The NSF-funded Center for Engineering Mechanobiology is a new science and technology center (STC) at Penn launched this past fall. STCs are integrative partnership programs between multiple labs and across multiple campuses that enable innovative research at the interface of biological and physical sciences. I met with Dr. Rebecca Wells, an associate professor of Medicine and education director for the Penn STC, to talk about the wealth of opportunities for cross-disciplinary research this new centerthat the Center for Engineering Mechanobiology brings to Penn.
What is the purpose for the Center of Engineering Mechanobiology?
The goal is to bring together biological and physical scientists and teach them how to speak each other’s language to facilitate collaboration and to come up with innovative science in that in-between space. The goal is not only to do basic research, but also to develop new technologies and commercialize them.
STCs are creative-thinking centers that do transformative science. The key is that they have to be multi-institutional. For our center, Penn is the main site but there are also 6 other partner sites, including Washington University at St. Louis, Georgia Institute of Technology, Bryn Mawr College and others.
What are some examples of the center’s research focus areas?
Our fellows research a wide range of both plants and animals. We have a group studying how extracellular matrix and synthetic materials form fibrous networks, how these may be used in wound healing and how to develop new substrates for tissue engineering in plant and animal cells. Another area of research is studying the mechanobiology of the nucleus and how it can be manipulated. We are also studying how molecules transmit and respond to force. Finally, we have a group that is developing microdevices for studying plant tissues and organ systems.
How does one become affiliated with your center as a graduate student?
Our graduate fellows come from a number of departments in the School of Engineering, CAMB, and other graduate programs in the School of Arts and Sciences. You can become a graduate fellow by joining the lab of one of the following faculty: Richard Assoian, Jonathan Epstein, Yale Goldman, Erika Holzbaur, Paul Janmey, Michael Ostap, Benjamin Prosser, or Rebecca Wells.
What training does your center offer for graduate fellows?
After the first year of their program, graduate fellows attend a two-week long boot camp, an intensive training module, that provides a basic understanding of plant and animal mechanobiology, quantitative skills, and cell biology. The boot camp includes lectures, practical lab work, and enrichment activities like scientific writing and introduction to patent processes. .
What resources does the center have?
Graduate fellows will have unparalleled assess to the research facilities and resources that the center offers. These resources can be located either at Penn or at partner institutions, and include 3-D printing, atomic force microscopy, next generation sequencing services, high-performance computing, mass spectrometry and high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance facilities.
Additionally, we have plans to renovate office and conference room space in the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter to accommodate our director team, and provide classroom space for meetings. But our center is nebulous and virtual since we are comprised of 7 institutions and they can’t all be here at the same time.
If you are not in the lab of one of the faculty fellows, can you still get involved?
Absolutely. We encourage everyone interested to attend our working group meetings on Fridays, 2-3pm (schedule and information can be found here). These meetings are open to anyone in the university community. Replace with link to the website.
What are some of the other initiatives for your center?
In addition to training our graduate students, we are pushing them towards innovation and commercialization. To that end, there will be opportunities for students to have industry internships. In fact, our advisory board includes people from industry with significant expertise in commercialization. Advanced students will have an opportunity to take short sabbaticals in labs at other sites to learn new techniques.
Other than graduate and postdoctoral fellow training programs, the center also offers summer programs for undergraduates and workshops for local high school teachers. This summer we are starting our Penn undergraduate program for which we received 170 applications for 10 slots! Also this summer we are launching a small pilot teacher-training program where high school teachers will help us develop educational materials that can be brought back to local schools.
One NSF imperative is that we develop diversity initiatives. Thus, we are focused on recruiting women, underrepresented minority students and financially disadvantaged students.
What is your vision for the Center of Engineering Mechanobiology?
In five to ten years, we want to have a workforce of scientists who are able to operate in the space between physical and biological sciences much better than what is happening now. Having the ability to talk to and understand people across the aisle is enormously powerful scientifically.
Collaborative sciences are the wave of the future. For me, being able to think about the mechanics of liver fibrosis has given me a niche in my research that no one else has. It opens incredible new pathways if you can come up with a perspective on the research that you’re doing that other people don’t have.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Visit https://cemb.wustl.edu/ for more information on Center for Engineering Mechanobiology.