Getting down to business, Singapore Week 3

Hello World!

Things are finally coming together in Singapore! My trainings are complete, I have all the required access cards, all my required reagents have arrived, and it’s time to get down to real work.

Last week, we sent out an email to all the students and post-docs in our group introducing ourselves, our research, and our purpose in coming to Singapore. We got a really great response from a few interested students whose work has parallels with our research and got a chance to meet them at lab meeting and in individual meetings.

After meeting a couple students who have extensive expertise in atomic force microscopy (AFM) of cells and soft tissues, I’ve hashed out a plan for measuring the stiffness of live muscle strips. Understanding the micro- and macro-scale mechanical and material properties of this heterogeneous engineered tissue will be really helpful for my finite element simulations of bio-bot locomotion and stress distribution during actuation.

I’m really looking forward to getting data that will help me build upon the complexity of the simulations and predictive modeling that I’ve been conducting on our soft robotic devices.

Now that all our reagents have arrived, I’ve also started making our bio-bot devices here at NUS. This will be useful for the AFM experiments, but also for some other staining and biological characterization experiments that I’ve planned for the next week. This has proven harder than expected, because shipping soft hydrogel structures across continents tends to result in some collateral damage to the integrity of the structures. However, after a few iterations and process flow changes, I think we’ve managed to crack the code! Looking forward to seeing how these will grow and mature in the coming week.

From the presentations and journal club at lab meeting, I learned that most of our lab group here seems to focus on tissue engineering of liver for applications in high-throughput drug testing. This is really applicable to the pharmacological development industry, so there seem to be a lot of collaborations between corporations and academia focused on this work.

I was especially interested in this research because I’m wrapping up a journal paper manuscript on liver tissue engineering in collaboration with one of our EBICS partner labs at MIT—it’s nice to see everything that’s going on in this space!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on an invited chapter for a textbook (edited by TED speaker Anthony Atala) on 3D biofabrication strategies for translational biomedical applications. My chapter is specifically focused on stereolithography, the 3D printing technology that we work with in our lab, and its uses in translational biomedical applications over the past few decades.

Though this is a field I’m very familiar with, I really learned a lot by writing an in-depth review of the evolution of this field and feel much better informed than I was even a few weeks ago! It was quite a challenge to be comprehensive in my review, as this is truly a broad and incredibly dynamic field.

In perfect time with the completion of this book chapter, my advisor at Illinois (Professor Bashir) told us of a day-long 3D printing conference in Singapore and we registered to attend. The seminar was hosted by several of the additive manufacturing companies that are leading the field in bioprinting and there were talks from engineers and surgeons from around the world.

I was really fascinated to hear the surgeon’s perspective on the use of these technologies, as the “end user” is one of the most important factors that we as engineers have to consider in our designs. Seeing images of real patients and surgeries was quite difficult to stomach (I’m rather squeamish about this sort of thing), but the post-operative outcomes for 3D printed prosthetics/implants, etc. was so phenomenal that I felt really proud to be working in this field. It’s amazing to see that the work we are doing has a real and lasting impact on the world!

In personal adventure news, I ran across a free outdoor circus at Marina Bay one weeknight during dinner and saw an absolutely mind-boggling troupe of Australian gymnasts. For a moment, I really regretted that I’ve always taken the “straight and narrow” path in life and considered running away to join the circus. I guess we all have those moments!

I finally got a chance to visit the beach at Sentosa this past Saturday and it was quite possibly the best day I’ve had in Singapore thus far! The beach/resort areas are brand new and completely engineered to provide the most comfortable and relaxing day for tourists. I felt the stress of graduate school absolutely melt away as we sipped from coconuts on the beach and went swimming in the warm ocean water!

On Sunday, we went to “Gardens by the Bay,” an enormous indoor conservatory that mimics the environment of other lands in order to show off flora from around the world. This included an indoor waterfall in the “Cloud Forest,” which was refreshingly cool after long treks in the sweltering heat and humidity outside. There was also an exhibit on climate change and global warming, which was very sobering and made me reflect on the importance of energy research. I’m a little disappointed that I can’t focus my PhD research on energy as well as biomedical applications.

I guess once you choose a passion, you have to stick to it and rely on others to carry the torch in other fields. We are all working towards a better future, and that’s what really matters.

Goals for next week include gathering more useful data and building my Singapore network even further! I’m really glad that everything is finally coming together, and keeping my fingers crossed that our hard work will pay off and make this a truly meaningful experience.