When Aidan Zerdoum, biomedical engineering major in the Class of 2012, applied to Stevens Institute of Technology, he chose the university for its unique research opportunities and incredible location across the Hudson River from New York City. Little did he know how far this journey would take him, or how the opportunities of a big city could turn out to be so microscopic.
As a Stevens Scholar, Aidan traveled to the University Medical Center in Groningen (UMCG) in the Netherlands to grow biofilms as part of collaborative research between Dr. Matthew Libera, Stevens Professor of Materials Engineering, and Profs. Henk Busscher and Henny van der Mei at UMCG. Dr. Libera is one of a growing number of Stevens faculty researching materials and processes that inhibit the growth of bacteria on orthopedic implants. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Libera and student research scientists, like Aidan, are searching for novels way to prevent biomaterials-associated infection and treat pathogens that can colonize these devices.
Treatments like those studied by Dr. Libera are a hot topic for what is projected to be a $23 billion industry by 2012. Unlike pathogens that circulate in our bodies and make us sick, the bacteria associated with orthopedic implants form unusually resilient biofilms that create multi-cellular communities on implant surfaces. Currently, the standard procedure for treating an infected implant is simply removal and replacement. This carries a hefty price tag as well as significant, long-term patient discomfort and risk associated with further surgery.
After traveling to the Netherlands to grow sample biofilms and preserve them in resin, Aidan returned to Stevens to study his biofilms in the Laboratory for Multiscale Imaging. Operating a Zeiss Auriga Cross-Beam Focused Ion Beam - Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM), Aidan developed three-dimensional models of the preserved bacteria by taking photos of excruciatingly small, ion-beam-sliced samples. With the FIB's maximum slice resolution a minute 2.5 nanometers and image resolution even better, Aidan's micrographs resolve crisp details about the cell walls of bacteria treated with antimicrobial quaternary ammonium compounds.
Purchased through an NSF grant, the Zeiss workstation impacts many projects at Stevens, of which Dr. Libera's investigation into orthopedic implant biofilms is one. Stevens location in a region known for its diversity and rich research career opportunities has allowed this device acquisition to play a significant role in the community. Housed in a central, multi-disciplinary facility and easily controllable over the Internet, the microscope has empowered research at all levels within the university and enabled outreach to area high schools.
As an undergraduate at Stevens, Aidan has been able to take advantage of the world-class research that goes hand-in-hand with a 140-year-old science and engineering school as well as the intimate community made possible by the small, private university campus.
"I really thought it was surprising that something like this would be available to me as undergrad," Aidan says about his research with the microscope workstation. "I never thought it would have been possible."
Aidan further describes how the Summer Scholars program enabled him to take advantage of a summer abroad and a research position while only an undergrad in his junior year. "I think that one of the main reasons I came to Stevens was for the unique research opportunities that the Scholars program was offering," he reports.
Hands-on research, summer programs, and close relationships between students and faculty in small classes and practicums have all enabled Aidan to dream big about his future in science. Once finished with his Bachelor's degree, he plans to pursue a Master's and Ph.D. For now, Aidan is looking forward to working with his collaborators at UMCG on a research paper and the possibility of a co-author credit in a peer-reviewed science journal before graduation.