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Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty

When the COVID-19 crisis took hold of the United States more than a year ago, the University shut down all but essential work and had to transform day-to-day operations. Research was put on hold, students were told to stay home, and campus quickly became a ghost town.

Despite these unprecedented circumstances, which continue to affect life on campus, research and education quickly revived, and University of Pittsburgh engineers returned to what they do best – addressing complex problems to improve the human condition.

From collecting donations and making personal protective gear to advancing lung assist devices and mitigating viral exposure for doctors and nurses, Pitt bioengineers have overcome obstacles to help contribute to pandemic relief and adapt their research and education to the “new normal.”

Reengineering Research

Given the nature of biomedical research, managing human and non-human subjects was an obstacle to overcome in this new environment. The first steps toward restarting research were to reduce personnel and mitigate risk, which required many labs to reengineer operations for a safe return.

Tamer Ibrahim’s group uses its unique head coil system and one of the strongest MRI devices in the world to perform scans on patients with neurological disorders. To return to these studies and to keep their patients safe, the team had to adapt their technology.

“We created new standard operating procedures, modified our devices with clever engineering, and completely changed the way we do human imaging in order to mitigate the risk of infections and spreading of the disease,” said Ibrahim, professor of bioengineering. “Despite significant difficulties, we have been conducting human studies for about seven months now and are becoming even busier than before the pandemic shut down our operation. I am amazed at the resilience of our students, postdocs, and staff.”

Students have played a large role in adapting research to these new safety standards. Undergraduate students, like bioengineering senior Yuxuan Hu, have had to find creative ways to continue their lab work.

Hu works on FingerSight, a device for the blind worn as a ring on the index finger. It has a camera and vibrators that can help a visually impaired individual navigate their environment and guide manipulation. During the pandemic, he managed to develop a system that allows a blindfolded person to pick up a plastic strawberry with a spoon.

“The system uses relatively straightforward computer vision methods, such as binary thresholding, but adjusting parameters in the methods was still challenging as it requires repetitive testing,” he explained. “Dr. Stetten delivered basic parts of the hardware to my apartment so I could work on the prototype from home and only had to come to the lab for formal experiments. Additionally, I met with the lab virtually every week to present and discuss my progress.”

Hu’s success will be published in the Swanson School’s annual student journal, Ingenium.

“Considering my lab was otherwise shut down, and he was all alone, his efforts were above-and-beyond,” said George Stetten, professor of bioengineering who devised the concept for FingerSight.

Though operations are still far from “normal,” most bioengineering labs have reopened and are continuing their work to advance human medicine and treatment.

Restructuring Education

In addition to a new research environment, faculty and students have also had to tackle an unconventional classroom.

An integral part of engineering education is engaging in the creative design process and exploring solutions through hands-on learning – a task that is difficult to accomplish remotely. During the pandemic, faculty and students have had to apply their engineering skills to restructure the teaching environment.

“My TA team and I have viewed this situation as a profoundly interesting challenge for us to reinvent a hands-on, project-based design course for remote delivery – and build the plane as we're flying it,” said Joseph Samosky, assistant professor of bioengineering who teaches the Art of Making: Hands-On System Design and Engineering, a Swanson School course that focuses on innovation, human-centered design, experiential learning and projects that address real-world problems.

To equip the 43 students enrolled in the course’s spring 2021 term, Samosky and his wife sorted thousands of prototyping materials and tools to be shipped to each student by the first day of class. In a time of physical distance, this enabled the Art of Making students to remotely interact with one another, explore technologies and build prototypes

“We had a communal ‘unboxing ceremony’ during the first class session to foster a sense of unity and promote the ability to work with physical ‘atoms’ even when our communications are mediated by ‘bits,’” he said. “We’ve seen dramatically increased engagement when students can ‘break the fourth wall’ of the Zoom screen by working together with physical artifacts.”

In an early assignment, students built robots that play music and dance together – even while spatially remote. They also paused for creative physical activity breaks as a team.

“Everyone stares at a screen all day, and since the class is almost two hours long, we try to get students out of their seats -- whether for a nature break or a virtual roller coaster simulation,” said Jessica Steinberg, a bioengineering sophomore and Art of Making TA.

