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Securing the Future of Bioengineering PhD Training at Pitt

Two Pitt Bioengineering PhD Training Programs Secure Continued Success with $3.28 million in NIH Funding

Over the past eighteen years, the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh has received multiple competitive training grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for training its PhD students. 

This year, two of these programs have received new funding, enabling continued innovative training of bioengineering PhD students at the Swanson School of Engineering.

The Biomechanics in Regenerative Medicine (BiRM) and the Cardiovascular Bioengineering Training Program (CBTP) both received NIH T32 grant renewals for an additional five years to prepare predoctoral trainees for careers that have a significant impact on health-related research needs.

BiRM, a joint program between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, integrates multiscale biomechanics such as theory, modeling, experimental method design, robotics, AI, and advanced manufacturing to regenerative medicine. 

Led by David Vorp, Senior Associate Dean for Research and Facilities and John A. Swanson Professor of Bioengineering at the Swanson School of Engineering, the goal of this training program is to prepare biomechanists to tackle the mounting challenges facing healthcare and to efficiently translate scientific discoveries in contemporary cell and molecular biology into safe and effective therapies.

Unlike other grant programs, T32 programs like BiRM require trainees to take specific classes and attend seminars. PhD Candidate Dorota Jazwinska, a trainee in the BiRM program, focuses on cancer-related research for her PhD, with microfluidic modeling as a part of her BiRM training. According to Jazwinska, a key strength of a T32 funded program is this interdisciplinary nature.

“You get introduced to a lot of things you normally wouldn't, which really helps with research because sometimes you get familiar with ideas that you normally wouldn't have because they're not your niche,” Jazwinska said.

The current five-year renewal provides $1.11 million to the BiRM program, which has now received more than $5.2 million in NIH funding since its inception in 2005. The funding will provide tuition, stipend, benefits, fees and some professional expenses for four PhD students per year.

CBTP also received a five-year renewal this year. The goal of this training program, led by Sanjeev Shroff, Interim U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering and Distinguished Professor of and McGinnis Chair in Bioengineering and Professor of Medicine, is to train bioengineering doctoral students for careers in both basic and translational cardiovascular research.

“Students are exposed first-hand to real-world clinical problems requiring bioengineering input for their solution,” Shroff said. “The program is designed to provide students with both breadth and depth in engineering and biological sciences and includes a formal exposure to biostatistics, bioethics, and professional and career development issues. Upon completion, students are well-versed in both basic and clinical aspects of cardiovascular engineering and are well prepared for rewarding careers in a growing field.”

According to Abigail Gondringer, a PhD candidate in CBTP, the program aids students in creating meaningful connections with faculty.

“Anything where you get face time with a professor who's hard to reach, and with the fact that they know who you are, if something comes up in the future, their connections could be helpful.” Gondringer said. 

Along with improving students’ research and networking skills, these training programs also instill students with skills useful for postdoctoral careers, such as scientific and grant writing. 

“Going on to a postdoctoral position after graduation, applying to CBTP has made it easier to apply to other positions because I’m already familiar with the structure,” Gondringer said. “It was also one of my first introductions to scientific writing, which was also very helpful.” 

The current five-year renewal includes $2.17 million to CBTP, which has received more than $7.54 million in NIH funding since its creation in 2005.

The Bioengineering department is also associated with two other NIH-funded predoctoral training programs: Bioengineering in Psychiatry (BiP), in collaboration with the Department of Psychiatry, and Cellular Approaches to Tissue Engineering and Regeneration (CATER), in collaboration with the Department of Pathology and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

“NIH-funded training grants are prestigious and highly competitive,” Vorp said. “Having four such bioengineering-associated training grants here at Pitt is a testament to the quality of our mentors and students and the research they conduct.”