Tufts Fosters Science Fair Success
Biomedical Engineering Program Helps Medford High Student
By Jane Carter
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.
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.
Assistant Professor Lauren Black and Erica Budina review
experiment procedures in Black's Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering
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.
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
Corin Williams and Erica Budina run
calculations necessary to create a hydrogel sample.
Before she presents her 2014 science fair project, Budina had
some more immediate work to do in the professional field of
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
—Jane Carter is Communications Assistant at Tufts University
School of Engineering.