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Tufts Fosters Science Fair Success

Biomedical Engineering Program Helps Medford High Student Get Ahead
By Jane Carter

Erica Budina

Erica Budina holds a hydrogel sample, dyed pink, that could become scaffold for heart tissue.

Erica Budina, a student at Medford High School, has been participating in—and winning—regional and state science fairs since she was a freshman. Now, as a senior, she will finish out her high-school science fair circuit by presenting research she's worked on with Assistant Professor Lauren Black as part of the Tufts University Biomedical Engineering Research Scholars (TUBERS) program.

For the past two summers, Budina has conducted research in Black's Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering Lab as part of the TUBERS program. Founded by Black in 2012, the summer program provides unique research experiences for enthusiastic and talented high school students. Participants receive specialized training to work in various biomedical engineering labs at Tufts School of Engineering and create and conduct their own research projects. Throughout the summer, TUBER scholars participate in weekly seminars held by different professors in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and work one-on-one with undergraduate or graduate student mentors.

Before she joined the TUBERS program, Budina was interested in finding a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics used in food packaging. For her freshman and sophomore science projects, she investigated and improved upon the tensile strength of homemade bioplastics using natural materials such as agar, corn starch and eggshell powder.

Erica Budina

Assistant Professor Lauren Black and Erica Budina review experiment procedures in Black's Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering lab.

When she joined Black's lab in the summer of 2012, post-doctoral student Corin Williams and Black helped her apply her interest in materials science to a biomedical problem. Budina developed a variety of hydrogels, a type of material that closely mimics human tissue. She then tested the properties of the gels to determine whether they would be suitable as possible scaffold for myocardial tissue—tissue that could be used to repair damage caused by heart disease.

This research provided the basis for her project at the 2013 Medford High School Science Fair, which she won. Budina then took first place in her categories at the regional and state science fairs in spring 2013. She also qualified for the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair, where she placed fourth in the Materials and Bioengineering category.

Black said he encourages all TUBER scholars to use the research they accomplish during the summer program for science fair competitions that occur the following spring. He and mentors in the TUBERS program offer a lot of support to these students—helping them fill out competition application forms and making sure research conforms to the Massachusetts State Science Fair research rules and guidelines, which Black added, are quite rigorous. Additionally, TUBER scholars have the opportunity to present their research at the end of the summer in a poster session and reception for their friends, family, and teachers.

Erica Budina

Corin Williams and Erica Budina run calculations necessary to create a hydrogel sample.

For her last round of high school science fairs, Budina is building on her research from her first summer in the TUBERS program. "Last year, we focused on enhancing the mechanical properties of the gels, but a lot of people at the science fair were asking me about the viability of cells in these gels," Budina said. "One thing I would like to do this year is more cell-based experiments and see how the cells react to the scaffold."

Before she presents her 2014 science fair project, Budina had some more immediate work to do in the professional field of tissue engineering.

This past November, Budina traveled with Black's lab to the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS) – Americas Chapter conference in Atlanta to present a poster on her research. Erica's experiences at high school level science fairs have prepared her well for the TERMIS conference, said Black. "At the Medford High School science fair, we went to visit her and there were a lot of people circling around, including all of the judges." At the conference, he said, "no one is coming to judge, they are actually coming by because they are excited about hearing something new and learning more about what you've been doing."

In addition to the presentation of her work at an international conference, she is working on a manuscript with Williams, her mentor and co-first author. They plan to submit the paper to the biomedical engineering journal, Biomaterials, which, Black said, "is a pretty prestigious journal for even seasoned researchers like me, much less someone like Erica for her first paper."

Through the TUBERS program, Budina has become a successful researcher, but she said she is realistic about how much more she has to learn. "As a high school student, you might not understand everything that [the professors] are saying," she said. "I'm taking AP biology and all lot of those things slowly start to make a lot of sense. It's really great to realize, ‘Oh, I recognize this from the TUBERS program!'"

Black praised Budina as one of his TUBER "superstars" but said he hopes to draw all levels of high school students to biomedical engineering careers with the message that you don't have to be at the top of your class to get into the field—there is no standard path. "Many of us come from very different backgrounds and have very different experiences," said Black, who has a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering.

Professor Black said he is excited to continue the TUBERS program for the summer of 2014 and encourages all local high school students to apply.

Applications for the TUBERS program are available by contacting Professor Black via email.

—Jane Carter is Communications Assistant at Tufts University School of Engineering.