Lena Gamboa Featured in Brown Engineering Magazine

NSF Fellowship, Brown Connections Lead Marielena Gamboa Castro ’15 to Cancer Research

The story of Marielena Gamboa Castro ’15 cannot be told without weaving in connections she made during her time on the Brown University campus. Recently awarded a highly prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, she has every intention of enlarging that circle of contacts.

The biomedical engineering concentrator, honored with the 2015 George H. Main prize (awarded for her diligence and devotion to studies, and holding promise of success in her field), worked in Assistant Professor Ian Wong’s lab as an undergrad. As one of the first undergraduates to join the Wong Lab, she had previously done some work with image analysis, making her a positive addition to Wong’s cancer cell research team.

Wong, who had just arrived on campus in 2013, was exploring how cancer cells transition to malignant behaviors such as invasion and drug resistance. Gamboa Castro spent two years examining how mixtures of benign and malignant cells coordinate their migratory behaviors. Early on, she, Wong, and others close to the project realized there was something here worth sharing. It was not going to be complete by graduation, however, so when the opportunity came to stay around for another year as a researcher, she took it. This allowed her time to finish the project, ultimately leading to the publication of her research.

Her first authored paper, “Clustering and Jamming in Epithelial-Mesenchymal Co-Cultures,” was published last September in the journal Soft Matter. The paper revealed that cancer cell migration is influenced by the density and type of neighboring cells, analogous to how cars get stuck in traffic. To quantify these behaviors, Gamboa-Castro, Ph.D. candidate Susan Leggett and Wong tracked thousands of cells and developed methods to analyze intercellular interactions. They found that epithelial cell types, which typically form sheet-like tissues in the body, can aggregate together to arrest their motion, known as a “jamming” transition. Instead, mesenchymal cells, which are typically individually dispersed in connective tissues, tend to remain mobile and unattached. Unexpectedly, mixtures of these two cell types with even a small fraction of mesenchymal cells remained “unjammed” with highly fluid cellular motions. This work suggests that tumors that include mesenchymal cells can rapidly transition to malignant invasion. These mesenchymal cells thus represent a promising therapeutic target.

“I believe this work has important implications to cancer research, and I strongly felt that it deserved to be completed,” Gamboa Castro said. “And working as a research assistant gave me time to focus on applying to graduate school, and figure out where I wanted to go.” Where she ended up is the joint Georgia Tech/Emory University biomedical engineering program, working with advisor Gabe Kwong, who had recently started his new lab as an assistant professor. Kwong previously completed postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Professor Sangeeta Bhatia ’90, a member of the Brown Corporation. Bhatia is a cancer researcher, MIT professor, and biotech entrepreneur who works to adapt technologies developed in the computer industry for medical innovation. Bhatia’s laboratory leverages “tiny technologies” of miniaturization tools used in semiconductor manufacturing to yield inventions with new applications in tissue regeneration, stem cell differentiation, medical diagnostics, and drug delivery. In addition to her ground-breaking research, Bhatia is a passionate advocate for diversity in science and engineering.

This connection is not lost on Gamboa Castro.

Her current work, under the tutelage of Kwong, will be similar in spirit to the Wong Lab at Brown, harnessing the power of the intersection of engineering and biology to fight cancer. And she is making sure the circle of mentorship, and Brown connections, doesn’t stop with her. “Professor Wong is an amazing mentor,” Gamboa Castro said. “When I started there, I remember he sat me down, and said simply, ‘What do you want to do? What resources do you need, and how I can help you get there?’ I had never thought about it in those terms before, and didn’t even know I needed that mentorship.”

Her own route to Brown wasn’t typical. She applied through the Questbridge program, a national organization that connects the nation’s brightest students from low-income backgrounds with leading institutions of higher education. “As a first-generation immigrant, Brown University just wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t know much about it.

“Once I got here, I quickly realized it was one of the best decisions I ever made, and then I wanted to give back. I now help high school students through the college application process, helping them understand that financial aid packages may make a top university more affordable than they realize.”

She is also involved in other outreach programs, serving as an essay coach for high school students, helping them tell their own story in a clear, concise and compelling way. “I found that mentoring these students while I was applying to graduate school helped me as well,” she said. “And I’m currently teaching middle school students about biomedical engineering through a Georgia Tech summer camp.

“(Wong) has been a very supportive advisor who has been instrumental in helping me get where I am today. He allowed me to network, talk to professors at Brown and other schools, and was key in helping me figure out my path. He also entrusted a lot to a few of us as undergrads. By acting almost as graduate students, we were able to transition early on from students to scientists and independent researchers.”

“Lena has everything it takes to be an exceptional scientist,” Wong said. “She can tackle problems using highly innovative engineering tools as well as beautiful biological experiments. She’s also a natural leader and a great team member. Her story, to me, is very Brown. ”

Gamboa Castro’s trajectory took another upward turn at Campus Dance 2016, when boyfriend, former Brown football tight end, and electrical engineer Alex Viox ’15 asked her to marry him. The two are currently living in Atlanta, planning their wedding for the summer of 2018.

– Beth James

Gabe Kwong Invited to Join Nation’s Brightest Young Engineers at 2017 US Frontiers of Engineering Symposium

Gabe Kwong, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, is one of only 82 people selected to participate at the 2017 US Frontiers of Engineering symposium.

The symposium, organized by the National Academy of Engineering, gathers what the academy calls “exceptional” engineers from 30 to 45 years old to facilitate “cross-disciplinary exchange and promote the transfer of new techniques and approaches across fields in order to sustain and build U.S. innovative capacity.”

