Boot Camp Launches WPI Biofabrication Program

Funded with a $3 million NSF award, the new interdisciplinary graduate program combines biomedical research and business innovation experiences.

Seven students, including six women, are the first to enroll in an interdisciplinary graduate program that combines research and innovation experiences.

Boot camp participants: foreground, Heather Cirka, left, and Karen Levi; background, Katrina Hansen.

With an intensive schedule of technical, entrepreneurial, and social activities packed into the week before the formal start of classes, seven graduate students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) completed the inaugural "boot camp" of an interdisciplinary biofabrication program designed to prepare a new cadre of researchers who can translate their discoveries into solutions for societal problems.

Funded by a five-year, $3 million award from the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, the biofabrication program brings together faculty from WPI's Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center and its School of Business to train students to think like entrepreneurs and to approach their science and engineering work with a greater understanding of what it takes to move a discovery or technological advance from the laboratory to the marketplace.

"The boot camp exceeded our expectations," said Kristen Billiar, associate professor of biomedical engineering and a co-principal investigator the IGERT program who coordinated the camp. "The students really came together and gelled as a cohort. They helped each other with the technical challenges, and a couple of them said to me they had never made friends so fast in their lives."

Biofabrication is an emerging field that uses cells, proteins, and other biological materials as building blocks for therapies, to create scaffolds that help tissues heal, and even to regenerate tissues lost to disease or traumatic injury. Biofabrication techniques can also create three-dimensional models of living tissues for use in drug screening, or to study the processes of disease.

During the five-day boot camp, mornings focused on a technical challenge designed to help students get oriented in the WPI laboratories and to begin developing the skills they will need for biofabrication research projects. Each student was challenged to "print" living cells in specific patterns on engineered surfaces. The solution required bonding a layer of organic chemicals, one molecule thick, on a gold surface and attaching a pattern of proteins to the layer that would bind to specific cell types. The students then cultured the surface with cells containing a jellyfish protein that glows green under ultraviolet light. Next, they used a confocal microscope to capture images of the culture plates, to see if the green cells glowed in the patterns they expected.

"Some of the students had previous experience in the lab, but for others it was brand new," Billiar said. "The more experienced students really stepped up and helped teach the newcomers. It was great to see that level of cooperation."

Afternoons at the boot camp provided an overview of the business innovation and entrepreneurial aspects of the program the students will complete as WPI IGERT Fellows. They will work together on interdisciplinary teams to identify an unmet medical need and develop a potential solution. They also will have the opportunity to complete either a three-month internship with a company in their field, or a three-month international experience to better understand the technological and cultural drivers of innovation around the world. WPI has established collaborations with universities in China, Italy, Ireland, and the United Kingdom to facilitate IGERT projects.

"Our goal in this program is to help them open up their mindset to think beyond the technology and ask questions like: whose pain are they going to relieve?," said Frank Hoy, Paul R. Beswick Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in WPI's School of Business and a co-principal investigator for the IGERT program. "What problem will they solve? What is the marketplace for this technology? And, how would you build a business around it?"

Evening activities during boot camp included a baseball game, an ice cream party, a barbeque, and a night out for billiards so students and faculty could get acquainted outside of the classroom or laboratory. "I think we are off to a strong start," said Terri Camesano, professor of chemical engineering at WPI and principal investigator of the biofabrication program. "We look forward to a meaningful academic year, and we have high expectations that the students in this program will do great things."

September 18, 2012