Research In Focus: H-STEM Rising

Tech’s new H-STEM Engineering and Health Technologies Complex is move-in ready, but researchers haven’t been waiting. Their work to improve human health and help communities thrive remains relentless.

One of the guiding principles of the H-STEM Complex’s design is that those within and outside will be able to witness teams working together in shared, flexible, collaborative lab spaces-perhaps the most visual definition in Michigan Tech history of how interdisciplinary research works at the University. But the cohesive elements of Michigan Tech’s overall health research, teaching, and outreach strategy, which have also been building momentum, are already abundantly clear.

Researchers are engineering an end to cancer. They’re developing methods for faster manufacturing and wider distribution of vaccines. They’re modeling blood flow and testing heart valves. And they’re increasingly reaching beyond the University to connect to community networks across the state and region, harnessing knowledge to address urgently needed advancements.

Health Research Institute Director Caryn Heldt is looking forward to increased visibility for the discoveries and developments. “The faculty and students are excited to move into the new space. We’re excited to showcase the health technologies and innovations happening at Michigan Tech,” she says. “Being centralized on campus will solidify the importance of health research in the Michigan Tech portfolio.”

The Health Research Institute, or HRI, is a cornerstone of Tech’s efforts to continue attracting high-caliber faculty and funding that lead to healthcare breakthroughs across the spectrum, from answering the urgent needs of rural communities to addressing the potentials and pitfalls of big data.

“To tackle the complex problems in healthcare today, diverse teams are needed,” says Heldt, whose research team works to improve vaccine and biotherapeutic manufacturing. “The Health Research Institute brings together engineers, scientists, mathematicians, physicians, and social scientists to solve these problems.”

“Our goal is to develop cutting-edge health technologies that will save lives. In the process, we are educating the next generation of entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers who will lead Michigan and our nation to a brighter, healthier future.”

Caryn Heldt

Caryn Heldt

Michigan Tech Health Research Institute

HRI member and National Science Foundation CAREER Award winner Paul Goetsch focuses on cancer biology. “What keeps me going back to the lab is just wanting to understand how the cells in our bodies work when everything is going right. Unfortunately, what works correctly can also go sideways in any biological system. In humans, breakdown of cell identity is most commonly associated with cancer,” says Goetsch, who studies microscopic roundworms, C. elegans, as a model system for understanding the molecular pathways activated when normal cells become cancerous. “It’s my long-term goal to use this knowledge to develop new anti-cancer therapeutics or a novel diagnostic method aimed to detect early cancer development.”

Researcher Hoda Hatoum’s work in the imaging and computing research cluster of HRI illustrates the institute’s power to directly affect human health outcomes. Her team tests commercial and in-house-made prosthetic heart valves on a pulse duplicator and particle image velocimetry system to develop patient-specific cardiovascular models. She collaborates with materials science experts around the world to find compatible biomaterials that are durable, limiting the need for patients to have the devices replaced. Her collaborators include Mayo Clinic, Piedmont Hospital, and St. Paul’s Hospital of Vancouver.

Engineering has everything to do with health, says Hatoum, whose team also works to find alternatives for highly invasive surgeries for children with congenital heart defects. “In some centers in the US and the world, the heart team won’t operate without engineers modeling for them-to visualize the problem, design a solution better, improve therapeutic outcomes, and avoid as much as possible any adverse outcomes,” she says.

Biomedical Engineering at MTU Gets to the Heart of the Matter

In addition to imaging and computing, the institute’s research concentrations include biochemistry, biomaterials, and pharmaceutical design; cancer biology; environmental and public health; genetics; and neuroscience, physiology and occupational science. With 54 active faculty members and more than 85 undergraduate and graduate students, the HRI continues to look toward expansion of both membership and funding.

In 2023, the HRI secured 21 research awards totaling $4.5 million.

“Because of the hard work of Michigan Tech’s amazing faculty, HRI research expenditures are increasing,” Heldt says. “We support the HRI faculty by making it easier for them to write grants. We will likely hire a new staff member in the coming year to free up our current staff to be more intimately involved in grant writing and grant submission.”

Health Research with Direct Regional Impact

Convergence is a term you hear often at Michigan Tech-nowhere more so than in the healthcare arena, where Tech’s expertise and the relationships the University has built throughout our history are coming together in ways that rural healthcare providers may never have imagined.

Tick Talk

Researchers and Copper Country residents banded together in 2023 for a tick collection and analysis project that applied STEM practices to address one of the peskiest threats in the Northwoods. The project gathered info on the types and concentrations of local ticks and the diseases they carry. Between April and the end of the year, 900 crowdsourced ticks were submitted for analysis.

“Thanks to a grant through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Tech now has a full genomics sequencing lab,” Heldt says. “Originally built to sequence COVID and other emerging pathogens, it is now available for other efforts like the Tick Talk project.”

Tick Talk was overseen by genomics testing lab lead Aimee Marceau, Kristin Brzeski from the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, and Guy Hembroff from the College of Computing.

Collaboration with area partners and community members is critical. To solve long-standing rural health challenges, researchers must pay close attention to the specific needs of area partners and residents.

In October 2023, Tech hosted our second Upper Peninsula Medical Conference, providing a new opportunity for regional physicians to attend a high-quality continuing education conference that focuses on rural health.

“Many of the conferences that physicians attend are based on diseases,” Heldt says. “Thanks to the Tech Forward Health and Quality of Life initiative and other sponsors, we’re able to bring physicians to campus to interact with Tech researchers and focus on all of the challenges that rural physicians encounter, including lack of specialists, psychiatric care, and substance abuse.”

The conference was preceded by the second Engineering the Future of Human Health collaborative research symposium put on by Tech and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. A continuation of the first symposium that took place last spring in Grand Rapids, Michigan, “Biomedicine in the Fourth Industrial Revolution” explored novel treatments for conditions and diseases from diabetes to a method to reduce hemorrhaging. Applications for computational health science and big data in healthcare ranged from youth suicide prevention to blood pressure regulation.

Heldt says expanding the research

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