Student Spotlight - Michelle Adler '20

May 20, 2020
Stephen Pyon

Note: Interview was conducted before the COVID-19 crisis and was edited for clarity.

Michelle Adler ‘20  was born in Eindhoven, Netherlands, but grew up in the Bay Area, just south of San Francisco, California. She’s currently a senior studying Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience, in addition to being a pre-med student. Here at Brown, she’s heavily involved in dance and club ultimate frisbee.

Michelle’s spring coursework included Developmental Neurobiology, Statistical Analysis of Biological Data, and Biomedical Engineering Design and Innovation II (BME capstone). She is also conducting research for her senior thesis. 

The capstone in BME is a two-semester course. Last semester, Michelle worked on a team consisting of 4 people-- herself, another BME student, a RISD student, and a freshman interested in the project topic. This semester it is only her and the other BME student. They are working on designing a novel vaginal dilator for women experiencing dyspareunia, or painful intercourse. The project was originally brought to them by an oncologist that specializes in sexual health, with a main target of women who experience this issue with cancer therapy.


Can you tell me a little bit more about the capstone class, and what that work consists of?

Last semester it was a lot of just overview project development-- understanding the need for where we're trying to apply a device to, all the background like what's the disease state, what is already existing to treat the condition, and then finding the holes of what's missing, what can be improved on. Some of the things we really focused on last semester was that current therapies for sexual discomfort are the use of normal dilators, which have really low patient adherence. So one of our major goals was, how can we develop a kind of device that's easy enough to use, convenient enough to use, that women will actually continue to use it, even if they’re still experiencing a bit of discomfort, how can we promote use of it and hold people accountable to continue using it. This semester has been a lot more concrete prototyping-- really thinking through the mechanics behind it, CAD modeling. We had to write up an abstract that we would mock-submit to a design competition and we had the opportunity to go to the design competition if we wanted. It’s over spring break so we were not planning to go [and it was cancelled due to coronavirus]. So communication was one aspect of it, too. We’re also making a conference poster to outline what our project is. I'm personally working on completing a CAD model with animations, as we have an expanding feature planned for our dilator, so we are trying to show the expansion mechanism in computer software. Then we’re also figuring out better drawings and images to help people better visualize what our innovation is in and of itself. So, learning how to translate the ideas that are in our heads into physical, understandable images and documentation.


Where do you do your research and what do you do?

I work in the Wong lab, which is a Biomedical Engineering research lab focusing on biomaterials and their prevalence in cancer research. The project I've been working on has been on optimizing 3D environments with fibrillar topography. We're looking at cancer cells and metastasis, which is cancer cells leaving a primary tumor site and invading distant organs, seeding secondary tumors. There are a few things that have been figured out about cancer cells: they like to undergo epithelial-mesenchymal transition, which is a phenotype shift that allows them to kind of crawl through blood vessels and through tissue. But the actual cues in the body that promote cell invasion and keep it happening are uncommon. Usually when a cell leaves a tumor, the odds are against it so it’s going to die, but we still see a lot of cells making it to other places. Metastasis is one of the main causes of death so we're trying to figure out what is the interplay between chemical and mechanical cues that promote this cellular invasion overall. In the lab, we have a bunch of different very biomaterials-based projects. There are some projects involving silk-collagen matrices to model the extracellular space for cancer cells. The project that I'm working on is using magnetic beads and aligning them in a magnetic field. We use those aligned matrices with protein-coated beads to see how ECM-like matrix fibers promote cellular invasion. Everything that I'm doing is in a hydrogel with lots of biomaterials relevance. We also do a bunch of chemistry of novel hydrogel materials. It’s a cool place to be. The lab’s a really nice size, and I really like the people that I work with. 


Can you tell me a little bit about why you chose to do Biomedical Engineering?

One of the things that kind of got me started was I definitely knew I wanted to study something in a field of biology. I actually also study neuroscience, but I tacked that on later. I was exploring a lot of different areas of biology, and one of the things that kept me in engineering was I liked the very quantitative aspect of it. If I'd be reading research papers and they'd say like, “morphology of a cell is kind of like this,” I’d be like, “well, how can you prove that, and where are the numbers that say that this is actually different from that.” So, I was always really intrigued by quantification in science, and I thought that was one of the really good benefits of an engineering background. Because in BME you are not only learning a lot of the biology, you're also learning a lot of the math that's gonna be helpful not only in data analysis but also in understanding how you get to certain conclusions. One of the things I've been applying a lot to my research is coding in MATLAB, which I've learned through a lot of engineering classes at Brown. When I started learning MATLAB, I didn't think it'd be that useful, and it's turned out to be the number one thing to use-- having that math background, being able to take these ideas of what I wanna analyze and put them into mathematical equations. One of the things I've been doing a lot with my research is understanding how stiffness and the structure of matrices affect cell behavior. That has a lot of mechanics in it, and I think if I had come from a pure biology background, I wouldn't be able to have such an analytical understanding of all the individual differences that can alter individual aspects of a 3D-modeled matrix. I think especially the core curriculum, like taking classes in E&M [Electricity and Magnetism], while it's not directly related to the research that I'm doing now, it showed up in neuro classes and other classes. I think those core courses like thermodynamics, E&M, fluids, they're all prevalent in areas of bioscience that you wouldn't necessarily immediately think of. I find them to be really helpful to just have in my back pocket. Like, oh, maybe if it's not stiff enough cells aren't experiencing forces being pressed against them and they can swim, and that's like something that you'd take from fluids. There’s a lot of interdisciplinary cross, I believe, between engineering and biological research that I don't think you'd get if you didn't study engineering.


