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Students broaden research horizons at National University of Singapore
Several MNTL-affiliated doctoral students spent six weeks this summer conducting research at one of the top-ranked universities in Asia. Ritu Raman, Caroline Cvetkovic, Brittany Weida, Rishi Singh, and Daniel Weisgerber were visiting research scholars at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Mechanobiology Institute—an opportunity funded by the NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in Cellular and Molecular Mechanics and BioNanotechnology at Illinois.
Raman and Cvetkovic are working with Illinois Bioengineering Professor and Department Head Rashid Bashir, an MNTL resident faculty member, on making a class of walking “bio-bots” powered by mouse muscle cells and controlled with electrical pulses. As part of the process, they combine mouse skeletal muscle cells with extracellular matrix proteins. Over time, the cells exert traction forces on the surrounding matrix to compact into a contractile muscle strip that twitches in response to electrical stimulation.
According to Raman, the NUS experience advanced her research because she learned to measure the mechanical properties of the engineered muscle strips using an atomic force microscope.
“I wanted to use the atomic force microscope to understand what’s going on in terms of the structure of the tissue as it matures,” said Raman. “At first, we have a bunch of individual cells. Then those cells fuse to form fibers. I want to know how this evolution affects the mechanical properties of the muscle strip over time”
Raman, who returned to Illinois in June, plans to use the atomic force microscope in the Bionanotechnology facility in MNTL to measure the muscle strip stiffness. She hopes to also collaborate with other graduate students to share information on using this powerful tool to characterize soft tissues.
In the long run, Raman said, the research abroad experience provided her with a fresh perspective on setting realistic goals—something she believes will help her as she pursues a faculty position someday. “I’m a very optimistic person who wants to accomplish a lot,” Raman said. “Learning to adapt to a new environment and quickly being productive was very useful. I can set more realistic expectations for myself and someday do that for my students.”
A materials science and engineering graduate student, Weisgerber was on a proof-of-concept mission while at NUS. Investigating the effect of microtopology on the osteogenic differentiation of human Mesenchymal stem cells, he used heat embossing to create transitionally relevant patterns on polystyrene. The effect of this topology was then examined using immunofluorescent staining to observe changes in cell morphology as well as alkaline phosphatase expression.
In addition to new insights on stem cell differentiation and maintenance, Weisgerber attained an understanding of heat embossing and immunoflourescent techniques. He plans to continue his NUS collaboration and proposed project now that he's back at Illinois.
According to Weisgerber, the research abroad experience not only helped advance his research but it enhanced his professional development skills. “I’d recommend this to other graduate students because it’s an enriching experience,” he said. “Six weeks is kind of short to accomplish anything big, but it’s a primer. I learned the new techniques and I learned how to interact with people, travel internationally, and network.”