“The Frontiers of Engineering program brings together a particularly talented group of young engineers whose early-careers span different technical areas, perspectives and experiences,” said NAE President C. D. Mote, Jr. “But when they come together in this program, their mutual excitement is palpable, and a process of creating long-term benefits to society is often initiated.”

It’s a highly competitive and prestigious invitation, according to the National Academy of Engineering news release about the event.

“It is a privilege to be selected to join the Frontiers of Engineering Symposium,” said Gabe Kwong. “I am excited about the opportunity to interact with the brightest young minds within the engineering community, and exchange ideas across seemingly disparate disciplines.”

For 2017, the symposium will focus on the latest advances in four areas: mega-tall buildings and other future places of work, unraveling the complexity of the brain, energy strategies to power our future, and machines that teach themselves.

Gabe Kwong’s own research program is conducted at the interface of engineering and immunology. He and his multidisciplinary team develop nanotechnologies that interact with immune cells, enabling new applications in biomedical diagnostics and cell-based therapies. He has ten issued or pending patents and has launched one startup company.

“I often remind my lab that as bioengineers, we need to develop fluency in multiple academic languages before we can begin to innovate solutions to the most important problems in society” said Gabe Kwong. “I aim to bring my unique background in the physical and life sciences, and entrepreneurship to the fold.”

Invited participants for 2017 include three Georgia Tech assistant professors, as well as rising stars from organizations like Google, DARPA, 3M, IBM research labs, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and others.

The 2017 US Frontiers of Engineering program will be hosted by United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, Conn., September 25-27. Read more about the NAE’s 2017 Frontiers of Engineering Symposium here.

Justin Kahla and Jason Weis win PURA Salary Awards

Congratulations to undergraduates Justin Kahla and Jason Weis for winning President’s Undergraduate Research Awards (PURA)! PURA fund student salaries to conduct undergraduate research with Georgia Tech faculty and offset travel expenses for undergraduates to present their research at professional conferences. Between two hundred and three hundred competitive awards are offered on campus each year. Read more about PURA here.

Lena Gamboa Castro named NSF Graduate Fellow

Congratulations to Lena for winning the NSF GRFP! The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines. Read more here.

Quoc Mac awarded NSF Fellowship

Congratulations to Quoc for being named an NSF Fellow! The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines. Read more here.

Hassan Fakhoury and Quoc Mac selected for the Petit Scholars Program 2017

Hassan has been selected as a Petit Undergraduate Scholar for 2017 with Quoc serving as his Petit Mentor. Congratulations!

From the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, “The Petit Undergraduate Research Scholars program is a competitive scholarship program that serves to develop the next generation of leading bioengineering and bioscience researchers by providing a comprehensive research experience for a full year. Open to all Atlanta area university students, the program allows undergraduates to conduct independent research in the state-of-the-art laboratories of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.”

Read more about the 2017 Scholars here.

LSI wins $1.5M NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

NIH announces funding for 88 awards on high-impact biomedical research

Gabe Kwong, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, was named a recipient of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) New Innovator Award on Oct. 4.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research (HRHR) program, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Common Fund, awarded 88 grants to highly creative and exceptional scientists with bold approaches to major challenges in biomedical research. The awards span the broad mission of the NIH and include groundbreaking research, such as engineering immune cells producing drugs at the site of diseased tissue; developing a sensor to rapidly detect antibiotic resistance of a bacterial infection; understanding how certain parasites evade host detection by continually changing their surface proteins; and developing implants that run off the electricity generated from the motion of a beating the heart.

“The program continues to support high-caliber investigators whose ideas stretch the boundaries of our scientific knowledge,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “We welcome the newest cohort of outstanding scientists to the program and look forward to their valuable contributions.”

Kwong is a recipient of the New Innovator Award for his project “Noninvasive and Predictive Biomarkers of Organ Transplant Rejection.” His research program is directed towards the advancement of human health by developing biomedical technologies that draw from the fields of engineering and immunology.

“Detecting early signs of organ transplant rejection is critical for the survival and health of the recipient, but the diagnostic gold standard is the biopsy – it is invasive and lacks predictive power. Our proposal is to develop an entirely new class of synthetic biomarkers that have the capacity to amplify disease signals and predict the onset of rejection at the earliest stages,” said Kwong.

NIH traditionally supports research projects, not individual investigators. However, the HRHR program seeks to identify scientists with ideas that have the potential for high impact, but may be at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process. These awards encourage creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas in biomedical research.

In 2016, the NIH issued 12 Pioneer awards, 48 New Innovator awards, 12 Transformative Research awards, and 16 Early Independence awards. The awards total approximately $127 million and represents contributions from the NIH Common Fund; the National Cancer Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Mental Health; and the Big Data to Knowledge initiative.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.



LSI members awarded talks at the BMES 2016 Annual Meeting

Several members of LSI were selected to oral presentations at the BMES 2016 Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, MN. They are as follows:

Dr. Gabe Kwong – “A Mathematical Framework for Ultra-sensitive Detection of Cancer Using Activity-Based Biomarkers”

Shreyas Dahotre – “Highly Multiplexed Analysis of Cancer-specific T cells using DNA-barcoded peptide-MHC Tetramers”

Ian Miller – “Engineering Therapeutic T Cells that Activate by Photothermal Triggers”

Quoc Mac – “Activity-based Nanoparticles for Noninvasive Monitoring Of Organ Transplant Rejection”


Look forward to seeing you in Minneapolis!

LSI welcomes MD/PhD student Yun Min Chang

Yun Min “Danny” Chang joins LSI as a graduate student co-advised with Dr. Rafi Ahmed at Emory. Danny comes to us from the University of Florida where he completed a B.S. in Chemistry. Read more about Danny here.