Pitt | Swanson Engineering

The Department of Bioengineering combines hands-on experience with the solid fundamentals that students need to advance themselves in research, medicine, and industry. The Department has a long-standing and unique relationship with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other academic departments at the University of Pittsburgh as well as neighboring Carnegie Mellon University. Our faculty are shared with these organizations, offering our graduate and undergraduate students access to state-of-the-art facilities and a wide array of research opportunities. We currently have 187 graduate students who are advised by some 100 different faculty advisers, pursuing graduate research across 17 Departments and five Schools. Our undergraduate class-size of approximately 50 students per year ensures close student-faculty interactions in the classroom and the laboratory.

The main engineering building is located next to the Medical Center in Oakland, an elegant university neighborhood with museums, parks, and great restaurants. Beautiful new facilities have also been built, a short shuttle ride from the main campus, along the Monongahela River, replacing the steel mills that once were there. Our department is growing rapidly, both in numbers of students and faculty, and in the funding and diversity of our research. The Pittsburgh bioengineering community is a vibrant and stimulating alliance of diverse components for which our department forms an essential and central connection.


Students Address Posture in Parkinson’s

Bioengineering, MEMS, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (January 16, 2018) … Many of us have been told to stand up straight but may take for granted the ability to easily correct our posture. For those with Parkinson’s disease, postural awareness can diminish, and they often struggle with this characteristic slouched symptom. A group of Swanson School of Engineering students took a stance and addressed this medical issue with a device that promotes good posture, and were recognized for their innovation at the School’s biannual Design Expo. Posture Protect was created by bioengineering juniors, Tyler Bray and Jake Meadows; bioengineering senior, Raj Madhani; mechanical engineering senior, Benji Pollock; and mechanical engineering junior, Gretchen Sun. The poor posture experienced by individuals with Parkinson’s disease can limit mobility, impact gait, affect balance, and cause neck or back pain,” Meadows explained. “All of these symptoms combine to ultimately decrease independence, lower confidence, and negatively impact their quality of life by exacerbating existing challenges.” According to the team, Posture Protect is an easy-to-use, supportive posture quality detection and alert system that provides tactile feedback when bad posture persists. “The device increases postural awareness by determining the position of the user’s thoracic spine using three different sensors; when poor posture persists, vibrating motors provide gentle tactile feedback to notify the user of their change in posture,” Meadows said. Components of Posture Protect. The team performed extensive user outreach and testing, culminating in feedback from more than 60 individuals with Parkinson’s disease that indicated a need for such a device. Madhani said, “Our research found that of the people with Parkinson’s interviewed, 95 percent struggled with posture on a daily basis, and 90 percent of those people could correct their posture if they were reminded.” To further refine their device, the students took their testing to a local boxing club, Fit4Boxing, that offers strength training classes for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. “We visited the gym six times and tested five different iterations of our design, making modifications each time based on feedback received and data collected,” said Bray. With results in hand, the team presented Posture Protect at the Swanson School of Engineering Fall 2017 Design Expo, where they took first place in the “Art of Making” category and won “Best Overall Project.” The group intends to continue work on the project. “We plan to engage in longer-term user testing, incorporate Bluetooth into the device for setting customization, and code a smartphone application for posture tracking,” said Meadows. “Ultimately, the project's goal is to help patients stand straight and stand proud in the face of Parkinson’s disease.” ###


