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UC San Diego bioengineering PhD student Pamela Duran recently
received an award for best doctoral basic science research from the
American Urogynecologic Society (AUGS) for her research on how repeated birth
injuries impact the pelvic floor muscles.
Duran, who is co-advised by bioengineering professor Karen Christman and Dr. Marianna
Alperin, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive
sciences, is also a Siebel Scholar.
“Pelvic floor disorders can develop later in life,” said Duran.
“Years after giving birth I could see how women are really affected by these
conditions. It really impacts their quality of life and I think in general,
there needs to be more research into biomaterials to treat these conditions.”
Nearly one fourth of women will experience pelvic floor disorders,
making it one of the most significant women’s health issues. Some of the
symptoms of these disorders include frequent urination, leaking stool or urine,
constipation, descension of pelvic organs, and pain/pressure in the pelvic
region and/or lower back, which can heavily impact an individual's quality of
During her PhD, Duran has done research to better understand how
one or repeated birth injuries impact the regenerative abilities of the pelvic
floor tissue. Using an animal model, she found that after a birth injury, the
pelvic floor muscle undergoes sustained inflammation, impairment in muscle
anabolism and persistent extracellular matrix remodeling, leading to long-term
muscle atrophy and fibrosis. Understanding the mechanisms that impact pelvic
floor tissue repair will help researchers and clinicians develop treatments for
faster and more effective healing.
In addition to studying how birth injuries impact pelvic floor
muscle regeneration, Duran has also done research on injectable biomaterials to
help prevent pelvic floor dysfunction. She analyzed the efficacy of a minimally
invasive therapy to treat the pathological alterations of the pelvic floor
muscle. She injected a skeletal muscle-derived extracellular matrix hydrogel at
two different therapeutic windows--either at the time of birth injury or at a
delayed time point. In both studies, the biomaterial prevented pelvic floor
muscle atrophy and mitigated fibrosis through modulation of immune response,
augmentation of muscle regeneration pathway and native extracellular matrix
remodeling. Duran is currently investigating the efficacy of the hydrogel after
multiple birth injuries.
“Women think that if they are uncomfortable or if they got injured
during childbirth that it is common; but it is not something to be ignored.
This can, in the future, lead to pelvic floor disorders.”
Though women sometimes downplay discomfort in the pelvic region
after childbirth, Duran encourages women to treat these disorders as seriously
as they would any other health issue. While they do, Duran and other
researchers at the school will continue to spearhead cutting-edge research in
this crucial women’s health area.
Students in the UC San Diego chapter of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) hosted their third Haunted Maze on campus in November. The 500 available tickets to the Wonderland-themed event sold out in a matter of minutes.
The haunted maze included complicated technical elements such as the Pepper's Ghost illusion technique and several animatronic features, as well as creative costumes, several-rooms worth of set design, and storyboarding for the overall flow of the event. Students in TEA spend a year planning, designing and building the maze each year.
The TEA club draws students from across campus, including many engineers, who are interested in theme park design. In addition to the annual haunted maze, students in TEA participate in national theme park design contests, meet with engineers and creatives currently working at various themed entertainment venues, and have even collaborated with larger theme parks to co-design and build new exhibits.
Learn more and get involved: https://tea.ucsd.edu/
Shu Chien, a professor emeritus of bioengineering at UC San Diego, is known as a superstar: he's won the National Medal of Science and been voted into all three National Academies (Science, Medicine and Engineering) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as the newly established National Academy of Inventors, for his discoveries that underpin our understanding of how blood flows in the cardiovascular system. But now, he has his very own asteroid, too!
In recognition of his scientific contributions to the field of mechanobiology—ranging from uncovering a key reason why sedentary lifestyles can be unhealthy even with short daily bursts of exercise, to how to more efficiently screen for adverse effects of small molecule drugs in patients—the International Astronomical Union has named asteroid 2008 YX9 as Chienshu.
The Chienshu asteroid was discovered in 2008 by X.Y. Hsaiao and Q.Z. Ye, and the name was made official in September 2021.
In addition, Chien was recently elected as a Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, a sister institution to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, of which he is already a member. He is also a member of Academia Sinica in Taiwan, thus making him a member of all eight U.S. and Chinese Academies.