Do you have any previous experience, besides that capstone and working in the Wong Lab, with biomedical engineering-- other research or things you've done in the past?

I think it was my sophomore year into junior year, I participated in this group called the Rothberg Catalyzer. Brown got a grant for the neuroscience department, and one of the projects that was set up for a small group of students was to develop a novel device, either for diagnosis or treatment of epilepsy. It was a pretty short-lived project, but in the time I was participating, it was pretty involved. I was one of the co-leads for the BME section-- we had an electrical engineering section, a computer science data processing section, and a BME section. We were really focusing on how to make a device that you could put either under the skin or on top of the skull to diagnose epileptic seizures. The ultimate device design had an app that read out the patient what was being recorded. It was neat because we got to do a lot of research. I think it actually set me up really well for capstone because it was really similar: we had doctors who came to us and were like, there's this need here, we want to develop something better to suit the needs of patients. We had a presentation at the beginning of the summer that year, and I made a Jello brain and modeled a surgical procedure to put a device in under the skull-- that was pretty neat. I got to learn a lot about cochlear implants because we were kind of modeling our device after that. That was one of the bigger biomedical engineering projects that I was a part of. I actually think it was pretty similar to capstone in that sense that it was just like immersive, here's a project see what you can do about it. 


How has your Brown education helped you in your research and your projects and other experiences?

One of the things that I think has been most valuable about my experience at Brown has been my ability to get my toe in research as early as I did. I've learned that I really love research, and I'm actually going into a research position next year so that's just been very valuable to me. 

I think the other thing that's been really helpful is that every big group project that I've done, I've been working with a different group of people. I've learned pretty readily that I tend to take on leadership positions really often, but it’s been very interesting to get into different positions with different groups of people and realize, ok, the two of us work really well together, this person and I are good at delegating tasks to one another. I think that's been a really other nice thing about it. I think just the engineering curriculum in general promotes a lot of group work and cooperativity between people-- from things like I worked on almost all my problem sets with peers to doing lab reports with people that you did your lab with to working on these individual projects where you really have to rely on teamwork to get things done. I think that's also been a really cool thing that I’ll take away from my time here. I've worked on a lot of teams in pretty important projects, so I think taking that away will be really good wherever I go next.


Can you tell me more about the research position that you are going into next year?


It's a research assistantship at Massachusetts General Hospital. I'm working in a lab that's studying chronic pain and ALS - it’s a neuroscience lab. They're doing a lot of work with neurons, which is really different from the type of biology research that I've been doing in the Wong Lab. But I think one of the things that really excited me about the project is that even though it's not in an engineering department, I was talking to a lot of the postdocs and they're using a lot of similar custom built analysis pipelines. I was just chatting with one of the postdocs about his MATLAB code that he was using to quantify cellular growth and migration, and I was like, oh, that's what I'm doing! So, even though it’s in a different field and it’s not technically engineering, I think I'll be able to take a lot of skills into it going forward. I plan to stay in this position for 2 years, and then I'm applying to MD/PhD programs-- so I wanna be a doctor with all the degrees, all the letters after my name. I think this research experience as well as my engineering background will be really helpful going into the combination of medicine and research. 


Do you have any advice for current undergrad Brown BME students that are thinking about what to do in the future?


I would say get as much experience in different aspects of engineering as you can. Research and academia are very different from industry. A lot of BMEs are also interested in medicine, and I think the earlier that you can get exposure to different areas of engineering, the earlier you'll be able to figure out what you do and don't like. I was playing around with the idea of going into industry. I never actually had a full internship in industry but I think through my classes-- especially capstone-- I kind of got a better look into what it's like in industry, and I decided for myself that I didn't like that as much as I've been liking research. I think that at an institution like Brown, where research is really prevalent, if you're interested in research do it as early as you can. If you don't like it, you don't need to continue with it, because there are a lot of different options for you. Just like outside of school, the more practical experiences you get, the better you're setting yourself up for figuring out what will be a best fit for you in the future. Clubs can be helpful if you're interested in industry. I have friends in BSE [Brown Space Engineering], and that's been really critical for them figuring out what type of engineering they're interested in, what types of jobs are available for them. Similarly,with the car team. I guess, get yourself involved in as many out-of-class activities as you can relevant to what you're interested in to figure out what you want to do.