Undergraduate Bioengineering Alumna Turns Senior Design Project Into a Business


PITTSBURGH (January 11, 2018) … For undergraduates in the Swanson School of Engineering looking for a seamless transition into the “real world”, the opportunity to turn an idea into innovation and even a start-up can be a stitch in time. Lia Winter received a BS in bioengineering at Pitt in April 2017 and has since used her entrepreneurial spirit to start a business from a project whipped together in her undergraduate Senior Design class. Winter developed EasyWhip, an orthopedic surgical device that improves the whip stitching process during reconstructive procedures, like ACL surgery. “In these procedures, tendons are harvested from another part of the body and surgeons use a graft preparation station along with a whip stitching needle attached to a length of suture to construct a replacement graft for the injured ligament,” Winter explains. During her summer internship at an orthopedics medical device company, Winter saw an opportunity for improvement in the system. “I was inspired to create EasyWhip when I realized that there was an unmet medical need to make the whip stitching process easier,” Winter said. “EasyWhip is a modification to the conventional system that allows surgeons to recreate the same stitching pattern both faster and more consistently.” She worked closely with the Swanson Center for Product Innovation to create a highly functional prototype, and was awarded 3rd place at the Swanson School of Engineering Fall 2016 Design Expo. Winter took this winning project with her as she matriculated at the Dual MBA/MS Biomedical Engineering program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) and entered it into VolCourt, a 90-second elevator pitch competition. She was awarded first place and received $1,500, office space in the University of Tennessee Research Foundation Business Incubator, and several services to help her start a business. With the resources received from VolCourt, Winter started a sole proprietorship and filed a provisional patent application. She formulated a full business plan and was encouraged to present her idea at another pitch competition: UTK’s Boyd Venture Challenge. The Boyd Venture Challenge awards up to $20,000 in seed funding to student-owned businesses. Each participant gives a 25-minute presentation on the various elements of their business plan. Winter said, “I explained the problem at hand, detailed my innovation, gave a market estimate, illustrated my business model, presented a pro-forma budget, and projected financial statements for three years.” She was one of two student startups awarded $12,500 and plans to pursue a full patent and potentially license her product to a medical device company. Winter gives credit to Pitt for serving as a solid foundation in her biomedical engineering career. She said, “After completing a summer internship in industry and taking Senior Design, I realized that I am passionate about helping solve unmet medical needs.” Winter was awarded the Ergen Fellowship at UTK, which provided her with a scholarship and graduate research assistantship in the Department of Management. She said, “I plan to combine my biomedical engineering skills with business skills to help efficiently bring new innovative medical products to market.” She also encourages current bioengineering undergraduate students to stick with their Senior Design projects. Winter said, “A lot of these projects are actually great ideas that, with the right motivation and resources, you could use to start a business.” ###