Chien was also named an inaugural Fellow of the International Union of Physiological Sciences' new Academy. The goal of the IUPS Academy and its 30 Fellows is to represent the diversity and excellence of physiology worldwide. The Academy is intended to serve as a resource for physiologists, as well as a source of information and contacts for journalists, funders, charities, politicians, allied health professionals or members of the public.
Edward Wang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego who directs the Ubiquitous Data and Computing Lab, has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a smartphone app that can screen for early signs of cognitive decline indicative of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).
Wang, who has a joint appointment in the Design Lab at UC San Diego, will be leading the project with co-investigator Eric Granholm, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and director of the university's Center for Mental Health Technology (MHTech). The National Institute of Aging selected the team for an NIH R21, also known as the Exploratory/Development Grant, which provides support in the early and conceptual stages of a project’s development. As part of a national push towards combating the debilitating effects of AD, the National Institute of Aging looked towards funding novel ways to screen for AD through the use of digital technologies.
In the team's proposal, titled, “Smartphone Pupillometer for At-Home Screening for Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease,” Wang and Granholm aim to leverage camera systems found in smartphones to capture pupillary responses to cognitive tests as an indicator of the integrity of a specific part of the brain, the locus coeruleus, that has been shown to be one of the first sites affected by AD-related processes. By taking advantage of the smartphone as the vehicle for conducting such a test, Wang and Granholm believe that this approach of using digital technologies to capture physiological signals has the potential of significantly driving down the cost of deploying these screening solutions widely to combat public health challenges like AD.
“By further enhancing the signals that are captured using just your phone with signal processing and machine learning, we are able to derive, what are known as, digital biomarkers,” Wang says.
This approach strongly aligns with the National Institute of Aging’s Notice of Special Interest, which states that “current biomarkers for early detection of prodromal AD [...] are costly and invasive”, and digital biomarkers “can be used to inform disease prediction and management at both the individual and populational level.”
AD is a progressive degenerative disorder of the brain and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with the latest statistics showing that at least five million Americans over the age of 65 suffer from the disease. Not only is it the most common form of dementia of elderly adults, it is projected that cases of AD will double by 2025. By 2050, it is projected that a total annual cost for health care for people with AD will be more than $1 trillion. AD is clearly a public health crisis.
“Our solution is based on previous findings in our research with older adults with mild cognitive impairment, where we studied how differences in pupil dilation in response to memory tests are associated with very early signs of AD,” Granholm says. “It is based on these findings that we are developing this smartphone solution.” If successful, Granholm notes, it would be possible for older adults to perform this test even in the comfort of their own homes or by their primary care providers. This is compared with what is available today, which are far more invasive solutions like PET/MRI imaging and lumbar puncture for biomarkers in the spinal fluid.
As a faculty member in the Design Lab, Wang has a particular interest in developing technologies through a lens of human centered design. Wang has had a record of inventing new smartphone-based health monitoring solutions such as hemoglobin/anemia screening, blood pressure monitoring, and ocular disease. In developing these solutions, Wang has worked with a wide range of collaborators across the world to develop and test these systems with end users to make sure that the purported solutions truly can work with the target users and in realistic conditions. “Sometimes what we find is that an idea works well in lab settings where we can control the lighting and temperature of the room, but completely fails in realistic conditions that screening tools like these have to operate under,” Wang says.
Wang working in a village in the Amazon Jungle of Peru testing his smartphone hemoglobin monitor.
In a previous workaround anemia screening, Wang worked with NGOs in Peru to bring his prototype app into villages nestled in the Amazonian Jungle, where NGO staff regularly travel to in order to perform anemia screening and treatments.
"It turns out, we never considered that the main use case for our technology is really to screen for anemia in kids under 3 years old. Although the physics still holds, behaviorally, kids at that age are so different that we basically couldn’t get the kids to stay still long enough to be able to measure them with our app,” Wang reflects. “One of the common misconceptions in engineering research is that we can always build it to work better with enough resources once a technology leaves the lab,” Wang says. “The issue with that kind of approach is that sometimes that can lead us into solutions that don’t have a chance of working. That is why human centered design being a central loop in the research is so important.”
Wang notesthat keeping the elder user base in mind is crucial in the success of this research endeavor. “One of the things I think is particularly interesting in working on digital technology for the older population is that it requires a lot more nuances around usability,” Wang explains. “Our big hope is that [our app] works with little to no training with either home care providers or with the older adults themselves.”
