through building and testing prototypes, as well as accomplishing other objectives required for success at iGEM. These other objectives included establishing collaborations with other iGEM teams, performing outreach, and effectively communicating their project through a website and online presentations.

“This team and their work is outstanding,” said William Benman. “Not only did they sweep several awards, but they did it all with a small team and while working with technology they had no prior experience with. They created a device that not only increases accessibility to optogenetics but also allows optogenetic systems to interface directly with computer programs, allowing for completely new research avenues within the field. They are truly a remarkable group.”

Due to the COVID pandemic, the team operated virtually through the summer of 2020, and then continued in person in the summer of 2021 as the project progressed and more students returned to Penn’s campus. Upon return to campus, the work was conducted in both the Bugaj lab in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching laboratory in Penn Bioengineering and an interdisciplinary makerspace open to anyone at Penn. The team also collaborated with the Avalos Lab at Princeton University, which conducts research in the application of optogenetics to optimize production of valuable  chemicals in microbes.

“I’m beyond excited about this phenomenal showing from team Penn at the iGEM Jamboree awards ceremony,” said faculty mentor Lukasz Bugaj. “This is truly outstanding recognition for what the team has accomplished, and it wouldn’t have happened without essential contributions from everyone on the team.”

Brian Chow added that this achievement is “no small feat,” especially for a hardware project. “The iGEM competition leans toward genetic strain engineering, but the advances in the field made by these incredible students were undeniable,” he said.

Going forward, the team plans to publish a scientific article and file a patent application describing their device. “It’s clear that there is excitement in the scientific community for what our students created, and we’re excited to share the details and designs of their work,” said Bugaj.

Congratulations to all the team members and mentors of OptoReader on this incredible achievement! Check out the OptoReader project website and Instagram to learn more about their project.

This project was supported by the Department of Bioengineering, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR). 

Catherine Michelutti on “Finding New Passions” with the Orion Organisation

Catherine Michelutti (SEAS/WHARTON ’23) working on her internship in her backyard with her dog

Catherine Michelutti, a junior in Bioengineering and Wharton and fellow in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program, shared her virtual internship experience with the Orion Organisation, a healthcare NGO based in South Africa that provides for “the educational, training and therapeutic needs of children, youth and adults living with physical, psychosocial challenges, intellectual and neurological disabilities”:

“My internship with the Orion Organization has prompted me to reflect on my identity in terms of where my passions and future career interests lie. My previous work experiences have all been in biomedical research fields, which is something I’m passionate about and want to continue doing throughout my career. However, working with Orion has opened my eyes to the realms of interdisciplinary work that comes with operating a healthcare NGO and the joys that come with it.”

Read the full story in the Penn Abroad blog.

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.

Penn Takes Part in National Science Foundation’s First I-Corps Hubs

by Evan Lerner

A decade ago, the National Science Foundation started its Innovation Corps program to help translate academic research into the wider world. Functioning as a national start-up accelerator, I-Corps provides training and funding to researchers who have a vision for applying their ideas, starting businesses and maximizing social impact. 

Several successful start-ups launched by Penn Engineering students, including Strella BiotechnologyInventXYZ, and Percepta AI have participated in the I-Corps program.

Now, to further develop innovation ecosystems and share regional resources, the NSF has launched a network of five I-Corps Hubs.

Penn is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Hub, which will be led by the University of Maryland at College Park, and include Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, North Carolina State University, Penn State, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Virginia Tech.

The Penn Center for Innovation is currently accepting applications to join the next I-Corps cohort, which begins in October 2021. Teams will receive up to $2,000 to support their start-up, and can apply online.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

N.B.:  Founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and winner of a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, Strella Biotech seeks to reduce food waste through innovative biosensors, and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the bio-makerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering. Read more BE blog stories featuring Strella Biotechnology.

Penn Establishes the Center for Precision Engineering for Health with $100 Million Commitment

by Evan Lerner

The Center for Precision Engineering for Health will bring together researchers spanning multiple scientific fields to develop novel therapeutic biomaterials, such as a drug-delivering nanoparticles that can be designed to adhere to only to the tissues they target. (Image: Courtesy of the Mitchell Lab)

The University of Pennsylvania announced today that it has made a $100 million commitment in its School of Engineering and Applied Science to establish the Center for Precision Engineering for Health.

The Center will conduct interdisciplinary, fundamental, and translational research in the synthesis of novel biomolecules and new polymers to develop innovative approaches to design complex three dimensional structures from these new materials to sense, understand, and direct biological function.

