Where science, math and computing meet

By Marsha Anderson

Dr. Michael Shaw (right) works with Joshua Lee '08 on a tissue culture experiment on how wounds heal. It is Lee's second summer as a Swenson intern.   Photo: Brian Stethem '84

It's the kind of growth most Fortune 500 companies would envy...CLU's bioengineering major is taking off, quadrupling its numbers since the major was started in fall 2003. And while shares aren't traded on the stock exchange, the ultimate returns — progress in how wounds heal and other potential solutions for medical problems — could benefit us all.

But there's more. Students as early as their freshman year are doing exciting original research, and reporting on that research at international conferences alongside doctors and scientists from all over the world. CLU is also hosting some of those conferences, bringing industry groups to campus to get to know the students personally and become mentors for them.

That's the latest news from Mike Shaw, Ph.D., Professor of Bioengineering and Physics, and Director of the Center for Integrated Science and Bioengineering at CLU, a place where physics and mathematics intersect with biology, physics and computing. In addition, Shaw and his colleagues, Drs. Janet Scheel (physics), Craig Reinhart (computer science), Dennis Revie (biology/biochemistry), David Marcey and Ken Long, (biology), Kavin Tsang and Michele LeBlanc (exercise science), are involved in research with their students throughout the year as well as in special Swenson-funded summer internships (see page 20).

Jump Starting Science Research

Opportunities for faculty-student science research are increasing at CLU, thanks to Jim and Sue Swenson.

In the summer of 2006, the Swensons funded a successful pilot internship program for science majors. This summer 11 students (two of them for half the summer), whose proposals were approved by a faculty committee, are working on their research projects as Swenson Summer Science Interns, according to Della Greenlee, Director of Foundation Relationships and Scholarship Development. The students each receive $4,000 to complete summer research projects focusing on various topics in the real world of science and technology.

The committee, comprised of several faculty members in the Science Department and chaired by Dennis Revie, Ph.D., selected the students based on their overall academic performance as well as written proposals of their research. A minimum grade point average of 3.30 is required of each applicant. The students selected for 2007 summer internships are majoring in physics, math, bioengineering, biology, and exercise science and sports medicine. They will complete their research while working full time with a CLU faculty mentor during the summer and will present the results to the Swensons in October.

The full-time summer interns are Michael Calkins of Holly, Mich.; Thomas Estus of Simi Valley; Tiffany Linville of Ventura; Nate Mihoch of Herlong; Laura Morris of West Linn, Ore.; Garrett Mosley of Westlake Village; Lorraine Mutyaba of Kampala, Uganda; Grante Norte of Moreno Valley; and Sam Walton of Sacramento. Terri Kimmel of Camarillo and Josh Lee of Fresno are half-summer interns.

The program has been made possible by a $50,000 gift from the Swenson Family Foundation. The Swensons of Dana Point have played an important, consistent role in supporting many CLU students. They have provided both scholarships and grants and earlier this year pledged $5 million toward the construction of a new science facility.

As Shaw explains, "We emphasize research experience and student presentations at scientific conferences — and that's unusual. A more typical student experience in a lab is washing test tubes. Here, we say, come up with a research project. And as our students present their findings at conferences, they are getting noticed!"

Tissue culture research...and more

Along with the individual exposure and resume building that the research approach fosters, there's another difference in this major — the teamwork that pervades students' experiences. "Team" is more than a concept as students apply knowledge from many disciplines and co-publish their research findings with their professors.

A 2006 article, for example, published in the Journal of Materials Research, carries a byline with Shaw's name preceded by the names of seven CLU students and that of a Baxter scientist who collaborated on the research. "Team" also extends to having local high school students volunteer as helpers on CLU students' summer research.

For Shaw and his students, it's all happening in CLU's bioengineering labs, where cutting-edge research experiments are focused on tissue engineering. First, cryopreserved cells are purchased in test tubes no larger than a pinky finger from a biomedical supplier for $200 apiece. These test tubes are carefully stored in a cryopressure tank (funded by a Community Leaders Association gift) until they are needed.

