MESSAGE FROM THE CHAIR
On behalf of our faculty, staff, and students, I am pleased to present the Department of Bioengineering’s Fall 2021 e-Newsletter.
As the lead story in this edition of our biannual newsletter, we feature the work of Aaron Batista and his collaborations at the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition. This cross-institutional research and educational program between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon leverages each institution’s strengths to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that give rise to biological intelligence and behavior. The team recently published a research study that shows humans are not the only primates that choke under pressure. They also published an article that details their use of BCI technology to examine how changes in internal states, such as engagement, can affect the learning process. This collaborative research has led to a new $3M grant from the NSF to further investigate internal states in the brain, such as motivation, attention, and arousal.
One of our newer faculty members, Ramakrishna Mukkamala, also recently received NSF funding to study arterial waveforms as a predictive measure of aortic aneurysm size and fluid overload status in postpartum women. This work will build on his laboratory’s expertise in cardiovascular health technology.
Rama’s appointment was part of a series of joint appointments between the Swanson School of Engineering (SSoE) and Pitt’s School of Medicine (SoM). Kang Kim also joined as part of this SSoE-SoM partnership in June 2020, and his research focuses on ultrasound-based functional imaging.
We added two new faculty members at the beginning of this calendar year: Katrina Knight, a bioengineering alumnus, will continue her work at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Female Pelvic Health, and Helen Schwerdt will build a research program committed to learning more about the brain, developing and integrating tools to examine and manipulate neural circuits. Helen will contribute her expertise to a $12M grant (PI: Peter Strick) wherein she will use implanted sensors to record dopamine neurochemicals in the basal ganglia of a parkinsonian monkey.
We also added Kevin Bell and Tim Chung as research assistant professors. Kevin arrived with a recent $10K award to continue development of CuffLink, a remote rehabilitation system for rotator cuff injury. Tim will help lead a recently funded award to advance the Vascular Bioengineering Laboratory’s aneurysm prognosis classifier.
Our bioengineering faculty (primary and secondary) had an outstanding record of scholarship, with 266 peer-reviewed journal articles published in calendar year 2020. One of the articles featured in this newsletter is from the Radiofrequency Research Facility. They used their 7-Tesla MRI device to study sickle cell disease’s impact on the brain and published their results in Neuroimage: Clinical.
One of the departmental goals is to translate basic research discoveries and findings into the real world such that they can improve human condition. An excellent example of this sort of accomplishment is a patent recently issued for a magnesium-based suture anchor from Savio L-Y. Woo's laboratory. This device addresses the shortcomings of the metallic and polymer devices currently available on the market. Additionally, after years of hard work, ALung Technologies has received FDA clearance for the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System, originally developed by our very own William Federspiel. I am incredibly proud of these tremendous achievements from our talented faculty.
It is impressive to note that bioengineering faculty (primary and secondary) had 77 IP disclosures, 129 patent applications, 57 patents awarded, 10 licenses/options executed, and 3 start-up companies formed during AY21. The support from the Center for Medical Innovation and the Coulter Translational Research Program contributed to some of this success.
Bioengineering faculty were successful in acquiring $21.8M in extramural grants (mostly from NIH) during FY21 (July 1, 2020 – June 30, 2021), an impressive increase of 32.1% with respect to FY19. Among this NIH funding is a new R01 for Partha Roy where he will investigate the role of actin-binding protein profilin1 (Pfn1) in metastatic breast cancer.
Partha’s graduate student research Abigail Allen received an award of her own: a fellowship from the American Heart Association for her work that examines the effect of Pfn1 perturbation in atherosclerosis. She is one of 17 bioengineering graduate students to receive external fellowships in AY21. Our students also continued their winning streak with the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Six bioengineering students received the award, and one received an honorable mention: Marissa Behun (honorable mention), Hannah Geisler (undergraduate), Marcela Gonzalez-Rubio, Sarah Griffin, Pete Gueldner, Jennifer Mak, and Kevin Pietz (undergraduate). Overall, 29.8% of our PhD students were recipients of external predoctoral fellowships from various sources (NIH, NSF, AHA, DoD, DoE, etc.).
Our graduate program continues to be strong and vibrant. For AY21, we received 281 and 95 applications for the PhD and MS programs, respectively. From these pools, 34 PhD students (including 2 MD/PhD and 2 DPT/PhD students) and 22 MS students (22 MS-MPE + 0 MS-Research) matriculated to our graduate program in September 2020. We graduated 18 PhD and 13 MS (12 MS-MPE + 1 MS-Research) students during AY21.
Because of our excellence in the neural engineering research, we have decided to establish a new Professional MS degree program with a focus on Neural Engineering. In line with this growth, Gelsy Torres-Oviedo and Douglas Weber recently received an award from the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish a multi-institutional training program (Pitt, CMU, DoD National Laboratories) designed to increase the participation in higher education of individuals historically underrepresented in science and engineering. The BRIDGE Program will provide in-depth research training in topics relevant to the DoD: robotics, artificial intelligence, and neural engineering. We are thrilled to add this opportunity to our graduate programs and hope that it contributes to a more diverse student population that is well-rounded, adaptable, and ready to solve today’s biomedical engineering challenges.
Our undergraduate program continues to excel as well – our students have thrived despite the difficult circumstances of the past couple of years. They made 78 presentations at national and local scientific meetings and had 10 peer-reviewed journal publications during calendar year 2020. Our newsletter highlights the accomplishments of a team of students who were accepted to the ASAIO Student Design Competition - and received first place - for a device to ease donning of medical gloves.
I invite you to read our newsletter to learn more about other exciting news from bioengineering faculty and students. I continue to be impressed by the individual and collective accomplishments of our talented group of Pitt bioengineers, and I look forward to sharing their future successes with you.
Sanjeev G. Shroff, PhD
Distinguished Professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering