Summer Research Programs Advance the Engineering Workforce—and Heart Health

Achievement date: 

Summer programs are one of the best ways to introduce prospective engineers and scientists to advanced research. The Engineering Research Center (ERC) in Cellular Metamaterials (CELL-MET), headquartered at Boston University (BU), conducts two summer programs for college students and one for K-14 educators. Launched in 2017 with funding from the National Science Foundation, CELL-MET is developing new technologies and integrating existing ones, including stem cell biology, mechanobiology, materials science, and optics to conquer heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States and a leading cause worldwide.


CELL-MET conducts three programs that aim to fill the engineering workforce pipeline by encouraging engineering undergraduates to pursue graduate school or positions in industry, and training high school teachers to nurture Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) interest in their students. CELL-MET’s Research Experience and Mentoring (REM) program, a summer research experience for students who are currently enrolled in the College of Engineering at the three main CELL-MET member institutions [BU, Florida International University (FIU), and University of Michigan (UM)], is designed to identify and mentor undergraduates and expose them to cutting-edge engineering research related to the Center’s goals. In addition, CELL-MET offers research opportunities for students outside of our three main institutions through summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) and Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) opportunities. In the RET program, high school science teachers engage in cutting-edge research and bring that experience back to their own classrooms.


CELL-MET is focused on creating lab-grown heart tissue that is both functional and clinically significant and at the same time on nurturing a diverse workforce to tackle future challenges in synthetic tissue engineering. Dozens of students from all over the country have taken part in REM and REU summer research experiences in CELL-MET labs and been inspired to pursue engineering research in academia. In both programs, students receive housing, a stipend, and travel expenses, and spend 10 weeks learning and applying nanofabrication techniques and conducting research in state-of-the-art facilities. They also attend technical and professional development seminars and take part in social outings. For most of the students, this is their first time in a lab. “It’s a very newbie-friendly way to get into tissue engineering,” says Francisco Sanchez, who, as an undergrad at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayaguez, spent one REU summer at UM and one at BU.  “Most of the REUs who go into CELL-MET haven’t had research experience, and they’re usually first-generation college students.” Sanchez says. “My decision to go to grad school was based on my experience working in CELL-MET labs.”

Amanda Dillingham, science director at East Boston High School, has come to BU for several RETs over the years. Among other things, she has researched vascular density and grown capillaries in the lab of Professor Christopher Chen, deputy director of CELL-MET. “It totally transformed my teaching—I rewrote an entire curriculum because of it,” she says. “I integrated engineering into a biology class. Having that lab experience is extremely important in science teaching, and not every teacher has it,” added Dillingham, who recruited several other teachers to take part in the program.