All about the research, Singapore Week 2

Hello World!

It’s been a rough second week of my international research experience. The required safety trainings and paperwork for the “Ministry of Manpower” (MOM) are far from complete, and I’ve had to attend several hours of informational training on proper lab safety. This is all very useful in theory, but seems somewhat unnecessary for graduate students who have already undergone entire classes on lab safety at Illinois!

Considering that many institutions base their training on a somewhat globally harmonized system, I’m surprised that training on biological, chemical, radiation safety, etc. doesn’t translate across accredited international institutions. This would be incredibly useful for academics and researchers worldwide, and is especially relevant as research becomes increasingly collaborative internationally. Perhaps this is something to put on the “to do list” for my future academic career!

A sign near our medical school laboratory.
A sign near our medical school laboratory

Progress in research has also been hampered by a slew of contaminated reagents, botched shipments, and back-ordered supplies. It seems that no matter how much you prepare for any type of time-constrained research experience, things are destined to go awry! It has forced us to think dynamically about our planned experiments and re-evaluate our priorities and goals for this collaboration.

Here’s a quick introduction to my research at Illinois that will help me explain my goals for Singapore a little better:

I work in the LIBNA research group (Laboratory of Integrated Biomedical Micro/Nanotechnology and Applications), led by Professor Rashid Bashir, the head of the Bioengineering Department at Illinois. The students in our group come from a diverse set of educational backgrounds and we focus on developing enabling technologies that can then be applied to an array of biomedical applications.

Strolling around Holland Village.
Strolling around Holland Village

The enabling technology that I’m developing is a stereolithographic 3D printing apparatus (SLA) that can print living cells and biomaterials at high resolution. We use SLA to target a broad range of applications, including tissue engineering of vasculature, developing organ-on-a-chip systems, and engineering biological machines.

 

This last project is the most significant focus of my graduate research, and is based on the principle of “forward engineering” biological systems. This is based on the idea that we can build novel machines with biological components (like living cells), thereby taking advantage of the ability of such systems to dynamically respond to external signals. This has many obvious advantages over building with traditional materials such as metals and plastics, but is also accompanied by the many technical challenges that come with building with nontraditional materials.

As you can imagine, a single researcher or even a single lab cannot independently develop the design rules and principles for an entirely new field of engineering! This is why our work is part of a multi-institutional Science and Technology Center sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF STC).

Our center is called EBICS (Emergent Behavior of Integrated Cellular Systems), and is mainly hosted at three major partner universities (MIT, Illinois, and Georgia Tech) though several other partner institutions are also heavily involved. Collaborations between engineers and biologists in EBICS bring about an understanding of how biological, biochemical, and physical (geometrical, mechanical, electrical, thermal, optical) cues guide fundamental behaviors of cellular systems. It’s a little hard to explain the huge scope of EBICS within a single blog entry, but an introduction to EBICS research and list of publications, as well as education/outreach information and participant contact information/expertise can be found on the EBICS website. They even have a link to my blog, because trainee education and leadership is a big part of the center!

Exotic birds at Jurong Bird Park.
Exotic birds at Jurong Bird Park

Now, to get back to my research introduction, I use our SLA 3D printing apparatus to make soft robotic structures from hydrogels (highly absorbent polymers), and then connect them with skeletal muscle tissue that I engineer by combining living muscle cells with synthetic extracellular matrix components and growth factors. After the skeletal muscle has matured, I stimulate muscle contraction using external cues (such as electrical pulses) and trigger locomotion of the robots, or “bio-bots,” across a substrate.

 

This research has many biomedical applications, including targeted drug delivery and dynamic implants, but to me it has the additional appeal of having a strong mechanical focus. Understanding how to design and build machines that can integrate with living muscle and encourage high force generation and directional locomotive behavior is a very complex mechanical challenge. I feel that I’ve found a niche research field that really appeals to my strengths and interests—a very lucky feeling!

Building gigantic malls is a national hobby in Singapore.
Building gigantic malls seems to be a national hobby in Singapore!

Sometimes, I can get a little carried away with understanding the macro-scale mechanical principles that govern these biological machines, but I’ve been trying not to neglect understanding the biological mechanisms that evolve and direct muscle development. My plan for Singapore is to learn some tissue staining and super-resolution microscopy techniques that will help me visualize the micro- and nanoscale biological events such as tissue maturation and electrical signal propagation that occur within the engineered muscle strips of our bio-bots.

If things work out well, I will understand the biology of bio-bots a little better and also have some beautiful images to include in my next paper! Looking forward to having more research updates next week.

On my list of other professional development goals for the coming week at NUS is to start attending group lab meetings, go to some mechanobiology seminars, and attend an on-campus daylong workshop on 3D printing for biomedical research. On my list of personal goals is to keep forming connections with the students here and the students from Illinois, as well as to keep exploring the beautiful city-state of Singapore!

Ritu