“Biomaterials represent the ‘stealth technology’ which will create breakthroughs in improving health care and saving lives,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann. “Innovation that combines precision engineering and design with a fundamental understanding of cell behavior has the potential to have an extraordinary impact in medicine and on society. Penn is already well established as an international leader in innovative health care and engineering, and this new Center will generate even more progress to benefit people worldwide.”

Penn Engineering will hire five new President’s Penn Compact Distinguished Professors, as well as five additional junior faculty with fully funded faculty positions that are central to the Center’s mission. New state-of-the-art labs will provide the infrastructure for the research. The Center will seed grants for early-stage projects to foster advances in interdisciplinary research across engineering and medicine that can then be parlayed into competitive grant proposals.

“Engineering solutions to problems within human health is one of the grand challenges of the discipline,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “Our faculty are already leading the charge against these challenges, and the Center will take them to new heights.”

This investment represents a turning point in Penn’s ability to bring creative, bio-inspired approaches to engineer novel behaviors at the molecular, cellular, and tissue levels, using biotic and abiotic matter to improve the understanding of the human body and to develop new therapeutics and clinical breakthroughs. It will catalyze integrated approaches to the modeling and computational design of building blocks of peptides, proteins, and polymers; the synthesis, processing, and fabrication of novel materials; and the experimental characterizations that are needed to refine approaches to design, processing, and synthesis.

“This exciting new initiative,” says Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, “brings together the essential work of Penn Engineering with fields across our campus, especially in the Perelman School of Medicine. It positions Penn for global leadership at the convergence of materials science and biomedical engineering with innovative new techniques of simulation, synthesis, assembly, and experimentation.”

Examples of the types of work being done in this field include new nanoparticle technologies to improve storage and distribution of vaccines, such as the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines; the development of protocells, which are synthetic cells that can be engineered to do a variety of tasks, including adhering to surfaces or releasing drugs; and vesicle based liquid biopsy for diagnosing cancer.

N.B.: This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Beth Winkelstein is the Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Bioengineering.

The featured illustration comes from a recent study led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Margaret Billingsley, a graduate student in his lab.

Interact, Adapt, Repeat

Sophomores Linda Wu and Nova Meng spent the summer studying coevolution among plants, mutualistic bacteria, and parasitic nematodes in Corlett Wood’s biology lab.

by Katherine Unger Baillie

To study coevolution, the responsibilities of Nova Meng and Linda Wu included caring for plants in the Penn greenhouse. (Image: From July 2021, when masks were not required)

Coevolution is all around us. Think of the elongated blooms that perfectly accommodate a hummingbird’s slender mouth parts. But not all examples of species influencing one another’s evolutionary course accrue benefits to all parties. Tradeoffs are part of the game.

This summer, sophomores Linda Wu of Annandale, Virginia, and Nova Meng of Akron, Ohio, researched an coevolutionary scenario with benefits as well as costs for the species involved. Their work, supported by the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) and conducted in the lab of biology professor Corlett Wood, has examined the relationship among plants in the genus Medicago, beneficial bacteria that dwell in their roots, and parasitic nematodes that try to steal the plants’ nutrients.

The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships provides students in the PURM program awards of $4,500 during the 10-week summer research internship. Wu and Meng stayed busy through those weeks. Whether evaluating plants in a soybean field in Michigan or tending to hundreds—even thousands—of plants in the greenhouse at Penn, these aspiring researchers built a foundation for future scientific endeavors with hands-on practice.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Wu. “I’ve always been interested in genetics and evolution and have found parasitic relationships in particular really interesting. I like reading about weird parasites. This summer I’ve gotten to participate in lab meetings, read books about coevolution, and expand my knowledge about the topic.”

Mentored by Ph.D. student McCall Calvert, Wu spent the summer focused on the parasites in the Medicago model system the Wood lab uses. “I’m trying to see if those nematodes are specialists or generalists, if they’re locally adapted to their host plant or open to parasitizing on different species,” Wu says.

To do so, she’s grown pots and pots of plants in the Penn greenhouse, experimentally infecting Medicago plants as well as other species, such as carrot and daisy plants, with nematodes, to measure the degree to which the parasites flourish.

Meng, who is pursuing a bioengineering major, is examining how bacteria that dwell in plant roots affect the plants’ susceptibility to parasites.

