Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has received a five-year, $3 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch an innovative graduate program in biofabrication. By combining interdisciplinary research, translational engineering, and industrial and international experiences—all with a focus on innovation—the program will prepare a new cadre of researchers who can translate their discoveries into solutions for societal problems. The award is funded through the NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program.
Faculty members in WPI's Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center and its School of Business will collaborate to direct the new program, with the shared goal of training students, who will be known as WPI IGERT fellows, 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.
"We are pleased to receive this important award from the NSF's flagship program for cutting-edge, interdisciplinary graduate education," said Eric Overström, WPI's provost and senior vice president. "I want to congratulate the principal investigators, Dean of Engineering Selçuk Güçeri, and everyone responsible for developing this outstanding initiative. The new biofabrication program will draw on our significant strengths in life sciences and bioengineering education and research, our leadership in global problem solving, and our institutional commitment to infusing our graduate programs with an entrepreneurial spirit to help prepare the innovative, globally engaged science and engineering workforce our nation needs."
Biofabrication is a broad 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 create three-dimensional models of living tissues for use in drug screening, or to study the processes of disease.
The NSF award will augment WPI's investment in the program and help provide stipends for students accepted as IGERT fellows. "Using biological tools to investigate and alleviate disease is the new frontier," said Terri Camesano, professor of chemical engineering at WPI and principal investigator for the new program. "This unique program will help our graduate students see the greater context of their research, and inspire them to translate their discoveries into innovative solutions that improve people's lives."
In addition to course work and mentored laboratory research projects, WPI's IGERT fellows will participate in curriculum modules and team projects designed to develop their collaboration and innovation skills. They will work together on interdisciplinary teams to identify an unmet medical need and develop a potential solution.
"In addition to being great problem solvers, today our graduates need to be great opportunity-seekers," said Frank Hoy, Paul R. Beswick Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in WPI's School of Business and a co-principal investigator for the WPI IGERT program. "Whether they choose academic careers or find themselves in private industry, we want them to be able to see what others do not see in terms of how their science and engineering can be applied to help consumers. That’s the entrepreneurial mindset we hope to infuse in this program."
Students in the new program will also have 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.
During their third year of the program, the IGERT Fellows will have access to WPI's Competitive Innovation Incentive Fund, which has been established as part of the NSF award. Student teams will develop and present a specific proposal for funding to advance their chosen project. Awards of up to $20,000 from the fund may be used for prototyping, pilot studies, provisional patent filings, or other activities needed to validate their solutions or move their project toward commercialization.
Working with Camesano and Hoy to help direct the new biofabrication program are co-principle investigators Ki Chon, professor and head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Glenn Gaudette and Kristen Billiar, associate professors of biomedical engineering.
Applications are now being accepted for the first class of WPI IGERT Fellows, who will enroll in September.