Traditionally, summer is a slow time on college campuses. The laboratories in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, however, tell a different story.

2017 eberhardt lab2From left, Johnna Robinson, Aissah Kaba, and Sherilynn Knight are spending part of their summer conducting research in UAB's Experimental Biomechanics Core Laboratory.This summer, undergraduates from colleges in North Carolina and Massachusetts, as well as 10 high school students from around the state, converged on UAB for several weeks of training and research.

These students work alongside UAB researchers and clinicians, immersing themselves in BME research projects that tackle current investigations in the field. The undergraduates come to UAB through the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, while high school students participate through the BME Summer Scholars Program. Both programs are selective, with the common goal of providing unique research opportunities to capable students.

“One of the strengths of our programs has always been the ability to work in teams of cross-disciplinary research with emphasis on clinical interaction,” says Alan Eberhardt, BME professor and director of the Experimental Biomechanics Core Laboratory. “For some summer participants, they experience an environment here that they might not have at another university.”

Visible Figures

Whether a student is an REU participant or a Summer Scholar, each one is matched with a mentor. Eberhardt’s lab has been unusually active, however, as he made arrangements for three students from diverse backgrounds to work together.

The students include Aissah Kaba, an engineering student at Smith College in Massachusetts; Sherilynn Knight, a biology student at North Carolina A&T State University, and Johnna Robinson, a 16-year-old student at Calera High School.

Having a team of students from such diverse areas of interest and experience is uncommon, but the group of students is also unusual in that it is made up of three African-American women—an underrepresented group in engineering. "I think some African American women avoid STEM disciplines because they don’t see a lot of role models in those fields, and they don’t want to fail," Aissah says. Without a good foundation and support system, it's hard to do what STEM requires of you on your own. But my mom always pushed me to do what I want to do in life. I know I am capable, and as long as I work hard, I know I deserve to be here.”

2017 eberhardt labAissah is investigating 3D printing of bone-tissue scaffolds, including how the printers work and the role of porosity on mechanical strength. “A lot of what I am doing is trial and error to see exactly what is possible with 3D printing,” she said. “There were some designs that looked sound, but the printer wasn’t capable of printing the overlapping layers. Once I have the designs I want, I will test them to determine their mechanical properties.”

Sherilynn and Johnna , meanwhile, are studying wear and corrosion of total knee replacements and the effects of debris on local tissues through a combination of wear and corrosion scoring, as well as histology of surrounding tissues. For Knight, the project is a chance to apply her knowledge of biology to the challenges of engineering. “My lab experience as a biology major has had a narrower focus on certain aspects of biology,” she said. “This experience at UAB allows me to work on a project that looks at the mechanical aspects of implants so I can get a broader view the biological and histological interactions.”