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Hard work pays off for undergraduate engineering researchers

Lehigh Provost Patrick Farrell discusses "The Chinese Rainbow Bridge" with UGRS competitor Robert Asselin '11.

The 2011 David and Lorraine Freed Undergraduate Research Symposium

Lehigh bioengineering student Colin Przybylowski '11 is on his way to stardom in the world of engineering research.

As the 2011 David and Lorraine Freed Undergraduate Research Symposium winner, Przybylowski earned a $2,000 travel stipend to attend a professional conference of his choice, as well as recognition and praise from his peers, professors and faculty members.

"I was a little surprised," Przybylowski said. "It's a cool honor. I'm happy the hard work I put in paid off a little bit."

Przybylowski's research explored the world of orthopedic replacements. His goal was to develop a better material to use as a growth platform for stem cells to construct new bones that would substitute typical stainless steel replacements. So, Przybylowski, a materials science and engineering major, began working with bioactive glass, which has a "rigid, stable structure," making it a more ideal platform for growing cells to be implanted into bodies to repair or replace damaged bones.

Przybylowski noted several advantages of using bioactive glass instead of the customary stainless steel replacements. Using bioactive glass "eliminates rejection" of the replacement in the body because the cells used to create the new bone are actually grown from stem cells from the patient, Przybylowski said. Aside from bioactive glass replacements being completely biocompatible, they are also less painful once inside the body and require fewer surgeries in the long run, he said.

Przybylowski plans on using his prize money to attend the 2011 Society for Biomaterials Annual Meeting and Exposition in Orlando, Fla. from April 13-16, and acknowledged that the help of his advisor contributed to his successful research, which garnered him the honor of first place in the competition. "I'd like to thank Professor [Sabrina] Jedlicka for all the time and effort she put in," he said.

Meghan Casey '11 and Anthony Ventura '11 also placed at the symposium. Casey, who has worked with Jedlicka for the past three years, earned second place for her bioengineering research of neurons and cell differentiation, receiving a $1,000 prize. Casey hopes her research will aid the development of therapies for patients with nerve damage.

Ventura, a materials science and engineering major, worked with advisor Wojciech Misiolek of the same department. His research of powder metallurgy parts looked for additives that would improve their machinability. Ventura said he would like to use his third place prize money of $800 to continue his research interests.

"Participating in undergraduate research has been a great experience for me," Ventura said. "It's very rewarding to investigate real world engineering problems. Research allows students to learn how to manage a project and collaborate with others, which is invaluable knowledge for a future career."

Winner of the People's Choice Award was the "Greenway in Bethlehem" project by a team of four, including Andrew Woodward, Kyle Schreiner, Mary Nunley and Danny Cohen, all from the Class of 2011. The civil and environmental engineering students were advised by Rick Weisman, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Honorable mention, along with a prize of $400 for each project, went to Alexander Bourque '12 and Jonathan Rosen '11; Jake Patterson '12; and Katherine Glass-Hardenbergh '11, and Sushan Zheng '11.

As co-founder of the symposium, Misiolek emphasized the importance of gaining not only real life experiences through research, but also professional experience in communication.

"I think the symposium is extremely valuable," he said. "It's a good example of communication on a professional level."

Misiolek described that the symposium is an accurate example of the way professional meetings are run. These meetings typically start with a poster presentation. Then the researcher must be able to field questions and explain his or her work in terms that can be easily understood to those studying outside the concentration of the project. Communication skills are "absolutely necessary" in the realm of presenting research, Misiolek said.

He also said that the idea for the symposium was born at professional meetings that he and Himanshu Jain, professor of materials science and engineering and co-founder of the symposium, would attend.

"We would see at professional meetings, undergraduate students presenting their work. We thought, ‘Why not Lehigh students?'" Misiolek said.

Overall, the symposium allows students to not only exercise their communication skills, but also become "more well-rounded professionals," he said. The symposium is based on the idea of "inquiry-based learning," where students must try to resolve open-ended questions, similar to those they might encounter in their careers, he said.

"They come up with an idea, look for a solution, find the solution, and share it," Misiolek said. "Students don't do research because of the competition," he said, but rather because they enjoy the experience of researching and learning.

Ventura agreed, saying he highly valued the experience he gained from conducting research, while he also appreciated competing in the symposium.

"Undergraduate research is something that all students can benefit from, regardless of whether they are interested in going straight into industry or continuing to graduate school," he said. "I think it's great that the university gives students the opportunity to share the work we do because it's something we work very hard on and are very passionate about."

Story by Melissa Collins

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011

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