Undergraduate Lab-Industry Partnerships
In the final days of the fall 2019 semester, undergraduate seniors in the Biomechanics Laboratory (BME 4490) course had the opportunity to present their work to a packed room of their peers, professors, and industry representatives. The event was part of their final class project, but it wasn’t unique to this class or semester. Collaborative connections are integral to Meinig School curriculum, which aims to put skills in context and provide students with a practical framework for what it’s like to work in industry.
Taught each fall by Lawrence Bonassar, the Daljit S. and Elaine Sarkaria Professor in Biomedical and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, BME 4490 focuses on learning and implementing techniques for mechanical analysis of biomaterials and biological tissues. The class includes weekly lectures and laboratory exercises, and is generally comprised of BME undergraduate seniors, most of whom have chosen to focus their studies on biomechanics and mechanobiology (BMMB), or the mechanical interactions that occur during tissue development, homeostasis, and disease. Integral to the experience, the lab component engages students by enabling them to get hands-on experience applying concepts they have learned in the classroom. Students test tendons, ligaments, cartilage, bones, and heart valves by applying tension (pulling), compression (squeezing), and twisting (torsion), then use complex analytical models of material behavior such as hyperelasticity, viscoelasticity, and poroelasticity to understand the uniquely complicated properties of biological materials.
“Usually students would have to wait for their first jobs to put these skills to work on real-world projects,” said Bonassar. But not at the Meinig School. Once students have refined these skills, they move on to a real-world application. “The final project for the course involves mechanical characterization of products obtained from an industry collaborator.”
Enter MTF Biologics, a New Jersey-based, nonprofit firm providing safe allograft tissue. The company sent products—some existing, some in development—to the class for mechanical characterization. Using skills they learned throughout the course, students were tasked with developing a plan for testing the product, performing the tests and measuring properties deemed appropriate for reporting according to FDA guidance, and then presenting a report describing the results of the tests performed.
The final presentations were held in Weill Hall, with MTF Biologics product managers and leadership in attendance. Presentations were followed by lively discussion, laboratory tours, and lunch, at which students networked with MTF Biologics representatives to learn more about their products and company culture. The exercise is valuable not only for students but also for industry partners who get to connect with expertise and enthusiasm of Cornell talent, but also access to top-notch facilities for analyzing their products.
“We were very impressed with the professionalism and organization that each group provided in their presentations to us,” said Marc Jacobs, vice president product development at MTF Biologics. “We also benefited from a tour of the R&D laboratories conducted by different department heads to see the instruments used to carry out the various tests discussed in the presentations and to get a better understanding of how research projects were conducted at the university. The value of time that we spent on campus far exceeded our expectations.”
For their part, Meinig School students gained practical, real-word experience before heading onto the next stage of their careers.
Pallavi Nambiar '20 saw the project as a unique experience to apply skills she had learned in the laboratory concentration class. “Most undergraduates don’t really get the opportunity to work so closely with a real company, so it was really cool to be able to get direct experience with the medical device industry. It’s also been really useful during interviews to showcase what I’ve learned and applied. Presenting at the end of the semester to the heads and engineers of MTF Biologics helped tie everything we’d learned and worked on all semester together, and was very exciting to see how much we’d accomplished.”
Bhavya Bhushan '20 agreed: “I feel a lot more prepared for full-time work, and I talked about this project in almost all of my interviews.”
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Professor Bonassar of how the partnership turned out. "Our students demonstrated their outstanding technical and communications skills, while adding to research and product development efforts at MTF Biologics. This is exactly what we were hoping for.” He concluded by adding, “Students and industrial partners can look forward to these types of projects as a mainstay of the Meinig School undergraduate program.”