Aspiring Student Researcher at the Intersection of Material Engineering and Healthcare

A discussion with Andrew D’Elia, a biomedical engineering student at McMaster University

Andrew is a 3rd-year student in the iBioMed (Integrated Biomedical Engineering and Health Sciences) program at McMaster University majoring in Biomedical and Materials Engineering. Andrew shared insights about his program, research internships, and experience leading Hamilton Medical Makers with BioTEC Outreach Lead Jaya Gupta.

BioTEC: iBioMed at McMaster is a very new program. What drew you to it as opposed to more established biomedical engineering programs? Was the program what you thought it would be?

Andrew: The novelty of the program is actually what drew me to it. I am currently in iBioMed’s 3rd year, and McMaster has done an exceptional job at developing and improving the program as we go through it. Being the guinea pig can be hard at times but also really rewarding because we have a lot of say in the changes made year to year. The program is about to be accredited this fall! When I was choosing my university program in high school, I was not sure if engineering was the right path for me, but I knew I was interested in it. At the time I was actually more drawn to general health sciences. I eventually chose iBioMed as it gave me the opportunity to explore the field of engineering while allowing me to also pursue my interest in medical and health science, and I have found that it is the perfect match for me.

The program was definitely what I thought it would be. It fed my interest in both engineering and health as we take courses in both fields, enabling me to see the details on the engineering side, but also the important intricacies behind the health-related issues we will eventually create solutions for. What I did not expect was how much my appreciation for the value of engineering education would grow throughout the journey. Even though I came into the program thinking I would go into health science, I ended up taking on a specialization in materials and biomedical engineering. I didn’t necessarily lose interest in health science, I just realized my passions in other places as well! This change in my passion and growth in my skill set has been an awesome component.

BioTEC: What motivated you to later specialize in Biomedical and Materials Engineering? How did you discover your specific interests?

Andrew: Material engineering is definitely not as mainstream as other fields like mechanical or electrical engineering, which are also generally paired with biomedical engineering and research. In my first year of the program, I found material science captivating because materials are everywhere! At the very foundation of every device lies a material with incredibly interesting properties. Materials take a rather interdisciplinary approach to solving biomedical problems by combining concepts of mechanical, chemical, electrical, and even engineering physics to yield optimized material properties for different purposes. It is a quickly growing field and very much related to current biomedical research because if materials are not designed to suit the body, they can’t deliver solutions to our expectations. The body is an aggregate of many nanosystems. Through materials engineering, we can take advantage of fundamental inherent properties like the chemical structure of substances and manipulate them to achieve effects in the human body that we could not achieve by embedding large circuits or devices.

BioTEC: Can you tell us about your research assistant positions at McMaster?

Andrew: Out of my first year, I was very fortunate to have been part of two biomedical and materials engineering research groups at McMaster. My project focused on the fabrication and the characterization of various biomaterials for implant applications. We used electrophoretic deposition to make coatings on the surface of metallic bone implants and then characterized them with techniques like electron microscopy and in vitro cell studies. We also experimented with these materials on 3D scaffolds to fabricate 3D environments that better mimic the actual structure of human bone. I was very fortunate that my supervisor has invested in training me in state-of-the-art bio facilities. The opportunity to work using some of the most expensive and powerful microscopes in Canada was absolutely mind-blowing.

This summer has been a continuation of last summer’s research. We are experimenting with a new set of materials and placing a larger focus on the fabrication of multifunctional material systems that meet the changing needs of healing bone tissue. We are also collaborating with researchers in Brazil to look at how these materials perform in vivo.

BioTEC: What is the goal of the implants? What kind of interactions were you trying to achieve?

Andrew: Our goal is to increase the viability of implants in vivo, and a lot of times we see commercialized products fail because they don’t properly integrate with the surrounding environment in the body. By creating these coatings, we can create surfaces that foster stronger interaction between the implant and surrounding tissue, enhancing the chances of implant success. Ideally, these coatings will allow for the sustained release of various bioactive agents into the host tissue, which will stimulate bone formation and stronger bone-implant bonding.