Meng’s project looked at the bacterial side of the coevolutionary relationship. Overseen by lab manager and technician Eunnuri Yi, Meng looked at four strains of bacteria, known as rhizobia. Two strains are nitrogen-fixing, giving their associated plants a crucial nutrient to promote growth, while the other two do not seem to contribute nitrogen to the plants, and instead exist as parasites in the plants’ roots. “I’m looking at what happens when we infect the plants with nematode parasites,” Meng says, “to see if the plants that are open to mutualistic rhizobia are more susceptible to the nematode parasites.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Linda Wu is a sophomore pursuing an uncoordinated dual degree in business, energy, environment, and sustainability in the Wharton School and in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nova Meng is a sophomore majoring in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn.

Annenberg and Penn Bioengineering Research into Communication Citation Bias

Photo Credit: Debby Hudson / Unsplash

Women are frequently under-cited in academia, and the field of communication is no exception, according to research from the Annenberg School for Communication. The study, entitled “Gendered Citation Practices in the Field of Communication,” was published in Annals of the International Communication Association.

A new study from the Addiction, Health, & Adolescence (AHA!) Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that men are over-cited and women are under-cited in the field of Communication. The researchers’ findings indicate that this problem is most persistent in papers authored by men.

“Despite known limitations in their use as proxies for research quality, we often turn to citations as a way to measure the impact of someone’s research,” says Professor David Lydon-Staley, “so it matters for individual researchers if one group is being consistently under-cited relative to another group. But it also matters for the field in the sense that if people are not citing women as much as men, then we’re building the field on the work of men and not the work of women. Our field should be representative of all of the excellent research that is being undertaken, and not just that of one group.”

The AHA! Lab is led by David Lydon-Staley, Assistant Professor of Communication and former postdoc in the Complex Systems lab of Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Bioengineering and in Electrical and Systems Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Dr. Bassett and Bassett Lab members Dale Zhou and Jennifer Stiso, graduate students in the Perelman School of Medicine, also contributed to the study.

Read “Women are Under-cited and Men are Over-cited in Communication” in Annenberg School for Communication News.

Developing Endotracheal Tubes that Release Antimicrobial Peptides

by Evan Lerner

Scanning electron microscope images of endotracheal tubes at three levels of magnification. After 24 hours of Staphylococcus epidermidis exposure, tubes coated with the researchers’ AMPs (right) showed decreased biofilm production, as compared with tubes coated with just polymer (center) and uncoated tubes (left).

Endotracheal tubes are a mainstay of hospital care, as they ensure a patient’s airway is clear when they can’t breathe on their own. However, keeping a foreign object inserted in this highly sensitive part of the anatomy comes is not without risk, such as the possibility of infection, inflammation and a condition known as subglottic stenosis, in which scar tissue narrows the airway.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics are one way to mitigate these risks, but come with risks of their own, including harming beneficial bacteria and contributing to antibiotic resistance.

With this conundrum in mind, Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and of Bioengineering at Penn Engineering, along with Bioengineering graduate students and lab members Matthew Aronson and Paul Gehret, are developing endotracheal tubes that can provide a more targeted antimicrobial defense.

In a proof-of-concept study published in the journal The Laryngoscope, the team showed how a different type of antimicrobial agent could be incorporated into the tubes’ polymer coating, as well as preliminary results suggesting these devices would better preserve a patient’s microbiome.

Instead, the investigators explored the use of antimicrobial peptides (AMPs), which are small proteins that destabilize bacterial membranes, causing bacterial cells to fall apart and die. This mechanism of action allows them to target specific bacteria and makes them unlikely to promote antimicrobial resistance. Prior studies have shown that it is possible to coat endotracheal tubes with conventional antibiotics, so the research team investigated the possibility of incorporating AMPs into polymer-coated tubes to inhibit bacterial growth and modulate the upper-airway microbiome.

The researchers, led by Matthew Aronson, a graduate student in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, tested their theory by creating a polymer coating that would release Lasioglossin-III, an AMP with broad-spectrum antibacterial activity. They found that Lasio released from coated endotracheal tubes, reached the expected effective concentration rapidly and continued to release at the same concentration for a week, which is the typical timeframe that an endotracheal is used before being changed. The investigators also tested their drug-eluting tube against airway microbes, including S. epidermidis, S. pneumoniae, and human microbiome samples and observed significant antibacterial activity, as well as prevention of bacterial adherence to the tube.

Read “CHOP Researchers Develop Coating for Endotracheal Tubes that Releases Antimicrobial Peptides” at CHOP News.

This post originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.