Microgels, Middle School, and the UW Grad Student Who Makes Science Matter

Mary O’Kelly Boit is a graduate student in Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington, where she is living out a childhood dream of using biomaterials to solve real medical problems. Yes, really.

“As a kid, it started with a scientist who showed me a whole new world,” says Mary. “I loved the idea that if you can imagine it, then you can test it and learn from it. It’s an exploration that can last a lifetime.”

Scientific diagram with multiple panels about biomaterials Today, she is pursuing her passion for biomaterials in two labs, the DeForest Lab in Chemical Engineering and the Murry Lab in the UW Medicine Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM).

“The DeForest lab innovates customizable biomaterials to address a variety of health-related problems,” Mary explains. “And the Murry lab is developing solutions to regenerate the human heart using stem cells. My research project falls at the intersection of both groups, exploiting novel biomaterials that enhance stem cell integration and restore cardiac function to patients after a heart attack.

Mary has even patented a tool she developed for her research, the zwitterionic injectable pellet (ZIP) microgels, used for encapsulation of  stem-cell derived heart muscle cell, an important step in the lab’s effort to regenerate heart tissue after heart attacks.

A scientists instructs a high school student in a laboratory
Mary O’Kelly Boit, seen here with a high school student from Chehalis, Washington, recently helped spearhead a one-day science experience for students from Mill Creek Middle School in Kent.

Now, barely half a decade removed from high school herself, Mary is already lighting the way for younger scientists, just as others did for her. She and Dr. Cole DeForest, an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at UW,  spearheaded the development of an outreach program “Biomaterials: Engineering Solutions for Life”, which culminated in a day-long learning experience designed to share their love of biopolymers with 400 eighth grade students at Mill Creek Middle School in Kent, Washington.

The full-day experience was broken into three modules that gave the Mill Creek students an up-close, hands-on look on the world of biomaterials and how they can engineer solutions for life down to  the microscopic level of cellular biology.

Throughout the day, students explored the mechanics of bioprinting (even producing 3D prints of their own), experimented with various biomaterials used for drug delivery, and used art to examine genetic-engineering concepts.

In one room, students treated a fictitious patient, named Bill, who needed a skin graft, a new heart valve, and a bone graft. They were presented with an array of materials (e.g., soft/hard, stiff/compliant, porous/non-porous) that could be used to design customized skin grafts. The implicit message: 3D printing opens the door for more personal – and therefore, effective – medicine.

Another activity allowed students to explore how different polymers are designed for optimal drug delivery. Three interactive mini-stations modeled factors, like size, structure, and diffusion rates, influencing how drugs are absorbed in the body.

The third room centered on protein therapeutics. Here students saw how bacteria can be used as “factories” to make proteins that are used in the treatment of real-world conditions, like insulin for diabetes management. To give the lesson added dimension, the students created 3D models of proteins with paper, and painted with bacteria.

For Mary and Cole, going back to Middle School was a chance to convince the students that anyone can be a scientist. “This was also a fun opportunity to show the students that, yes, science is cool, it’s okay not to be right, that scientists fail every single day, but we can always learn something from it.”

Not surprisingly, at least one student found their enthusiasm contagious, declaring, “This makes me want to be a doctor so that I can use what I know about bacteria to engineer things.”

Shannon Jephson-Hernandez, a science teacher at Mill Creek Middle School, echoed her student’s excitement.  “Bringing real world application exposure into the classroom dramatically changes a student’s perspective regarding their future options in career choices and interests,” said Jephson-Hernandez. “The new Biopolymer event allowed students to see why their current lessons are relevant, but most importantly, essential to their future as citizens and potential scientists.”

Professor DeForest added, “This was a fantastic way to step out of the lab and off the UW campus. Many of these students haven’t seen biomaterial research presented like this before; if even one of these ~400 students is inspired to dive deeper into science and engineering, I’d consider the event a tremendous success.”

This work was supported by funding provided by the National Science Foundation (CAREER Award to C.A.D., DMR 1652141) and from the ISCRM.