BioTEC: What attracted you to research? And what drew you to research this specific topic?

Andrew: I came across the opportunity through school in the first year. Professor Kathryn Grandfield introduced me to Dr. Igor Zhitomirsky and supported me through my application for an NSERC USRA. When I found out I had won, I quit my summer camp job and invested myself in a new work environment. I didn’t know what would come of it, but I was eager to learn. What made me want to continue in research has a lot to do with the positive experiences I had working with the research group and both of my supervisors. I was really lucky to have been brought into a group that was invested in my training and development as a researcher. My supervisors treated every undergraduate as an equal and were very supportive of our projects. I attribute a large part of my success in research to my team.

BioTEC: What do you think are the most important skills or qualities for research?

Andrew: I think the most important skills are perseverance, teamwork, and dedication. Research is fast-paced at times but slow and tedious at others. Even though sometimes you feel the urge to jump right into the lab, what you really should be doing is listening to your team, reading, and educating yourself more on the topic. In doing so, you can make more calculated research decisions that will ultimately dictate the success of your work. It is a very humbling process. The only place to start is at the very beginning, and cutting corners is never beneficial in the long run.

BioTEC: As a student, what kinds of roles and opportunities excite you in the biotechnology industry?

Andrew: My passion is at the intersection of health and research and I would like to see more research applications in real life. Working on projects in vitro means I usually don't see how my research directly impacts patients. In the future, I want to be at the edge and see first hand how the therapy is interacting with patients rather than just visualizing the outcome, which means I might explore research that exists beyond the lab bench at some point. In terms of fields, I am very interested in neural regeneration, as I see material science can be an interesting way to approach that challenge that can lead to many research topics. I also find NASA’s research on the intersection between space and the human body super intriguing, so I would love the opportunity to explore the applications of biomedical science in space. Beyond that, I think it would be really rewarding to apply my experience in biomaterials to the field of oncology. My interests are quite broad, which is why I’m doing everything I can to secure new opportunities so that I may explore them.

BioTEC: Do you know yet what you want to pursue in the future after you graduate?

Andrew: I am not set on a career path yet but I have a couple of ideas. I am keen on health science in general, so medicine is something I would love to pursue. I am also interested in research and academia, as I’ve found the research process to be really interesting and rewarding. In the iBioMed program, we have accelerated paths for both master and Ph.D. (cutting down one year), so I might pursue further graduate studies as well.

BioTEC: Could you describe your involvement with Hamilton Medical Makers?

Andrew: Currently, I am the Co-Lead of the Hamilton Medical Makers chapter which was founded by a Toronto doctor. Our goal is to make 3D printable solutions to healthcare problems, and we also identify areas where additive manufacturing can help solve problems, create solutions, and implement them for social impact.

I got involved through a friend that met the founder of Medical Makers and decided to start a chapter in Hamilton. Last year, we decided to lead the chapter together. Now, we lead a team of about 50 chapter members on projects oriented around health and health education. The team is mostly made up of iBioMed students, but we are open to anyone who is passionate about using technology to create social good.

Some of the current projects we are focusing on involve local community hygienic and medical solutions because of the COVID-19 situation. The goal of the organization is to grow a library of 3D-printable solutions and foster a mindset that extends beyond local communities to global communities. For anyone interested in taking part, feel free to email us and send messages, we are really open to anyone that wants to learn about how 3D printing can make an impact in the medical field.

BioTEC: What are some suggestions you would give to students entering your faculty and program?

Andrew: The best thing would be to always keep an open mind! The program and the field are very interdisciplinary, and you never know what might spark your interest, so take advantage of every opportunity. Students come into the program expecting intense competition between peers, but the iBioMed community is nothing like that. In iBioMed we work together, struggle together, and succeed together, so don’t think twice about reaching out for help or advice! My last piece of advice is to work hard and be open to others’ ideas and criticisms. I remember being so surprised by how much I learned and how quickly I learned it. Go into the program ready to improve yourself and your skills, and you will surely be successful!

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