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Innovation

The Future of STEM Is Female: Meet 5 University Scientists Working on Breakthrough Healthcare Ideas

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A foldable, 3-D printed robot that can serve as a heart stent. Using artificial intelligence to help detect cancer. Seeking out life on other planets. These are just some of the areas of fascinating research that this year’s winners of the Johnson & Johnson WiSTEM2D Scholars Award are focused on in their labs across the country.
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hey're at the forefront of their scientific fields and nothing—not even a pandemic—can stop their resolve to help progress science and healthcare as we know it.

That's why they're the winners of Johnson & Johnson’s third annual WiSTEM2D Scholars Award Program, which aims to help advance the careers of women conducting science, technology, engineering, math, manufacturing and design research at the university level.

“These incredible women are shaping the future of tomorrow,” says Cat Oyler A photo of Cat Oyler Cat Oyler,Vice President, Integration, Janssen R&D, Vice President, Integration, Janssen R&D, part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson—and WiSTEM2D University Sponsor. "And now more than ever, as we are faced with new, uncharted global challenges, we need to remain committed to driving innovation and groundbreaking research.”

On the eve of a symposium to celebrate their achievements, five of this year’s winners—each will receive $150,000 over three years to further their research—sat down with us to talk about their passion projects, how COVID-19 has affected their work and what the WiSTEM2D award means for them and other women in their fields.

Using the Ancient Art of Origami to Build Cutting-Edge Robots


Cynthia Sung, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, University of Pennsylvania

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What she’s working on … The invention of 3-D printers has helped scientists create robots right in their own lab. The glitch: It can take upwards of 20 hours to print individual robot parts.

“I wanted to make robots more quickly, streamline the fabrication process and reduce the number of tools required to build them,” Dr. Sung says.

Enter “robogami”: origami-inspired design that involves making flat, soft, foldable robots that are faster to print and put together.

I try to be a role model for all of my students, and if there are women in STEM doubting themselves, I tell them, ‘You’re just as good. You can do it.’

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“The ability to fold means you can more easily create a 3-D shape—essentially, you have a robot that works straight from the printer,” Dr. Sung explains.

How her work could help humanity … Dr. Sung and her colleagues are working with doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on using this robogami technology to build a pediatric heart stent—a cylindrical object used to improve blood flow. “If we can create that stent so it adjusts to a child’s changing physiology, you wouldn’t have to go in and replace it later,” she explains.

Why supporting women in science is so crucial … While Dr. Sung sees more women in the classes she teaches than she did when she was a student, she admits there’s still progress to be made when it comes to evening the playing field.

“I was lucky in that I had a very positive female role model in my mother, a scientist who worked in molecular stimulations,” she says. “Thanks to her, I always had the confidence that I would be able to succeed. Now, I try to be a role model for all of my students, and if there are women in STEM doubting themselves, I tell them, ‘You’re just as good. You can do it.’ ”

Leveraging Artificial Intelligence to Help Better Diagnose and Treat Disease


Pallavi Tiwari, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, Case Western Reserve University

What she’s working on … Dr. Tiwari’s work gathers thousands of MRI scans by machine to find patterns in malignant and non-malignant tumors. The more info that’s gathered, the better a machine gets at predicting how malignant a tumor might be. “We’re essentially making the machine learn,” she says.

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How her work could help humanity … Following radiation, brain tumor patients—who have a median survival rate of 15 months—often receive brain scans that suggest tumor recurrence when they’re actually just detecting scar tissue or a benign growth that may have resulted from the cancer treatment. Because there is currently no noninvasive way to tell the difference between the two on an MRI, doctors have to do a biopsy to know for certain.

To help solve for this, Dr. Tiwari has developed algorithms and AI methods in computational models to help doctors identify whether those lesions are cancerous tumors or benign growths. “So far, our findings have shown that using these noninvasive methods of tumor diagnosis is 85% accurate,” she says.

Dr. Tiwari is also using articifial intelligence to help identify which treatment options could be most effective for patients with brain tumors. “We’re actually developing models that could tell us which patients will or won’t respond to chemotherapy,” she says.

What the WiSTEM2D Award means to her … “The funding and mentorship that comes with the award will help me with this research,” she says. “And it’s also an incredible opportunity to promote women in STEM.”

Dr. Tiwari has held a number of leadership roles throughout her career, and she’s joined a number of women-led organizations that promote STEM as a career option for women. “This award feels like another opportunity to further make my case that having more women in STEM is a good thing.”

Devising New Ways to Leverage the Microbiome


Carolina Tropini, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, School of Biomedical Engineering, University of British Columbia

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What she’s working on … These days, most of us have some familiarity with the microbiome—the trillions of bacteria that live on and within us and impact everything from how we think to how our immune system functions. What scientists are still trying to figure out is how, exactly, these bugs might be leveraged to combat disease and help us stay optimally healthy.

To that end, Dr. Tropini is on a quest to use cutting-edge computational techniques to study how our modern way of life is affecting the bugs in our microbiome and whether we can engineer bacteria and microbial communities to help treat disease.