Wang cautions, however, that these solutions are far from ready and requires extensive research on how well such digital biomarkers can differentiate diseases and how they will ultimately serve in the entire ecosystem of healthcare. “Our research aims to solve big healthcare problems by looking for creative ways to invent new ways our society can screen and treat diseases. But this shift that brings healthcare closer to everyday life, literally into our pockets, means that we will have to be very intentional in our designs of how people will use these technologies to be not only useful, but safe as well,” he says.
Heyde has been involved in SWE from her undergraduate years at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, through her time as a graduate student at UC San Diego, and even now as a working professional. Her main goal through SWE has been to reach out to the next generation of engineers, to help them have a better understanding of their options.
As an undergraduate, Heyde helped develop the SWENext outreach program for students in grades K-12, launching 11 local SWENext clubs. SWENext provides young students with access to programs, mentors, and resources designed to develop the leadership skills and self-confidence to succeed in engineering and technology careers.
She continued to be involved in outreach through SWE at UC San Diego, where she advised the chapter on their SWENext activities, and served on the Edge and Envision outreach event committees.
At the SWE national level, Heyde is a work group lead for SWENext Clubs on the SweNext and Student Programs committee, and is a work group lead for Training Adult Advocates on the Outreach Committee.
“I'm really passionate about outreach to younger students in general,” said Heyde. “I was really lucky because my parents made sure I was exposed to all sorts of different things. I got to really choose what I was interested in, and STEM was one of those things. I realize that’s not something everyone has the benefit of, which is why I'm passionate about outreach and why I got involved with SWE.”
Though she initially joined SWE to help young students learn about engineering, Heyde said she wound up finding a vital sense of community through the organization, as well.
“I’ve had a lot of great experiences through SWE in general,” she said. “It was a community I didn’t realize I was lacking until I joined, and realized there were a lot of other like-minded people, especially women, who had similar industry and career goals. They really resonated with things I wanted to do in my future so I got to be around a lot of those like-minded individuals, and I made a lot of friends.”
As a student at UC San Diego, Heyde, who is now a research and development engineer at Medtronic working in their structural heart group on heart valve therapies, was part of a team of engineers and physicians rapidly developing an emergency ventilator for COVID-19 patients. The team developed a low-cost, easy-to-use device built around a ventilator bag usually found in ambulances. The UCSD MADVent Mark 5, as it’s called, cost just $500 per unit, compared to $50,000 for state of the art models.
“This was a cool project because there was an immediate impact, which resonated with me and is why I’m interested in medical devices in general,” said Heyde. “I think a lot of times with research, the length between working on something and seeing its impact on patients can be huge. I was lucky to work on a project that had such an immediate impact.”
Blake Iwaisako and Zoe Tcheng work in the EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio
A team of five UC San Diego undergraduate students spent the
summer developing a device to help TaylorMade Golf study how minute differences
in the golf balls they produce affect the balls’ performance. The 10-week
Summer EnVision Experience (SEE) internship brings students from across campus
and from various engineering disciplines together to collaborate on a project
sponsored by a partner company or organization.
SEE was designed by the UC San Diego Jacobs School of
Engineering to provide sophomore and junior students with hands-on experience
creating, pitching and developing a project from start to finish. During the
internship, students gain hands-on experience with the wide array of tools
available in the EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio. For Zoe Tcheng, a
bioengineering student, SEE gave her the opportunity to develop her computer
modeling skills, and ultimately confirmed her choice of major.
Ariel Navarro builds a prototype of the manufacturing pipeline
“I definitely got better at soldering, I soldered most of
this printed circuit board here,” Tcheng said. “It was rough at the beginning
but I got a lot better. And I learned some modeling, which is what I was really
interested in. I learned a lot of arduino coding, which I had done in class
before, but not as fleshed out as this project and not with as many components.
“What I figured out from this is that I definitely don’t
want to do mechanical engineering,” said Tcheng, laughing. “The track I’m in as
a bioengineer is biosystems, so we’re more kind of more electrical engineering
focused. This experience reinforced that I prefer that, and enjoy the soldering
Yichen Xiang works on electrical components of the team's device
For electrical engineering student Ariel Navarro, SEE not
only helped him develop more skills using the tools and machinery at EnVision,
but helped him see the reality of their limits, as well.