Uncovering the Power of Glial Cells


PITTSBURGH (January 8, 2018) … Implanted devices send targeted electrical stimulation to the nervous system to interfere with abnormal brain activity, and it is commonly assumed that neurons are the only important brain cells that need to be stimulated by these devices. However, research published in Nature Biomedical Engineering reveals that it may also be important to target the supportive glial cells surrounding the neurons. The collaboration was led by Erin Purcell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Michigan State University; Joseph W. Salatino, Purcell’s graduate student researcher; Kip A. Ludwig, associate director of technology at Mayo Clinic; and Takashi Kozai, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. “Glial cells are the most abundant in the central nervous system and critical to the function of the neuronal network,” Kozai says. “The most obvious function of glial cells has been related to their role in forming scar tissue to prevent the spread of injury and neuronal degeneration, but so much about their role in the brain is unknown.” The study, “Glial responses to implanted electrodes in the brain” (doi:10.1038/s41551-017-0154-1)  suggests that these glial cells are more functional than previously thought. “From providing growth factor support and ensuring proper oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain to trimming of obsolete synapses and recycling waste products, recent findings show that glial cells do much more to ensure brain activity is optimized,” Kozai says. The slow, dim signals of glial cells are much more difficult to detect than the vibrant electrical activity of neurons. New advancements in technology allows researchers like Kozai to detect the subtleties of glial cell activity, and these observations are shedding new light on current issues plaguing implant devices and the treatment of neurological disease. Kozai explains, “Dysfunction in glial cells has been implicated as a cause and/or major contributor to an increasing number of neurological and developmental diseases. Therefore, it stands to reason that targeting these glial cells (in lieu of or in combination with neurons) may dramatically improve current treatments.” Kozai leads the Bionic Lab at Pitt, where researchers are investigating the biological tissue response to implantable technologies. Although there have been many advancements in neural implant technology in recent years, their underlying effects and reasons for their failure still puzzle scientists. By using advanced microscopy techniques, researchers can create more detailed neurological maps and imaging. “By combining in vivo multiphoton microscopy and in vivo electrophysiology, our lab is better able to visualize how cells move and change over time in the living brain and explain how changes in these glial cells alter the visually evoked neural network activity,” says Kozai. “Using this approach to better understand these cells can help guide implant design and success.” Kozai’s lab is currently working with Franca Cambi, professor of neurology at Pitt, on a project to understand the role of another type of glial cell on brain injury and neuronal activity. “Oligodendrocyte Progenitor Cells,” or OPCs, are progenitor cells—similar to stem cells—that have the capacity to differentiate during tissue repair. “Although OPCs have been understudied in brain-computer interface, they form direct synapses with neurons and are critical to their repair,” explains Kozai. “As progenitor cells, they have the capacity to differentiate into a variety of cells, including neurons. The technology is advancing to the point in which we can have a much better understanding of how the brain works comprehensively, rather than just focusing on neurons because their electrical signals make them appear brighter when imaging the brain.”Kozai believes that it is a pivotal time to investigate these cells and recognizes Dr. Ben Barres, an acclaimed neuroscientist at Stanford University, who made crucial discoveries in glial cell research. Kozai said, “We lost a great scientist and pioneer in this field of neuroscience. Professor Ben Barres really uncovered the importance of these glial cells on brain injuries and diseases. We have to keep pushing to see how we can improve current treatment by fixing these under-appreciated brain cells.” ### Photo above: During normal physiology, glial cells  (microglia, astrocytes, and NG2+ oligodendrocyte progenitor cells) maintain bidirectional communication with neurons and provide nutrient and regulatory support to the neural network. After the insertion of neural interfaces, glial cells react by extension of processes and migration towards the site injury, which prohibits them from maintaining their important regulatory roles. Targeting these glial cells and reestablishing their regulatory roles may provide therapeutic treatments for other brain disease and injuries. (Illustration by Steven L Wellman/BionicLab.ORG)


Lindsay Rodzwicz Receives Chancellor’s Staff Award for University Engagement


PITTSBURGH (December 15, 2017) … Lindsay Rodzwicz, Coulter Program Administrator in the Department of Bioengineering, was selected as a recipient of the 2017 Chancellor’s Staff Award in the University Engagement category.The University Engagement Award is presented to an employee who “extends their commitment to the University through exemplary participation in volunteer activities within the University, through service on committees, working on special projects, or volunteering to assist with events or programs (e.g., Commencement and/or Convocation) that are outside of the scope of their normal job duties.”Rodzwicz has an impressive volunteer record with a number of University groups and commits up to 10 hours of her personal time to volunteer activities each week. One of her more significant investments is the University of Pittsburgh Staff Council.Rodzwicz first started her involvement with the Staff Council after signing up to become a volunteer at one of their Brown Bag Lunch and Learn sessions. She quickly dove into the organization and was elected to a two-year term as vice president for public relations in 2013, followed by another election as executive vice president in 2015. She was also a voting member of the University of Pittsburgh Senate Council from 2014-2017, which is the official body for shared governance amongst students, faculty, staff, administrative officers, and the Board of Trustees.Being a part of the Staff Council and University Senate, along with sitting on Board of Trustees committees gave Rodzwicz a better perspective of university policy. As a leader of the organization, Rodzwicz played a role in the Staff Council working both with Human Resources to enact the new Paid Parental Leave policy, and raising funds to establish the Ronald W. Frisch Staff Development Award. Her understanding of policy and the funding challenges that the University faces helped her as an advocate at Pitt Day in Harrisburg. She participated in this day-long trek to the state’s capital in 2015 and 2016.In addition to her participation in University governance, Rodzwicz is also active with the Phi Beta Chapter of the Chi Omega Fraternity at Pitt. She mentors the chapter of over 100 undergraduate women, providing guidance on scholarship, community service, career and personal development, campus involvement, leadership, and recruitment. In her award letter from Chancellor Gallagher, Harvey Borovetz, distinguished professor of bioengineering, was quoted saying, “I cannot think of a better role model for women interested in a STEM career than Ms. Rodzwicz, and Lindsay’s service at the Phi Beta Chapter of Chi Omega insures that the 100 women being advised heard from a person who had studied hard, worked hard and achieved success.”Laura Dunn, Pitt alumna and Chi Omega regional director, was also quoted in the chancellor’s letter and echoed a similar sentiment about Rodzwicz. Ms. Dunn said, “She has an incredible talent for mentorship and cultivating strengths inside each of the students she worked with, in that she wasn’t afraid to challenge us when she didn’t agree and helped us to come to a more reasonable understanding.”Rodzwicz started her time in the Department of Bioengineering as part of the first undergraduate class. She left the University for several years, but because of  her “love of Pitt,” decided to accept a role with the Department of Bioengineering in 2012 as the Coulter Program Administrator.“I chose to volunteer my time outside of my normal job duties, because I believe that Pitt is a great place to work and that our greatest asset of the University is our people,” Rodzwicz said.  This is also why Rodzwicz volunteers with the United Way Day of Caring where University staff are able to give back in a small way to the local Oakland community. Rodzicz said, “I am deeply honored to be recognized with a Chancellor’s Award for my volunteer work within the University of Pittsburgh, and I am extremely grateful to those who nominated me and wrote letters of recommendation on my behalf.  Without the dedication of my colleagues on the Staff Council and my co-advisors to the Phi Beta Chapter of Chi Omega, I would not have been successful in my volunteer endeavors – it takes a great team!  I am proud to think that in a small way my volunteer efforts have made a difference for the students I’ve advised and had a positive impact to make Pitt an even better place to work for staff members!”Recipients of the award are published in the Pitt Chronicle, receive a $2,500 prize, and recognized at a special reception. Their names will be added to a plaque in the William Pitt Union which displays all recipients of the award.


