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.


BioE Pole Vaulter Michelle Karabin Receives NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship

Bioengineering, Accolades, Student Profiles

Michelle Karabin, a bioengineering PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, received a $10,000 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship award after four years of pole vaulting on Carnegie Mellon University’s track and field team. The NCAA awards 21 scholarships to men and women in each of the three sport seasons. Recipients must excel academically and athletically and be in their final year of college athletics.Karabin is an All-American for the 2018 outdoor season and a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-America First Team selection. She also qualified for the 2020 NCAA Women's Indoor Track and Field Championships, which marked her second appearance at this annual event. Balancing academic life with an athletic career is a challenge for many student-athletes, but Karabin soared to the top of the class. She is an NCAA Elite 90 winner, which is a recognition for the top student-athlete — with the highest cumulative grade-point average — at each of the 90 national championship levels.“I was very grateful that CMU provided me the opportunity to pursue my passion for engineering and track and field,” she said.Karabin, who received a BS in mechanical and biomedical engineering at CMU, now works in the Human Movement and Balance Laboratory focusing on balance in locomotion and the effects of vestibular loss.

Modeling Women’s Health After Childbirth

Bioengineering, Features, Banner

Childbirth is a momentous and fraught time. For women, childbirth is one of the most significant biomechanical events in life – in terms of forces and motion, the body during childbirth is a structure stressed to extremes.For bioengineer Steven Abramowitch, that is not a cold description. He studies damage to women’s pelvises due to pregnancy and delivery – damage that may only manifest decades after the birth. His team relies on CRC resources in modeling structures of the pelvis that indicate potential health problems.“In the past, this aspect of women’s health has been considered ‘private’ in nature,” Abramowitch explains. “Women’s health research has always taken a backseat. Pelvic prolapse – when pelvic muscles can no longer hold up organs like the bladder – is more prevalent than conditions like ACL injuries, but no one discusses it. It’s embarrassing. It can lead to symptoms like urinary and fecal incontinence, which folks don’t like talking about.”Abramowitch is associate professor of bioengineering at the Swanson School of Engineering and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute. His research into pelvic health disorders resulting from childbirth increasingly relies on computational models developed with CRC resources.Computer modeling is better than studying animal models for a simple reason – animals are generally quadrupeds. Gravity does not affect their organs the same ways it affects humans. Bipedal humans inherited an evolutionary conflict between efficiently walking upright and efficiently delivering babies.“Women’s bodies in childbirth are really at the limits of what the tissues can withstand,” Abramowitch explains. “Childbirth is associated with a lot of soft tissue injuries, many of them unrecognized because they are internal. A muscle tear or nerve damage is not obvious to the obstetrician delivering the baby.”The injuries appear later in life, sometimes driven by a secondary event or in a degenerative process taking place over time. Modeling similarities and differences among a range of pelvic shapes, Abramowitch believes, can provide insight into the potential for injury.Abramowitch’s team uses two methods to model pelvises – finite element analysis and statistical shape modeling of the pelvis and bones of the hip, sacrum, and coccyx, based on MRI scans.Finite element analysis essentially breaks the complex whole of a pelvis into manageable geometric points. Collectively the discrete points create a picture of the entire system. More points create a more complete picture – and call for more computer memory and processing power.Statistical shape modeling looks at those discrete geometric points across a population to build a statistical model of how those geometries are distributed, the goal being to analyze the same corresponding points. The geometric shapes that have been broken into small pieces are reassembled and compared – again calling for a lot of advanced computing resources.“With the models we can say what pelvic geometries are associated with certain types of birth outcomes,” explains Abramowitch. “We can input those geometries into our models to find underlying mechanisms that might be associated with particular outcomes.”PhD candidate Megan Routzong is part of Abramowitch’s team and lead author on a 2020 paper in the journal Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine – “Pelvic floor shape variations during pregnancy and after vaginal delivery.” The work used the same statistical shape modeling the team can carry out at CRC on a much bigger scale.Routzong tells the story. “When I started this work, some family asked: ‘Why are you studying childbirth? Women have been giving birth for centuries,’ I ask, did they enjoy that experience? How many women still die from that experience or have a severe quality-of-life loss?”“The idea behind the research is that if we define an average or typical anatomy, then the more easily a clinician would be able to identify someone whose anatomy tends toward a disease state. The question is which anatomical factors – computationally we refer to them as geometries – correlate or correspond with predicted negative vaginal birth outcomes like excessive stretching in a particular region of a muscle.”The team creates a segmented, partial pelvis shape and a template shape and tries to fit the template shape to the segmented shape, to fill in the missing data. When a woman gets an ultrasound during pregnancy, it would be possible to use what is visible in the ultrasound field of view – which is smaller than an MRI field of view – to make predictions about how the rest of her pelvic shape might affect the delivery. The goal is reducing the amount of data need to make predictions, ultimately to create a tool that clinicians could use for every pregnancy.Routzong works closely with graduate student Liam Martin, who performs much of the computation on Abramowitch’s team. “The team needs CRC to perform the volume of computing needed for comparisons. Even at CRC, we quickly used up most of our computing allocation. One pelvic shape alone has 100,000 points in the model. Our lab computers can’t handle that volume.”Martin explains. “The goal of the statistical shape modeling of the geometries of the pelvises is to understand more patterns of differences than could be explained by random noise. On the images of the pelvises [see the illustration above] the shapes are shaded between bright and dark colors. Closer to blue or black is the mean shape, and the brighter colors show high variability.”“With scans of 24 pelvic geometries, we derived three average pelvises based on smoothing – an algorithm that deforms the geometries into a normal shape, average shape, and template shape. That makes it very easy to calculate an average or point-to-point comparison. Theoretically the points are in the same places and represent the same point on the same structure for every subject shape, so it allows for a lot of comparisons.”Martin is excited about the possibilities offered by CRC. “We’re in transition from mechanical testing to computational testing, so CRC is very new for us. We’ve actively used CRC for about a year. At first it was cool to mess around with – but now CRC is implemented in our workflows.”For Routzong, CRC was a revelation. “This kind of research would not be feasible without CRC resources. We can use CRC without already being funded, especially if you need a preliminary study before applying for the grant. A lot of the shape modeling is not possible at all on any of our machines. A colleague at another lab told me to apply to use CRC, but we didn’t have funding and I said I needed to first try every free resource. I didn’t know CRC is free.”Abramowitch considers the potential impact of the work.“I’m a trained bioengineer, so these problems are very interesting to me from that perspective. But they are quality of life issues. Women are deeply affected. The long-term impact of pelvic damage is not just a casual part of the aging process, like wrinkles or walking slower. These can be really catastrophic, life-altering conditions.”Contact:Brian ConnellyCenter for Research Computingbgc14@pitt.eduMonday, April 26, 2021