“At first it was a lot of knowledge to dig into, because
there are so many different things to learn; we’re 3D printing, using CAD for
parts, laser cutting. It was a little overwhelming,” said Navarro. “But
thankfully we were taking it one step at a time. One of the things you don’t
understand until you experience it, is that a lot of machines aren’t as precise
as you think. And even though it’s just a little bit off, it can throw the
whole piece off. Right now for example, we have to redo a component because the
hole a pipe will fit in is just a little bit too big, and the pipe is wobbling
inside. So even though we measured it, it’s not always exactly precise.”
The students also said they came away with a greater
understanding of what it means to collaborate as a cross-disciplinary team.
Caitlin Kim uses the laser cutter at EnVision
“I learned a lot, especially with teamwork,” said Tcheng.
“Because we were here together four days a week, for 10 weeks.”
Navarro agreed, noting that no matter how technically
skilled you are, communication is still key.
“Working on a project like this, I learned to communicate,”
he said. “You’ve got to make sure you’re letting people know what you’re doing
and your timing. You have to maintain constant communication when you’re
working with other people.”
In previous years, SEE interns have worked with the Birch
Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography to develop the aquarium’s first
virtual reality exhibit; a sound-matching game to share complicated whale call
research with the public; and an exhibit focused on the albedo effect and an
interactive RFID system. The internship was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.
The ongoing pandemic didn’t stop students from
gaining valuable hands-on research experience this summer through the SummerTraining Academy for Research Success (STARS) program at UC San Diego. Melissa
Lepe, an aerospace engineering student at UC Irvine, got creative with her
STARS mentor—UC San Diego structural engineering professor Ingrid Tomac— to
find ways to gain data analysis skills while advancing our knowledge of
“When there are forest fires, mudflows often occur after the
fire,” said Lepe. “And in Tomac’s Geo-Micromechanics Research Group, we wanted
to study the exact patterns of behavior during those mudflows, so we studied
the soil particles and how they attach to air particles, to try and really see
what we can learn about their movement, and what we can predict to establish
better building infrastructure and warning signals for mudslides.”
Since the research experience was virtual, Lepe and her
graduate student mentor, UC San Diego structural engineering PhD student Wenpei
Ma, tag teamed the research process. Ma would conduct experiments using very
high resolution cameras in Tomac’s lab, and send some of the resulting images
and footage to Lepe to analyze.
“My graduate mentor is working on different types of
samples, testing different types of sand to see how fine, coarse and medium
sand behave during a mudslide. He takes high resolution footage of these
particles moving around during tests so we can see how they bind with each
other and make aglomerate, a combination of sand and air particles. He uploads
the videos remotely to a drive, and I analyze them from here.”
From this high resolution footage, Lepe is able to track
these very small particles as they move during the experiment, following a
single particle across a span of time to see how it behaves, which particles it
is drawn to, or if particles in the aglomerate separate when they come in
contact with another particle. Tomac’s team will use this information to try
and answer questions about how the size of sand particles impacts the speed of
mudslides; how gravity impacts different sizes and shapes of particles; and
ultimately what we can do to mitigate the impacts of mudslides.
In addition to this research, the STARS program provides
students with GRE and grad school prep; a series of speakers on topics ranging
from imposter syndrome to different paths to grad school and the breadth of
careers possible with a graduate degree; leadership activities; and a community
of students to support one another.
“I’m a first generation college student so I didn't even know
what to expect when it came to applying to graduate school,” said Lepe. “I
thought the GRE was just another SAT, and in some ways it is, but there are
other components. So having the GRE class definitely helped me see what to
expect, but also learn ways that I could effectively study and approach the
Lepe said the community building aspects of the STARS
program, even virtually, were also particularly helpful.
“It’s more than just a one summer research program--it’s
about finding a community with other like minded individuals and finding ways
to build up one another and potentially become more than just people you met during
the program, but a resource in the future or someone you could reach out and
talk to. It’s definitely about making connections that are more impactful than
Lepe, who has conducted research on renewable energy and
power plants at UC Irvine, plans to earn a PhD with a focus on energy systems
and propulsion in aerospace, working toward energy alternatives to create more
Learn more about the STARS program: