March Graduating Student Spotlight - Bryan Sutermaster

March 1, 2019
Ramisa Fariha

For recent graduate Bryan Sutermaster, the road to Biomedical Engineering has been inspired by his desire to help people. For this Pittsburgh, PA native, the field of biomedical research is one that is the perfect marriage of medicine and engineering, directed towards helping those in need. Before coming to Brown, Bryan attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Biological Engineering with a biomedical focus, and The Pennsylvania State University for his master’s in Bioengineering. “I was accepted into Penn State’s Biomaterials and Bionanotechnology Summer Institute (BBSI) during my sophomore year as an undergrad. This was a program that extended over multiple summers. I worked in Hershey, PA, at Penn State’s Medical School. This program motivated me to look into undergraduate research when I returned to Cornell in the fall. Upon my return, I joined Dr. Stroock’s lab at Cornell, where I worked on hydrogel characterization. We were looking at fiber alignment in collagen hydrogels, with the intended application to make perfused capillary beds, and study their formation,” said Bryan, about his undergraduate research. “My undergraduate research experience was very positive, and I wanted to continue doing research. In addition to the cell and tissue engineering research I performed at Cornell, I was interested in drug delivery applications” and so, after finishing his bachelor’s, Bryan applied to Penn State for his master’s. He worked with Dr. Peter Butler, doing biophysical characterization of specific nanoliposomal configurations, “Dr. Butler remembered me from the BBSI program and recruited me in his lab. My master’s research allowed me to explore my interest in drug delivery, since the ultimate goal was to use the nanoliposomes for cancer therapeutics.”  

Sutermaster, who was always interested in Brown, having studied all the ongoing tissue engineering research, applied to Brown for his PhD upon graduating from Penn State. He said, “I was able to explore an interesting subfield of biomedical engineering at Penn State, but was ready to return to tissue engineering research.” Bryan completed his PhD at the Darling lab here at Brown, where he worked to characterize current cell sorting technologies, and began development on a novel method. “The most common available cell sorting technologies are fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) and magnetic-activated cell sorting (MACS). However, I felt there was a lack of quantitative sorting efficiency information about these technologies in the literature. Thus, I set out to rigorously and quantitatively compare their efficiencies. The hope was to provide researchers with a quantitative basis for making effective decisions as to which sorting method was appropriate for their applications.” Bryan started systematically quantifying variables such as cell yield, sorting, accuracy etc. and towards the end of his PhD, he began work on developing a novel cell sorting method, “This cell sorting method uses mass adding particles and density gradient centrifugation in tandem. As such, we are referring to it as Mass Added Density Centrifugation (MADC). By combining biotinylated targeting antibodies with streptavidin-coated, mass-adding microspheres, we hope to make it useable for any cell type.” Sutermaster’s MADC separation method may enable high-viability and recovery isolation, characteristic of MACS, while still enabling non-binary separation, like FACS, with further refinement. “The MADC technology is a mash-up of the strengths of FACS and MACS; a sort of ‘greatest hits.’ High-yield, high-viability isolation will be useful in both basic science and translational sorting applications. As we in the Darling lab commonly work with clinical lipoaspirate waste from surgical collaborators, we think this system could enable rapid and high-yield isolation of adult stem cells.” In fact, an opportunity to work with adult stem cells was one of the primary driving factors in his decision to come to Brown. When asked about his experience of working with Dr. Darling and the lab, Bryan said, “I like how Dr. Darling has the perfect balance of being present and accessible and yet allowing us to do our own thing. He is there to help, but he also gives his students enough freedom to claim ownership of their projects and work on them. He encourages students to make their own decisions, and push their own projects forward. And the Darling lab is like a family. Everyone is there to help and support each other. It is such a positive environment, and experience, to be a part of.”