Capturing the Huge Impacts of Tiny Organisms

Banner, Grants, Chemical & Petroleum, Bioengineering, MEMS, Civil & Environmental

One of the main reasons the multitude of bacteria we encounter in daily life doesn’t harm us is because of the diverse, robust community of microbes on our skin and inside our bodies that prevent pathogens from taking hold. But despite the importance of the microbial community we each host, there is still a lot researchers don’t know about it. The most common method for growing microorganisms is via culture flasks and agar plates, but these methods don’t expose microbes to their native environments. Because of this limitation, the vast majority of the existing microbial population remains unknown, uncultivated, and poorly studied.Tagbo Niepa, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, is developing a new technique for studying microbes in conditions that mimic their native environment, facilitating the growth of difficult microbial species and helping researchers to better understand them. The research was recently awarded $315,373 by the National Science Foundation.By encapsulating microbes isolated from various sources in a polymeric shell, researchers will be able to study microbes in environmental conditions.The nanocultures will eliminate growth rate bias that occurs in traditional cultures when species of microbes are competing for space, and the enclosure protects them from chemical or biological contaminants. The proposed technology, which will give researchers insights into how synthetic microbial communities communicate and interact with native ones, could lead to advances in medicine, biotechnology, bioremediation and more.“Not having a sufficient way to grow and examine these microbes has not only impeded the scientific discovery of antibiotic-like molecules but has also limited our ability to use genetically engineered beneficial microbes,” said Niepa. “There are microbes out there that could lead us to new types of antibiotics based on microbes we find in the soil, improve human health and performance by understanding the human microbiome, and more. We do not yet have a way to explore their full potential. That is the problem we are trying to solve.”One potent application of the new technology is for the controlled delivery of healthy gut bacteria into the body. Antibiotic use, stress and illnesses can lead to microbial dysbiosis, or the imbalance of gut bacteria, which in turn can lead to ulcers, cancers, and other health problems. Niepa and his team are exploring ways to use the microcapsules, which can culture and store a multitude of microbes, as a delivery system for beneficial bacteria into the body to restore the gut microbiome. As part of the NSF project, the researchers will use the microcapsules to deliver a gut-benefiting community of microbes into mice to examine its efficacy.“This research makes a substantial step toward microbial-based therapy against microbial dysbiosis. Beyond the health benefits, our project will facilitate a broader understanding of microbial diversity and offer relevant implications for biotechnology and bioremediation,” said Niepa. “Some of the smallest organisms have an enormous impact on human health and the health of our planet. We’re taking a step toward understanding all they can offer.” The project, titled “Designing a Multifunctional Nanoculture System for High-throughput in situ Assessment of Microbial Communities,” will begin on July 1, 2021.

