Photo: BioE alumni at the 2017 Whitaker Annual Enrichment Seminar in Lisbon, Portugal. Left to right: Emily Krogstad, Lael Wentland, Anna Blakney and Abbi Helfer.

UW Bioengineering alumni Anna Blakney, Abbi Helfer, Emily Krogstad and Lael Wentland received Whitaker International Fellows and Scholars Program awards in 2016 to pursue independent research projects abroad. The Whitaker International Fellows and Scholars Program enables predoctoral and postdoctoral biomedical engineers to undertake self-guided projects in an academic, non-profit, policy or industry setting. The program promotes the professional development of superb leaders in biomedical engineering who will advance the profession through an international outlook.

Anna Blakney, who completed her Ph.D. in Associate Professor Kim Woodrow’s lab, traveled to London, England to work with Professor Robin Shattock at Imperial College London. She is investigating RNA replicons, which can deliver and generate a high dose of a gene product like an antigen or therapeutic protein, for HIV prevention. She is engineering a replicon that encodes luciferase, a bioluminescent protein, which will help her research team evaluate different therapies. “I’m just getting to a point where we can combine the replicon RNA and delivery formulations in vitro, which is really exciting,” she explains.

Anna is enjoying life in a large, culturally diverse city. “London is the biggest city I’ve ever lived in, and it’s very diverse. Sometimes I’ll get on the tube and hear people talking in three different languages around me, and there’s a plethora of ethnic cuisines to choose from,” she explains. She also likes engaging in a new scientific culture. “My lab is very cohesive; everyone eats lunch together every day, has tea and cakes on Thursday afternoon and we often go to the pub together.”

Following her fellowship, Anna hopes to stay in the lab for a while longer. She then plans to apply for faculty positions.

Abbi Helfer, a B.S. alumna of UW Rehabilitation Medicine Assistant Professor David Mack’s lab, is working with Dr. Nathan Palpant’s lab at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia to create a model of diabetic cardiomyopathy (DCM), a disease that affects the hearts of people with diabetes. Her model can simulate some of the functional and structural characteristics found in diabetic patients. With her model, she discovered that histone deacetylase (HDAC ) inhibitors, which have been found to repress inflammation and cardiac hypertrophy, can restore certain cardiac characteristics to a healthier level. She aims to further understand how closely her model can recreate DCM in humans, and further explore the therapeutic potential of HDAC inhibitors to treat the disease.

Abbi says that researching abroad has given her the opportunity to learn new skills and techniques that she wasn’t exposed to in the U.S. “I have enjoyed the independence of my fellowship; I’ve been able to lead my own project from the start,” she explains. “The warm weather and exotic animals in Australia certainly make living here fun as well!” She reports that she has not been bitten by any of the country’s notorious venomous animals – yet.

After her fellowship concludes, Abbi will pursue a Ph.D. to continue her academic journey. She will start in the biomedical engineering program at Duke University in the fall, and will join Dr. Nenad Bursac’s lab.

Emily Krogstad, also a Ph.D. graduate from Dr. Woodrow’s lab, is working with the Desmond Tutu HIV Center at the University of Cape Town in South Africa to learn what young people want in a HIV prevention product. She has designed and facilitated interactive focus group discussions that invite young people at high risk of HIV into the lab as fellow scientists and co-designers to hear their perspectives on implants being developed for HIV prevention.

Emily enjoys researching with people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, and interacting with clinicians, social scientists and interviewers on a daily basis. “My perspective as a global health-focused bioengineer is continually broadened as I learn more of the pressures people from the surrounding communities face in making health care decisions, and of the context of international research and clinical trials,” she says. She has also had fun attempting to learn isiXhosa, one of the “click” languages spoken in her region.

Post-Whitaker, Emily will stay in Cape Town to complete her project, and ensure that the qualitative findings from the study are communicated to design collaborators and to the broader field of HIV prevention research. She plans to continue as a bioengineering and global health researcher, and hopes to better integrate communities and end-users in the design process for new technologies.

Lael Wentland, who researched as an undergraduate in Associate Professor Wendy Thomas’s lab, traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam to work with Medical Transfer Technology and Services (MTTS) Asia. She is designing a new diagnostic device that will help doctors diagnose and monitor neonatal jaundice at the bedside. The device is less expensive and resource-intensive, and more accurate alternative to an existing transcutaneous diagnostic. The device analyzes a small blood sample with spectroscopy to determine its concentration of bilirubin, the compound responsible for jaundice and that can cause brain damage or death if too high.

Lael says that the best part about working in Vietnam is interacting with end users of her device, and that these conversations with medical professionals have informed her design process. “It has been eye-opening working at a Vietnamese company and seeing the process from R&D to manufacturing and distribution,” she says. In her spare time, she has traveled throughout Southeast Asia, meeting people from around the world and exploring other countries.

At the end of her fellowship, Lael will go back to the U.S. to continue her studies. In the fall, she will start a Ph.D. in bioengineering at Oregon State University.