Revolutionizing Research: A drive for real-world impact results in cutting-edge technology

Jon Albo

Jon Albo, Ph.D. Student

Hometown: Plantation, FL
BME Research focus: Ph.D., high-throughput experimentation
Advisor/affiliation: Nate Cira Lab
More info: Jon Albo on LinkedIn

What inspired you toward biomedical engineering?

I explored a wide range of fields during my undergraduate studies, including food science, plant pathology and stem cell differentiation. Through these experiences, I discovered my passion for research but found greater fulfillment in projects with a direct impact on people. This realization led me to explore research areas where I could make a more tangible clinical or general scientific impact. Biomedical engineering was for me an ideal intersection allowing me to translate my work into real-world impacts and craft solutions to meaningful problems.

Why Cornell?

When I arrived on the Ithaca campus during visit weekend, I immediately felt a sense of community and interest in collaboration across departments on campus and with Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. As an undergraduate, I always felt most rewarded by research projects where I had the opportunity to collaborate with other labs and found many students and faculty at the Meinig School who shared this enthusiasm. The variety of research at Cornell with groups developing unique technologies on the cutting edge of their fields ultimately convinced me to choose Cornell.

Brief description of your research focus?

The  surface patterned omniphobic tiles (SPOTs) liquid-handling platform
The  surface patterned omniphobic tiles (SPOTs) liquid-handling platform.

I currently work on two distinct research topics combined with many smaller, collaborative side projects. The first is working to develop and optimize a liquid-handling platform called surface patterned omniphobic tiles (SPOTs). SPOTs is a new method to meter, manipulate, and handle diverse liquids in small volumes without any expensive equipment or lab automation. Developing this platform to a state that we can share it with others has been a huge team effort within our lab. My project specifically focuses on optimizing the platform to make it easy to use for non-experts, improving different aspects of the device, and identifying avenues to scale the processes we use for creating them. 

My second research topic focuses on trying to grow currently unculturable bacteria. For this project, I’m specifically trying to grow the Wolbachia pipientis bacteria, which has been widely used as a “natural insecticide” to reduce the population of mosquitos carrying different parasites and viruses like malaria and dengue. Wolbachia belongs to a larger class of organisms that cause many diseases in humans and animals, all of which cannot currently be cultured. Being able to grow these bacteria will open a wide range of possibilities for treating illnesses in humans and animals and make it easier to study how these diseases transmit and affect both organisms. My project consists of using the SPOTs platform to screen a wide range of growth medias to identify which ones enable culturing of Wolbachia and similar organisms.

What’s the most rewarding part of your Ph.D. experience so far?

It’s been rewarding to learn so many different skills—both for research and life—that I never would have experienced if my advisor had not encouraged me to explore different projects. I have learned more “traditional” research skills such as coding and culturing a variety of cell types, but have also had the luxury of exploring ways to build and manufacture devices at a larger scale. I expected to learn only skills to complete my graduate project, but I’ve been encouraged to learn everything that’s interesting to me. 

The summer immersion program at Weill Cornell Medicine also taught me so much about how to think about and treat human diseases that I never would have learned elsewhere. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to explore a wide range of different interests, while still focusing on impactful research. The flexibility to explore different projects has really allowed me to focus on higher-risk, higher-reward types of projects.

What’s next for you?

My Ph.D. experience at Cornell has also drastically changed my career plans. When I started graduate school, I intended to work in industry as a research scientist but have now been focusing on creating a start-up based on SPOTs technology we developed in the lab. I’m really excited to get this work out to the world and we’ve had some extremely enthusiastic feedback from collaborators that have used the devices. 

My excitement for wanting to commercialize the technology stems from my experiences performing (and messing up) many tedious and complicated assays. Our SPOTs technology has the chance to change the way we do science and it’s a really exciting time to be part of this work. Being able to explore my different interests during this time in graduate school has enabled this career discovery and possibility.

Advice for other students considering research in biomedical engineering?

For any student considering research (in any field, really), I’d recommend that you try to figure out the types of research you’re most interested in, so you enjoy going into the lab every day. But, keep an open mind: if you don’t end up liking what you are doing, try something else! There are really so many different areas of research to explore, so focus on work you find rewarding. I’ve done research in many different fields, and each time I have learned something that I could employ in my future research endeavors.

What do you do for fun outside your academic/research experience?

Outside of the lab I’m typically doing a woodworking project, pursuing photography, or participating in dog shows and dog sports with my two golden retrievers. They participate in conformation, agility, dock diving, barn hunt and FAST CAT. If we’re not at an event, we’re training for the next one! We’re currently working towards our younger golden becoming an American Kennel Club champion and are about halfway there!

Favorite quote that helps inspire your work/life:

"The best way to predict the future is to create it."
- Peter Drucker

More Spotlights