Research, Research, Research!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 by Travis

Hey everybody,

Whether you like it or not, I’m back yet again to blog about my life at Harvey Mudd College! For those of you who are not familiar with me through Facebook, the blog, or my tours, my name is Travis Beckman and I am a junior engineering major living in Atwood Dorm. I am from Huntington Beach, California, and enjoy playing ice and roller hockey, water polo, fishing, and surfing. Furthermore, I am a diehard Los Angeles Kings fan as well as the resident Taylor Swift superfan (a Swiftie, if you will) at Harvey Mudd College, but if you want to read more about that, follow this link.

Though week two of school is upon us, I want to talk to you all about my summer here at Harvey Mudd College. I participated in tissue engineering research on campus, working under Professor Orwin, an HMC alum herself! More specifically, I was part of the bioreactor two-person subteam working in total with six other students on the cornea research team. Rachel Roley, a fellow junior engineering major, and I were tasked with redesigning a device known as the H-Bioreactor. Rather than throwing more fancy words at you, I will attempt to explain without sounding too much like a Mudder! The H-Bioreactor is a device that allows us to to see how mechanical signals affect the state of rabbit corneal cells. Before I try to explain more about the device and research in general, here are a few pictures of the device.

Injecting water with blue dye into the H-Bioreactor to detect the spots where it was leaking.
Injecting water with blue dye into the H-Bioreactor to detect the spots where it was leaking.
Using a 3D printer, we printed a possible prototype for the new lid.
Using a 3D printer, we printed a possible prototype for the new lid.
We utilized a programmable CNC mill in order to machine our new lid out of Polyetherimide.
We utilized a programmable CNC mill in order to machine our new lid out of Polyetherimide.
The finished lid attached to the bioreactor, complete with a custom O-ring channel to give a watertight seal.
The finished lid attached to the bioreactor, complete with a custom O-ring channel to give a watertight seal.

The cells, which are rabbit corneal fibroblasts, are responsible for wound-healing, the synthesis of the cornea’s key components, as well as keeping the cornea transparent to light. However, when these cells exhibit their wound-healing response (or phenotype) they no longer as transparent. This is an issue that necessitates corneal transplant, and with a shortage of donor tissue, our lab is trying to find ways to rehabilitate damaged corneal fibroblasts to their healthy state for transplant. Rachel and I are specifically working to see if we can do this using mechanical signals, which is done by placing cells in the circular wells pictured above. Then, the chamber underneath is filled with water, causing the membrane that the cells are adhered here to to expand. This creates a pressure applied over the area of the well, which is known as stress. However, we measure the mechanical signal in terms of strain, which is basically a comparison between the the initial state of the cells and how far the applied stress has caused them to move.

Aside from the technical side of research, it was truly a unique experience. Over my past two years at Mudd, I have plenty of first-hand experience in how professors allow students to direct their own learning and work. However, I never as an undergraduate imagined that I would have as much autonomy and control over such an ambitious research project with my fellow students. Professor Orwin expertly advised all of us in a way such that we were both productive and constantly picking up new knowledge and techniques. While I am obviously biased, this is not an experience unique to just Professor Orwin’s lab. There was a large contingent of Mudders and visiting students taking part in summer research on campus, the vast majority of whom would speak of it with the same enthusiasm I am.

Aside from the incredible academic experience research offered me, it also allowed for an equally exciting amount of fun. To summarize the antics of the summer, here are some photos from our shenanigans.

The lab with their best game faces on before our ultimate frisbee game against Prof. Clark's LAIR lab.
The lab with their best game faces on before our ultimate frisbee game against Prof. Clark’s LAIR lab.
The lab ice skating trip with Prof. Orwin's family!
The lab ice skating trip with Prof. Orwin’s family!
The lab in our "Girl Power" t-shirts after our floor hockey victory against Prof. Clark's lab.
The lab in our “Girl Power” t-shirts after our floor hockey victory against Prof. Clark’s lab.
Decorating cookies for lab open house!
Myself and our lab before our open house!

 Overall, research at Mudd was an absolute blast, and I’m hoping to do it again next year! Until next time, I’m out!

Travis Beckman