Christopher Mahoney Wins the 2017 TERMIS-AM Student Scientist Award

Bioengineering, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (December 13, 2017) … Christopher Mahoney, bioengineering PhD candidate, is one of the 2017 recipients of the TERMIS-AM Student Scientist award.The award is given to students who demonstrate passion and promise in their research, academics, and service. It provides financial assistance to undergraduate and graduate students who are presenting in the annual meeting. Mahoney’s research advisor, Kacey Marra, associate professor of plastic surgery and bioengineering, said, “This award is well-deserved as Chris has consistently excelled in all three areas: research, academics and service.”The TERMIS-AM annual conference was December 3-6, 2017 in Charlotte, NC. Mahoney  presented a poster on “Dual Method Verification of Adipogenesis in Cultures Containing an Adipose Derived Delivery System for Adipose Restoration.”About Christopher MahoneyMahoney works with Marra on biomaterials and drug delivery for adipose tissue reconstructive applications.In 2014, Mahoney received the Wes Pickard Academic Fellowship, which is awarded to students chosen by their department chair who are in good academic standing. In fall 2014, he became a trainee under the University of Pittsburgh’s CATER NIH NRSA Institutional Predoctoral Training Grant, giving Mahoney the funding and support to develop as a student researcher. In March 2017, he was awarded the highly competitive NIH NRSA Individual Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to further his research and complete his doctoral degree.Mahoney participates in several other professional and community service activities. He serves on the University Senate Committee on Equality, Inclusion, and Diversity Advocacy and the Graduate and Professional Student Government Event Planning Committee. He is also former president of the Engineering Diversity Graduate Student Association and an active member of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization.

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Bioengineering By The Numbers


Number of Undergraduate Students enrolled for the 2017-2018 Academic Year


Number of PhD Candidates enrolled for the 2017-2018 Academic Year


Number of Masters Candidates enrolled for the 2017-2018 Academic Year


Number of PhD Degrees Awarded in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of MS Degrees Awarded in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of BS Degrees Awarded in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of Faculty Publications in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of Graduate Publications in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of Undergraduate Publications in 2016-2017 Academic Year