And not just the Darling lab, Bryan applauded the entire Biomedical Engineering program for making his time at Brown so memorable, “When I came here for the interview, what impressed me about Brown was that everyone here was welcoming to the idea that I want to pursue industry upon graduation. Some graduate programs expect students to be academics and train them accordingly. However, here at Brown, they excel at producing academics, but are also working towards preparing students who have the intention of joining the industry. Dr. Mathiowitz, Dr. Morgan, Dr. Tripathi are some of the faculty members who have their hands on the industry. And thus, everyone is very supportive of any choice a student makes.” Another of Bryan’s highlights from his first day at Brown was the welcome he had received, “Everyone was so friendly, and seemed really happy. The student body seemed very content at their niche, and I could tell that they were invested in getting to know me as ‘one of them’, not just being polite. The effort from everyone, and the warm welcome was awesome,” he reminisced. 

During his time at Brown, Bryan refused to confine himself in the lab, “Graduate school, especially for an experimental science discipline, can be draining. If you don’t maintain a work-life balance, you can easily burn yourself out. It was really important for me to balance my schedule.” Even as a PhD student doing full-time research, Bryan managed to find time for an array of different hobbies, “I played on the club baseball and hockey teams for a few years, was in a rock band called, Sons of Providence, and was President of the graduate Biomedical Engineering Society (gBMES). I worked hard to ensure that I had time for myself and was able to do things outside the lab that I enjoyed.” One of the key aspects defining Bryan’s success is the fact that he wasn’t one dimensional in graduate school. He worked hard and efficiently during his time in the lab, so that he could stay involved with clubs and organizations, and activities that gave him a relief, “I was able to make the most out of my time here, and made a concerted effort to engage outside of lab.”

Graduate school is inherently challenging and it is important to build a support system to overcome the downfalls, “Taking care of mental health is very important, in order to be the most effective researcher one can be. I was lucky to have friends, family and loved ones to support me throughout the process. There will be times, especially in an experiment-based field, when nothing will work. It is important to remind yourself what your motivation is. For me, it was helping people. I reminded myself that I was doing everything to help people,and it kept me going.” In his family, Bryan has a younger sister, Staci, who is one of his inspirations, “She is working to finish her master’s in Public Health, and is currently in Bangladesh working for WHO. She is amazing. And I draw inspiration from anyone who is passionate about their work- my parents, and my grandparents, and anyone I know, who is passionate.” Besides graduating, 2019 is an important year for Sutermaster, “I am graduating, and am marrying my fiancée Heather in May. There are multiple weddings and graduations happening in the family this year, and it’s exciting!” Between now and starting the next chapter of his life, Bryan is training incoming students in the Darling lab, who will be taking over his project, planning for his wedding, and actively looking for jobs in the industry, “I am looking at research and development positions, where I can utilize the skills I have acquired during my PhD. I’d like to leverage what I’ve learned, and continue to learn, and do something intellectually stimulating and exciting.” In five years time, Bryan expects to see himself in a flourishing career, doing research and managing a team of scientists. And in ten years time, he hopes to take up a more managerial role in the biopharmaceutical industry. “My goal as an alumnus is to give back to Brown, and my department. I hope to come back and help establish the framework for students interested in transitioning to the industry. I am happy to see that over the last two years Brown has taken initiatives, like the BioCon seminar series, to inform students about industry experience. It’s a great step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. I would like to help my department as an alumnus to help educate the students who are interested in the industry. The process is less defined currently, and that is something I would like to work on.”

Reflecting on his journey, Sutermaster said, “Brown has given me a number of opportunities to do fun things- whether it was my freedom as a graduate student researcher, or the extracurricular activities- the breadth of opportunities available to me was incredible! I am excited to see what’s next, but I will definitely miss Brown- everyone in my lab, the advisers who have guided me along the way, all the BME administrative staff who worked behind the scenes, and my entire support system. BME has given me the opportunity to do research, and apply engineering principles to medicine, enabling me to help people. That is something I will always continue to do.”