Slesha Tuladhar didn’t set out to change the world. Her interest was much kinder.
The Keene State junior, she says, was simply curious when she decided to become part of a small, government-funded undergraduate research team at the college focused on testing biomaterials for bioprinting, with the goal of human tissue and Develop organs with a 3D printer.
A dual major – Architecture, Honors program; and sustainable product design and innovation – her plate was already full, her academic activities clearly in focus.
“When I started, I had no idea what it was or what it was all about,” admits Slesha, who is from Kathmandu, Nepal. “I started by having to read two articles and they didn’t make sense to me. But it quickly became so much more than studying research papers.
“Our work is a practical implementation of the theories I first learned in high school,” adds the full-time fellow. “I’ve learned so much. In addition, it has made me confident enough to present results in front of a scientific audience.”
New Hampshire is at the forefront of tissue growth research, and the quest for innovative biomaterials research continues in a few bright, well-equipped labs at Keene State, a liberal arts institution in the southwestern state. The potential applications for regenerative medicine, other health needs, and manufacturing are not insignificant and are just an indication of what could be possible, Tuladhar says.
Professor MD Ahasan Habib, a native of Bangladesh, who completed his Ph.D. from North Dakota State University’s Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, leads the NH BioMade-funded effort.
NH BioMade is the acronym for New Hampshire Center for Multiscale Modeling and Manufacturing of Biomaterials. It is a National Science Foundation-funded EPSCoR project that aims to accelerate the state’s biomaterials industry through research, academic-industry partnerships, and workforce development.
dr Habib and his students are members of the Tissue Engineering Research Thrust project, for which the professor received an NH BioMade Seed Grant. The funding of the student researchers of Dr. Habib is made possible by NH BioMade and NH INBRE, which is supported by the National Institutes of Health.
NH INBRE is the acronym for IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence. EPSCoR is short for Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, a multi-federal agency program.
Faculty and graduate students from UNH and Dartmouth work with Dr. Habib and his student team together.
Undergraduate research opportunities of this kind are the exception to the rule, said Jim Kraly, associate dean of science, sustainability and health at Keene State University.
“The possibilities are also transformative,” added Kraly. “They’re collaborative, they’re interdisciplinary, and they usually lead to the development of important professional skills.”
Carter Nelson would agree. Nelson joined as an intern at NH BioMade three years ago and then transitioned into undergraduate research, which is a paid opportunity, he said.
put research into words
Carter, a senior from Exeter, NH, and Slesha were Dr. habib. A peer-reviewed journal article was recently published in which they were lead authors. Lead authorship rarely goes to students, says Brad Kinsey, UNH professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator for NH BioMade.
Carter presented his research at last year’s NH BioMade spring conference and impressed both faculty and graduate students, Kraly said. Tuladhar also gave an oral presentation at Keene State’s Academic Excellence Conference in the spring.
“They took the lead from the start,” said Dr. Habib about Carter and Slesha. “I came to really rely on them and that’s important.”
Slesha and Carter quickly flip the script, emphasizing their professor’s natural ability to lead and advise without getting in each other’s way. The technical and scientific guidance of Dr. Students agreed that Habib, his patience and his disarming way of encouraging students to think for themselves and solve challenges for themselves made for a positive and fulfilling educational experience.
Connor Quigley, a sophomore from Durham, NH, joined the research team after taking a course with Dr. Habib, who had advertised paid summer internship positions for trainee researchers. Another student researcher, Mark Torselli, graduated last year.
“It seemed interesting,” says Connor, “with opportunities to learn some advanced subjects. I thought I would apply and I got it along with another student from UNH Manchester, Anh Nguyen.”
Connor’s role lasted this academic year and he will continue his research this summer, he said.
He referred to Dr. Habib’s knowledge and flexibility as “making things different and motivating”.
“He understands that working in the lab alongside classes can be hectic when it comes to scheduling and he’s always sympathetic to conflict. I also feel supported in the research area by our collaboration and communication. Whether it’s materials we need, exchanging numbers, or just a simple question, our communication is open and frequent.”
Slesha added: “We are provided with the resources, equipment and necessary theoretical background for the research, making it easy to conduct experiments. … The (research) team is motivated, curious and there for each other.”
dr Habib said he most admires the “enthusiasm and passion” his student researchers brought to the process. Technically, he added, research of this type requires proven competence in mathematics, CAD, practical experience and writing skills,” which is not necessarily the most likely combination. “Each research student brings this valuable expertise to my lab, and continued research in my lab enhances their expertise as well.”
Small steps…big possibilities
A project of this nature is only as good as the various parts that make it up and strong teamwork, says Kinsey.
“The NH BioMade project benefited enormously from our collaboration with Profs. Habib and (Lisa) Hix at Keene State, especially the tremendous amount of research done by their students.”
Keene State offers the only program in New England that combines industrial design, project management, and manufacturing engineering.
“Wherever the world goes, we try to go with it,” said Dr. Habib speaking about building a skilled manufacturing workforce for a news story in Keene State Today, the college’s alumni magazine. “This forward-thinking focus means the program (sustainable product design and innovation) adds courses like biofabrication to prepare students for their evolving careers.”
Kraly, who is a member of the NH BioMade team along with Hix, a professor of sustainable product design and architecture. Like Kinsey, he is enthusiastic about the advances being made and the collaborative, open-minded spirit that drives the research.
“Professor Habib has moved some equipment and instruments to core facilities in the biology department to work with living cells,” Kraly said. “We are all amazed at the progress he and the team’s research have shown since his arrival.
“I don’t take that into our own horn, but this capitalizes on the diverse learning opportunities that a student can get here. It’s exciting to think that you can be part of a project like this and receive this level of mentoring, even in your first year.”
Describing the research in its simplest terms, Connor said: “What we are working on is a small part of a multidisciplinary initiative. This little part has to do with testing the properties of certain materials before and after printing.”
Carter acknowledged that his focus remains on testing materials to discover a compound that is easily printable, has beneficial effects on living cells, and can provide structural support even in larger scaffolds — or organs. Cell culture testing is Slesha’s research focus.
“We’re a long way from a medical perspective,” Carter said. “I still print without live cells. I know that other people are much closer than we are. But we contribute to this process. It’s a big deal because if this can be achieved, patients can quickly have replacement organs and tissues made from their own cells for surgery, injury repair, and many other medical uses.”
Students recognize that their role in this research has a lifespan, but they soak up new skills and appreciate the hope and possibility that fuel this type of work.
Over time, Slesha said, she will move away from research to fully focus on her professional aspirations of becoming an architect. However, she can’t help but believe that her research experience will boost her overall confidence and increase her attractiveness as a potential collaborator. The core principles, she notes, are multidisciplinary.
“I think it’s so cool that as an architect, I can use my skills and imagination to bring something to life that doesn’t exist,” said Slesha. “My dream is to travel with my work. I want to leave a little piece of myself around the world with the things I design.”
Support for the NH BioMade project is provided by the National Science Foundation EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Award #1757371. Research supported by New Hampshire-INBRE through an Institutional Development Award (IDeA), P20GM103506, from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.