VCU Engineering offers new undergraduate summer research programs

Hayley Eicher, a biomedical engineering major from Duquesne University presenting at a symposium at VCU Engineering in 2018.
Hayley Eicher, a biomedical engineering major from Duquesne University presenting at a symposium at VCU Engineering in 2018.

A year ago, Hayley Eicher, a biomedical engineering undergraduate student at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had never worked in a laboratory environment.

That’s why she was excited to join students from universities around the country to conduct research related to mechanobiology of disease and nanomedicine at a VCU College of Engineering pilot program last summer.

This summer, she’s eager to return to VCU Engineering as part of a new program funded by the National Science Foundation. Eicher, a junior, will be one of 10 undergraduates to receive training in mechanobiology research.

“I enjoyed the experience last summer,” said Eicher, who worked in the lab of Daniel E. Conway, Ph.D, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “The lab was welcoming. It’s a good opportunity to keep working on the same project.”

Conway, who studies the role of mechanical forces in regulating the function of epithelial cells that line the skin, lungs and the intestines, said he was looking forward to having Eicher continue in the lab. “Once we taught her something, she ran with it,” he said. He said the summer provided an important opportunity for students to focus on research full time.

The group, made up of students from universities across the U.S., also includes a student from VCU. The students will gain “interdisciplinary skills related to cell mechanics, mechanobiology in drug delivery, pulmonary mechanics and orthopedic regenerative medicine,” said Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering who will lead the program. In addition to studying the basic scientific method, statistics skills and research ethics, she added, students will get to see for themselves how biomedical research labs collaborate.

Participants will do hands-on experimental work or mathematical modeling of varying physiological systems in the labs of eight faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, including Heise, and one each from the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering and Chemical and Life Science Engineering. Students will also participate in outreach activities for students or teachers in grades K-12.

This year will be the first of three years sponsored by a $331,914 grant, obtained by Heise, as part of the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. The NSF supports participation by undergraduate students in research areas that it funds. Participants will receive a $5,000 stipend and the program will cover housing and other fees. It also provides partial support for participants to attend the national Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) annual meeting to present their REU projects.

In addition to the REU, VCU Engineering is offering a VCU Summer Undergraduate Research Program with faculty from the departments of Computer Science, Chemical and Life Science Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering.

Mechanobiology REU faculty mentors:

Barbara Boyan, Ph.D.

Daniel E. Conway, Ph.D.

Henry J. Donahue, Ph.D.

Rebecca Heise, Ph.D.

Christopher A. Lemmon, Ph.D.

René Olivares-Navarrete, Ph.D.

Jennifer Puetzer, Ph.D.

John E. Speich, Ph.D.

Seth H. Weinberg, Ph.D.

Hu Yang, Ph.D.