The teaching assistants took creative measures to try to make the “covid classroom” mimic an in-person experience.

“Inspired by techniques used at the Stanford d.school to enhance creativity and community, Dr. Samoksy suggested playing ‘ideation music’ during some of our class activities. I DJ music while the students are working, playing calmer music during brainstorming and more high energy songs while they are prototyping or doing workshops,” said Mackenzie Stiles, a bioengineering sophomore who is also a TA for the course. “We used to listen to music together in G34 so something small like that really creates a nice sense of community while we work in different places.”

Both Steinberg and Stiles were part of the spring 2020 course offering and were well equipped to help the new cohort of students navigate the untraditional classroom.

“When we returned last spring, everything was so unstable with all of my classes, except the Art of Making,” said Stiles. “It was shocking how normal it felt, which is a testament to the hard work that Dr. Samosky and the TAs made during the week of spring break. That made me value what I do as a TA now and motivated me to provide the same level of consistency during these unpredictable times.”

Samosky and his TA team also developed, tested and deployed a new Art of Making Online Expo where the capstone project teams presented their projects to their peers, industry guests and course alumni joining from around the world.

“It is a great opportunity for the students to show off, get feedback, and take pride in everything they accomplished during the course,” Steinberg added. “Experiential learning has always been at the core of Art of Making, so it has been a rewarding challenge to help create ways for students to engage in hands-on, collaborative learning, even while physically distant.”

Reimagining the Future

Bioengineering is closely connected to the clinical world, and graduate programs in the field often draw health care professionals. During the pandemic, many of these professionals have faced unique challenges and have been pushed to the front line of the crisis. Two current MS in Medical Product Engineering (MS-MPE) graduate students have had to learn how to strike a balance between a career and education during these unprecedented circumstances.

As COVID-19 swept through New York City in March 2020, hospital intensive care units (ICUs) were quickly slammed with patients and in desperate need of healthy hospital workers, like travel nurse Kelsey Cox.

“I was in Seattle at the beginning of the pandemic and saw the immediate need for nurses in New York City,” said Cox, who started the MS-MPE program in the fall. “With my background and interest in failing lungs and hearts, I knew I had to help, so I moved to Brooklyn in mid-March.”

After her time in New York, Cox traveled to Pittsburgh to settle in and prepare for the start of the program; however, she was soon called to Texas – another state hit hard by the pandemic.

“I worked 21 days straight in an ICU in McAllen and later did the same thing in El Paso,” she said. “Though they were difficult months, I was happy I could contribute to the crisis and grateful to have had the experience.

“Being a travel nurse has given me an amazing opportunity to work all across the nation and has allowed me to network with like-minded peers. It has also afforded me the chance to focus on my graduate studies and not have to work a part-time job as a student.”

Cox hopes to connect her two professional worlds and engineer devices and solutions that can improve daily life for nurses.

Another MS-MPE student juggling a career and graduate school is Brandon D’Aloiso (BS BioE ’15), a lead perfusionist at UPMC Presbyterian who supports cardiac patients, including heart and lung transplant patients. He also supports individuals on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) – a device that can do the work of the patient’s heart and/or lungs while native organs recover.

“We have seen an increasing use of ECMO in the COVID-19 patient population and have supported these ECMO patients round-the-clock since last April,” he said.

D’Aloiso also participates on the StatMedivac ECMO Transport team, a group that branches out to regional hospitals, places qualifying individuals on ECMO, and transports them back to UPMC Presbyterian for further care.

“This life-saving effort was one of the coolest things I got to do during the pandemic,” he added. “It really helped regional centers to care for these sick patients.

“While balancing life as a graduate student has been tough, I love my job and learning in the program so I have made it work. I have been fortunate that many of my courses have allowed me to focus on projects I am very interested in and that relate to my work as a perfusionist as well.”

D’Aloiso has an interest in cardiac medical devices and joined the MS-MPE program to further his knowledge in this area.

Though these stories only represent a fraction of the Pitt bioengineering population, they demonstrate the diverse backgrounds and interests that can come together to impact and improve the human condition – even during times of crisis.