There’s plenty to like about the interdisciplinary BioEngineering Graduate Program (or BioE) at the Georgia Tech Institute of Technology. What’s not to like? This is a program that brings together a diverse range of curious students and faculty who are discovering and developing tools to improve the human condition.
“This is the best model for interdisciplinary research, a program that spans multiple schools and departments, with faculty participating from multiple colleges at Georgia Tech and Emory,” explains Andrés García, Regents’ Professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, and program director for BioE. “The goal is to integrate engineering with life science and everything rotates around that. So, as you can imagine, we have some outstanding students, remarkable young people with great ideas. But when they came to me earlier this year and said, ‘we’d like to have a BioE Day,’ I was like, ‘what’s that?’”
It’s an opportunity to build community, to bring together the 100 or so grad students from disparate backgrounds and pathways, and honor their work, in one place on one day, which is this Monday, May 12, when the first BioE Day takes place in the Parker H. Petit Institute for BioEngineering and Bioscience (11 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
As you might expect from an interdisciplinary program, the idea took shape out of a collective thought process.
“Someone suggested we have something called BioE Day, and the reaction was, ‘sounds great … what do you mean?’ So we took some time to define what we wanted that to be,” says Tom Bongiorno, a third-year Ph.D. student and president of the BioEngineering Graduate Student Advisory Committee.
“So we talked a lot about BioE identity. We come from up to eight home schools, so we don’t all take classes together. This seemed like a good idea, a way to build or improve our identity.”
They’ll now use BioE Day as the venue to announce BioE’s annual awards, but the graduate students have even given that a new twist. This year, they’ve replaced the “best” appellation with “outstanding.”
“’Best’ seemed kind of arrogant and a little intimidating,” says Bongiorno, who will be honored as the BioE Outstanding Paper winner and offer a presentation about his paper at the event.
Several other awards will be given out, including Outstanding Thesis (Jonathan Newman, who earned his Ph.D. in 2013) and Outstanding Advisor (Julie Champion, assistant professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering). This will also mark the first year of the Chris Ruffin Graduate Student Leadership Award, which honors the memory of the former longtime BioE academic advisor.
“Chris was a tireless champion for the BioE Program. He truly cared about the students and faculty, was a fantastic listener, and problem solver,” says García, who will make the announcement Monday afternoon. “He contributed significantly to the success of BioE.”
There will be, among other things, speeches by the award winners, rapid-fire research presentations from students, a poster presentation, a senior graduate student panel discussion, a cookout at the end of the day, and plenty of games (including a faculty water balloon toss competition).
“This all about community building,” Bongiorno says. “It’s a way to make everyone a little more visible to everyone else.”
Julie Champion, Outstanding Advisor
Champion is an assistant professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a member of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences. She earned her B.S.E. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 2001 and completed her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of California – Santa Barbara, in 2007, as a National Science Foundation graduate fellow. She was a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow from 2007-2009 at the California Institute of Technology. Champion’s current research focuses on design and self-assembly of therapeutic nanomaterials made from engineered proteins for applications in cancer and immunology. She has received a BRIGE award from the National Science Foundation and the Georgia Tech Women in Engineering Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Tom Bongiorno, Outstanding Paper
Bongiorno is a third year Ph.D. candidate in BioEngineering. He received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 2011 from the University of Notre Dame, where he worked on a stem cell-based tissue-engineering project. As an undergraduate, Bongiorno conducted a summer research project on microparticle phagocytosis in the lab of Todd Sulchek, where he has returned for his graduate work. Bongiorno is seeking to use the mechanical properties of individual cells as bases for identifying and sorting differentiating stem cells. The goal of his research is to use microfluidic technology that sorts cells based on their mechanical properties to obtain a purified population of a desired cell phenotype. Bongiorno is a Georgia Tech President's Fellow and was a trainee on the stem cell biomanufacturing IGERT at Georgia Tech from 2011-2013. His winning paper is titled, “Mechanical stiffness as an improved single-cell indicator of osteoblastic human mesenchymal stem cell differentiation.”
Jonathan Newman, Outstanding Thesis
Newman completed his undergraduate studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) – Binghamton in 2007, majoring in BioEngineering. He attended the Georgia Institute of Technology for his graduate studies under the mentorship of Steve Potter, earning his PhD in 2013 (his thesis work was supported by a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship). He is now a postdoctoral associate in the laboratory of Matt Wilson at MIT, leveraging the skills he gained during his thesis work at Georgia Tech in order to understand the neural basis of memory consolidation in freely moving rodents.
Optogenetics is a set of technologies that enable optically triggered gain or loss of function in genetically specified populations of cells. Optogenetic methods have revolutionized experimental neuroscience by allowing precise excitation or inhibition of firing in specific neuronal populations embedded within complex, heterogeneous tissue. During his thesis work at Georgia Tech, Newman developed a feedback control technology that automatically adjusts optical stimulation in real-time to precisely control neuronal network activity levels. This technique (called the ‘optoclamp’ in Steve Potter's lab) allows extremely robust and precise control of network firing levels, far surpassing the abilities of existing technologies. Ming-fai Fong and Pete Wenner from Emory University have subsequently used the optoclamp to show conclusively that reductions in excitatory neurotransmission directly trigger homeostatic increases in synaptic strength, independent of changes in firing activity. These results oppose a large body of literature on the subject and have significant implications for memory formation and maintenance in the central nervous system.