My lab's shut-down during the pandemic had its downsides, but it also meant we could think critically about the direction we’re headed and re-prioritize. So there was a silver lining. But, to be honest, I have two young kids at home and don’t really remember most of this year!

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How her work could help humanity … "While gut bugs can change and evolve really quickly—I’m talking producing the next generation in tens of minutes!—our biology hasn’t changed to the point of being able to keep up,” she says. “It’s this mismatch that’s tied to the inflammatory diseases we’re seeing today that didn’t exist in our ancestors’ time.” Once we can figure out how to compensate for that mismatch, she believes, we can hopefully find solutions to treat and prevent the diseases it can cause.

How COVID-19 changed her work … Like many workplaces, Dr. Tropini’s lab was closed for a few months. “The shutdown had its downsides, but it also meant we could think critically about the direction we’re headed and re-prioritize where needed,” she says. “So there was a silver lining. But, to be honest, I have two young kids at home and don’t really remember most of this year—2020, yikes!”

What the WiSTEM2D Award means to her … Receiving this award, Dr. Tropini says, has provided her with a voice to be able to talk about how science can be more accessible to women and other underrepresented minorities. “Doing that is especially important now, as the novel coronavirus pandemic has pushed so many women back a bit because we’re juggling work and childcare," she says. "It’s more important than ever to make sure these already underrepresented groups in science don’t fall through the cracks.”

Studying the Formation of—and the Possibility of Life on—Other Planets


Ilse Cleeves, Ph.D., assistant professor of astronomy, University of Virginia

What she’s working on … Dr. Cleeves studies astrochemistry—particularly the origins of the chemical abundances around newly formed stars and planets and the physics that drives interstellar chemistry.

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When she was a Ph.D. student, Dr. Cleeves made international headlines after her research found that as much as half of the water that’s present in our solar system is older than the sun, a groundbreaking discovery that expanded on our current understanding of where planets, including Earth, get their original composition.

Now, she and her team of graduate students are trying to better understand the origins of the chemical abundances beyond water and what drives them. “We want to understand how habitable planets might be in our universe,” she says. In other words, she asks the question most of us have wondered at some point: Are we alone?

How her work could help humanity … Although the knowledge may not have an immediate application for healthcare, understanding if life on Earth is unique—or if we are one of many inhabited planets in our galaxy—would be one of the greatest discoveries of humankind, says Dr. Cleeves.

“My personal take is that there are so many planets in the Milky Way, and we know every star hosts at least one planet,” she says. “There are so many chances that life could arise. If it were just us, that would surprise me.”

What the WiSTEM2D Award means to her … The prize money helped Dr. Cleeves buy a new computer server so her team could continue their research when COVID-19 lockdown orders went into effect last spring.

“My group codes up physical models, examines tons of data and deals with large databases," she says. "The WiSTEM2D award helped me make sure we all had the equipment needed to do this important work remotely.”

It also enabled her to hire two graduate students and one post baccalaureate student, all from underrepresented backgrounds in physics and astronomy: “Thanks to this award, I feel I’m able to give back by helping the students on my team during these difficult times.”

Delving Into Data to Create Better Health Outcomes


Samrachana Adhikari, Ph.D., assistant professor of biostatistics, New York University

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What she’s working on … Dr. Adhikari has always been good with numbers. After studying statistics in graduate school, she did a post doc at Harvard University and realized that she could apply all of it—her love of math, data and statistics—to healthcare.

“My research is focused on trying to get information from data, especially the analysis of information or studies happening in the healthcare field,” she says. “I use large administrative data sets and electronic health records to assess risk factors for diseases and try to predict health outcomes for different individuals.”

I joke that I work at the back end of the front line. Recently, my work has been focused on understanding COVID-19 data from electronic health records.

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How her work could help humanity … “I joke that I work at the back end of the front line,” Dr. Adhikari says. “Recently, my work has been focused on understanding COVID-19 data from electronic health records.”

For example, one study she worked on looked at COVID-19 patients with high blood pressure and aimed to figure out if they were at an increased risk of being hospitalized or having severe outcomes. If that turned out to be the case, the clinicians she worked with at NYU Langone Medical Center could then consider changing treatment plans for those with hypertension during the pandemic.

“You can’t answer this question in the clinic; it requires trial work,” Dr. Adhikari explains. “But early in the pandemic, it wasn’t feasible to do this kind of trial. So, using statistical methods, we found that patients who were taking hypertension drugs did not have an increased risk of getting COVID-19.”

What the WiSTEM2D award means to her … “This honor is especially exciting because as my clinician colleagues remain on the front lines managing patient care, I can focus on the nitty-gritty of thinking through principles, foundations and better practices in data science and statistics,” she says. “We have so much data and info. I’m tasked with finding the best way to make it usable.”

If you're in a STEM2D field, you could win $150,000, plus access to Johnson & Johnson mentors and resources, to help advance your work.

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