Four BIOE Students Named NSF Graduate Research Fellows

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From left to right: Eric Wang, Micaela Everitt, Eugene Froimchuk, Samm Stewart, and Thea Ornstein

Three Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BIOE) graduate students and one BIOE undergraduate student were named recipients of the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program award.

Ph.D. students Micaela Everitt, Eugene Froimchuk, and Samm Stewart, and undergraduate senior Eric Wang, will receive three years of support – including a stipend and additional funding towards a graduate degree – over a five-year fellowship period. In addition to the four award recipients, BIOE undergraduate senior Thea Ornstein was recognized with an honorable mention.

Everitt, a first-year Ph.D. student, began her first lab rotation as a graduate student in BIOE Professor William E. Bentley’s Biomolecular and Metabolic Engineering Lab, where she studied and worked towards fabricating new sensing and therapeutic modalities. Her NSF proposal involved the development of a new therapeutic delivery paradigm consisting of electronically-actuated engineered bacteria in an ingestible capsule for targeted delivery in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

There are several diseases that plague the GI tract, including inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, and Celiac disease. For years, ingestible sensors have been used for a range of applications including imaging the GI tract, using Wi-Fi as a means to report information back to clinicians. To take this technology further, Bentley’s lab aims to utilize ingestible electronics to synthesize therapeutics when the user – such as a physician – sends a signal.

“Synthetic biology is an ideal technology with which to do this because the bacterial cells have everything they need to synthesize the therapeutic locally, as needed, to circumvent off-target effects,” Everitt said.

Since her first lab rotation, Everitt has shifted gears, joining BIOE Associate Professor and Associate Chair Ian White’s Amplified Molecular Sensors Lab. Everitt recently started a project involving nucleic acid amplification for detection. Her goal is to develop a new tool to detect microRNA biomarkers in liquid samples for faster and more definitive diagnosis of diseases.

"The trace detection of molecular markers in liquid samples such as blood or saliva can provide an earlier diagnosis than conventional imaging modalities, and the process to collect these samples is less invasive than for traditional tissue biopsies," Everitt said. "But, these liquid samples result in relatively low amounts of molecular material like nucleic acids, which results in challenges with using nucleic acid amplification for disease detection. Thus, there is a need for improved amplification methods that are less costly and easier to use than current methods."

Moving forward, Everitt hopes to one day work in industry, specifically in the field of point-of-care diagnostics.

“In achieving this goal, I hope to be responsible for projects that reach beyond the benchtop to impact those who see healthcare as a luxury,” she said.

Froimchuk (B.S. ’16, Biochemistry & Biological Sciences), a second-year Ph.D. student and a Clark Doctoral Fellow, is working to advance multiple sclerosis (MS) treatment research.

Autoimmune diseases, such as MS, occur when the immune system mistakenly recognizes self-molecules – such as antigens – as foreign, and wages a targeted attack against them. There is currently no cure for MS, and many current treatment options can leave patients immunocompromised and susceptible to infections.

To combat this challenge, Froimchuk is working in BIOE Associate Professor and Associate Chair Christopher Jewell’s Immune Engineering Lab to develop self-assembled particles composed of immune signals to induce antigen-specific tolerance in MS.

In the human body, danger-sensing pathways called Toll-like receptors (TLRs) serve as first responders capable of detecting a variety of pathogens and other molecules that indicate tissue damage via a process called pattern recognition. Intriguingly, recent studies have revealed that a TLR pathway known as TLR9 might play a unique role in driving disease during MS. As such, Froimchuk and members of Jewell’s lab are working to block TLR9 to induce immune tolerance that selectively controls autoimmunity without suppressing the rest of the immune system.

“With the support of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, I hope to help shrink the communication gap between the scientific community and the general public, and support the fellowship program goal of broadening participation in the STEM fields,” Froimchuk said. “And, of course, I also hope to carry out impactful science!”

Stewart, a second-year Ph.D. student, is working in BIOE Professor Shawn He’s Multiscale Biomaterials Engineering Lab to advance cell banking and regenerative medicine.

Stewart is studying how a natural sugar known as trehalose has the potential to protect stem cells during the cooling and warming process involved in their storage. She is working with fellow researchers to use a novel cold-responsive nanoparticle they designed that allows for intracellular delivery and controlled release.

“I have focused my work on the field of cell and tissue banking – an area filled with intriguing challenges that I did not know presented future obstacles for translational research,” Stewart said. “I dove into learning more about storing cells – using freezing and drying techniques – and the complications associated with retrieving viable cells.”

Stewart is working to use existing technologies in the lab to enable cryopreservation – using low temperatures to suspend cell activity – and, possibly, lyopreservation – freeze-drying – of mammalian cells and tissues using trehalose.

“Achieving organic, solvent-free preservation would facilitate advances in other areas of research, most notably tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, especially in the area of women’s health,” Stewart said. “Effective banking of reproductive tissue would enable women to have more control of their health, especially for young women with cancer who may wish to preserve reproductive tissue and organs sensitive to chemotherapy and radiation.”

In 2016, Wang – now a BIOE undergraduate senior, Churchill Scholar, Goldwater Scholar, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Fellow – began working with Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Associate Professor Jeffery Klauda to study cell membranes using molecular dynamics, a simulation method that can model the movements of molecules.

Under Klauda’s guidance, Wang focused much of his research on modeling the outer layer of the skin – known as the stratum corneum – and the assembly of its lipids. The stratum corneum protects the human body from damaging and toxic compounds by providing a relatively impermeable barrier for the skin, but topical skin drug delivery developed by pharmaceutical companies must also break through this barrier in order to work effectively.

In 2017, Wang joined the lab of Klauda’s collaborator, Richard Pastor, senior investigator in the Membrane Biophysics Section of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There, he used molecular dynamics to determine how a peptide that promotes membrane fusion stabilizes pore formation. In 2018, Wang returned to Pastor’s lab to build on his research, and he also began working in the lab of Joshua Zimmerberg, associate scientific director at the NIH Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“When I first began working with Dr. Klauda, I knew little about programming and biochemistry, so I found myself at the bottom of a steep and frustrating learning curve,” Wang said. “Buried under stacks of articles and coding documentation, I spent months learning scientific concepts and technical aspects of simulation. After months of coding and writing, I completed my first manuscript. It was then that I experienced the ultimate satisfaction of scientific research – the product of months of single-minded attention culminating in a compelling narrative shared with the community.”

To date, Wang has published seven papers, on which he served as either first author or co-first author. He presented his work at the 2018 and 2019 Meetings of the Biophysical Society, the 2018 North Carolina State Chemical Engineering Symposium, and the 2017 and 2018 American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meetings. He also serves as a reviewer for the Journal of Physical Chemistry and the Journal of Molecular Modeling.

Wang will use his fellowship to pursue a PhD in medical engineering and medical physics in the Harvard-MIT health sciences and technology program. In the future, he hopes to become a professor at a research university studying systems at the interface of biology, physics, and chemistry.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program was established to ensure the vitality and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States. The program recognizes outstanding graduate students who are pursuing full-time research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or in STEM education. More information is available online.

Published April 17, 2019