Steven Wellman Receives NIH F99/K00 Pre-to-Postdoc Award to Improve Brain Implants

Student Profiles, Bioengineering

Steven Wellman, a bioengineering PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, received a Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award (F99/K00) from the National Institutes of Health for his work with neural interfacing technology. These revolutionary devices have the potential to significantly advance our understanding of brain function and enable researchers to restore motor and sensory control lost from neurological disorders.Wellman is a member of the BIONIC Lab at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, which is led by Takashi D.Y. Kozai, assistant professor of bioengineering. His doctoral work focuses on the limitations of penetrating brain microelectrodes and the mechanisms that contribute to device failure.“Despite the incredible potential of this technology to improve human health, the efficacy of intracortical microelectrodes for clinical therapy is limited by an inability to detect or modulate neurons over time and is presumed to be due to severe bodily reactions to a foreign object,” he said. Researchers have yet to determine the biological mechanisms behind device failure, but recent studies suggest that neurovascular dysfunction may play a role in progressive neuron loss and tissue failure after implantation. Wellman studies how pericytes, specialized cells that work closely with cerebral blood vessels in the brain, contribute to this process.“Neurovascular health and function are governed in part by perivascular pericytes,” he explained. “These cells demonstrate important roles in regulating vascular tone, blood-brain barrier integrity, and neuroimmune functions and have become increasingly recognized as prominent figures in the pathogenesis of brain inflammation and disease.” In his project, Wellman examines how the structure and function of brain pericytes are altered during microelectrode implantation and subsequently affect neuronal health and neurovascular function. To do so, he uses a combination of two-photon imaging, electrophysiology, adeno-associated viruses (AAVs), and optogenetics within mice.He also studies how pericyte activity can be modulated to improve neurovascular function and tissue health following brain injury. The results of this work could impact future therapies aimed at improving electrode-tissue integration, device performance and fidelity, and neurodegenerative brain injuries and diseases.“The human health benefits of neural interfacing technology are highlighted by their translational potential from bench-to-bedside,” Wellman added. “At the benchside, microelectrodes are an effective tool enabling neuroscientists to interface bi-directionally with neuronal, glial, and vascular cells within the brain in order to understand their physiological and pathological roles. “At the bedside, researchers have demonstrated the clinical power of neural microelectrodes as part of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for human rehabilitation by restoring motor control to tetraplegic patients and, more recently, going as far as re-establishing sensory input (haptic feedback) through bi-directional neuroprostheses.”Wellman’s work will not only impact the field of brain-computer interfaces, but it will also branch into other areas of brain research in which pericyte and vascular dysfunction are present, including ischemia, hemorrhagic stroke, cerebrovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). “Ultimately, my long-term career goal is to apply these advanced neurotechnologies and experimental methodologies to better understand and treat progressive neurodegenerative disease, particularly AD, in which neurovascular injury and dysfunction can figure prominently,” Wellman said.# # #

Lending a Helping Hand

Bioengineering, Student Profiles

Undergraduate students in a bioengineering design course at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering were tasked with identifying and innovating solutions to unmet clinical needs. From brainstorming to prototyping and testing, teams designed original medical products and applied to competitions to showcase their efforts.A team of students, including Emily Himelrick, Klaire Dickey, Rachel Lau, Seth Queen, Simon Shenk, Michael Shulock, Christopher Snodgrass, and Katherine Stevenson, were accepted to the ASAIO Student Design Competition — and clinched first place — for a project aimed to alleviate a simple but prevalent issue for medical professionals.“I asked my mom, a registered nurse, and my roommates who recently graduated from Pitt's nursing program to tell me about problems they encounter during their shifts,” said Himelrick. “A common complaint was the difficulty of donning gloves, especially with damp or wet hands. They noted that the issue was exacerbated in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic given the increase in required sanitization and personal protective equipment.”The design team took this feedback and began brainstorming potential solutions to ease the difficulty of donning gloves. Latex- and hydrogel-coated gloves are two existing alternatives to this issue — both absorb excess moisture and allow for easier donning, but these options also have their limitations.“Latex gloves are useful, but they’re rarely the supply of choice due to the prevalence of latex allergies,” Himelrick added. “The powder-free hydrogel coated gloves are also effective but cost significantly more than the typical nitrile examination gloves.” Users often wear larger gloves or apply two to each hand to combat this common issue, but these approaches are wasteful and compromise dexterity. According to the team’s research, the most common method to ease glove donning is to cup the opening and blow into it; however, even this simple method is not practical because it can spread germs from the mouth and is not feasible while wearing masks.For their project, they mimicked this simple, reliable method and created a device that circulates air through a glove, making it easier to quickly slip onto one’s hand. For the mechanism, they tested manual devices like inflator bulbs, foot pumps, and cans of compressed air and also tried powered devices, including an air compressor and a linear actuator. “Ultimately, we decided to use a linear actuator coupled with a syringe to create air pressure used to inflate the glove,” Himelrick explained. “The user simply places a glove over a funnel, which acts as an interface between the device and the glove.”The team iterated through several 3-D printed funnel designs that would fit every glove size and simplify user interaction with the device.“Our final design proved successful in the verification and validation testing conducted by the design team as well as nursing students and faculty at Pitt,” Himelrick said. “The design, although relatively simple, is innovative in its function and purpose, so the team is in the process of acquiring a provisional patent for our product. This experience has been incredibly rewarding and we were thrilled to present at the ASAIO Conference in June.”

Upcoming Events

view more