From their frozen world, the cells are defrosted and placed in tissue culture flasks with a small amount of growth medium for incubation at body temperature, and then into a thicker collagen solution (think red JELL-O) that provides the "scaffold" or structure for the cells to grow. Students study different types of scaffolds and how mechanical forces like gravity affect those cells. They use the lab's characterization facility (mechanical tester machine) to measure the mechanical properties of the scaffold.

"For example, if you think of the skin that forms your eyelid, it's different from the skin on the bottom of your foot because of the different forces on those cells," Shaw explains. "Physics helps us predict outcomes, using mathematical models, on how forces like gravity work."

By bringing basic precepts of physics and engineering to biology, the goal is to establish the underlying relationships between the structure of tissues and their mechanical function, and in turn, how their mechanical function affects cell behavior.

"Our research is to establish those relationships," he continues, "combining microscopy, mechanical characterizations, engineered tissue synthesis and mathematical modeling. In doing so, development costs and time to market are reduced through 'first-pass' design success."

From skin grafts to bone regeneration

Practical applications are many, from the potential to help astronauts in space resist muscle mass loss due to zero gravity, to the development of custom skin grafts for different parts of the body, to the discovery of how best to treat a particular disease. For bioengineering major and Swenson summer intern Patricia Lorraine Mutyaba '10, it was the field's sheer potential that inspired her choice of major.

"I always wanted to do tissue engineering," she explains. "I come from Uganda, where we had the Discovery Channel. I was an avid viewer. I saw a program on tissue engineering and the thought of just being able to come up with a better way to regrow bone, or regenerate cells to replace an organ, fascinated me. I met Dr. Shaw when I was working on a research project my freshman year. He encourages you. He makes you believe you can do great things."

And they can. CLU bioengineering graduates have found a market eager for their skills. Alissa Doerfler '05 is working at Fziomed in San Luis Obispo, helping to develop injectable bone cements for spinal implants, research very similar to her work at CLU. Candace Bragg '06 recently interned at Second Sight, a Sylmar company founded to create retinal prostheses to give sight to people blinded due to retinal degeneration, and now is a documentation associate in Quality Control Test Technology at Baxter Bioscience in Thousand Oaks. And Rachel Mooney '06, a biochemistry major, is in a graduate program at the University of Colorado (Boulder) Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Sharing the podium with PhDs

Present CLU undergraduates are already seeing the benefits of their major. They can attend monthly meetings of the local chapter of the largest engineering society in the world, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, held right on campus. The group won a global "best chapter" award for its focus on CLU students. Students have also presented at international Materials Research Society and Society for Biomaterials conferences, and at a recent Wound Healing Society conference.

Undergraduates may apply for Swenson summer internships to work with faculty on projects. Joshua Lee '08 is splitting his summer — halftime as a Swenson intern at CLU working with Shaw, and halftime at the 2007 Stanford Pre-Medical Summer Program, where he'll receive mentoring from Stanford med students, workshops on health issues and lectures from faculty. Lee achieved what Shaw calls an "unprecedented" accomplishment, netting the coveted slot at Stanford. Maybe it was his recent presentation at the 2007 Society for Biomaterials in Chicago or the one at the Los Angeles Tissue Engineering Initiative at UCLA that got Stanford's attention.

As Shaw explains, "We are not trying to recruit and brainwash everyone into becoming a bioengineer. We just want to bring in great students and raise academic quality by exposing them to genuine academic experiences. It's really all about who's in the program — the students and the faculty and the company contacts. That's what builds the network."

Marsha Anderson is Associate Director of Foundation Relations at CLU. A former marketing instructor and public relations executive, she has published numerous articles and has won writing awards from the International Association of Business Communicators and the Public Relations Society of America.

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