October 24th 2022 – It was 70°F outside, the weather was nice with the view of fall foliage along Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA. Just perfect for the CEMB Annual Retreat! 

After a few years restricted by the pandemic, finally the CEMB-wide community gathered in person. This center-wide event invited all stakeholders, from all-levels and different research institutions, to spend two days at the National Constitution Center. To me personally, I have been attending 99% of CEMB events virtually for the last 3 years. I couldn’t wait to finally meet other CEMB trainees and the amazing PIs in-person!

As we entered the venue, we were warmly welcomed by 3 friendly familiar faces: Annie Jeong,  Abreeotta J William-Jones, and Huyen (Gwen) Nguyen! I was thrilled to finally meet Abree in person and excited to work towards DEI within the CEMB community, especially in our Trainee Leadership Council. I have been working closely with Annie and Gwen in supporting my role in CEMB, and it was great to meet all of them in person at the same time. A little bit about me, I am a minority student – based on many intersecting identities (racial, religion, national origin, age, family role, and First Gen in college). I found it challenging to get settled when I moved to the US as a grad student, especially learning about emerging fields — BUT within CEMB, I find a great supportive and welcoming community that I belong to. 

After we got enough sips of coffee and enjoyed breakfast, Vivek Shenoy, CEMB Director, started the program with the current state of the center, highlighting our Phase II goals to continue advancing our multi-institutional collaborations across kingdoms and scale in the field of “Mechano-intelligence.”

Following the opening, Guy Genin, CEMB Co-Director, as well as my co-PI, moderated the Faculty Seed Talks session featuring Shu Yang (UPenn), Chris Madl (UPenn) and Su Chin Heo (UPenn). They are three of five 2022 Faculty Seed Grantees, congratulations!

Dr Yang gave a cool talk on double network hydrogel to optimize viscoelastic properties of the gel by mixing Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) with Boric acid (Borax). Together with Polyacrylamide and chitosan, based on her talk, this mixture will be great for growing cells onto, with decent cell attachment and mechanical properties. 

Dr Madl’s talk was also on biomaterials, which he has been utilizing for muscle stem cells. Using multi-arm-PEG that he synthesized, he was able to encapsulate the cells and modulate the crosslink and simultaneously, the stiffness. Pretty neat! Within different temporal windows and different stiffness, he highlighted the importance of biophysical cues provided by the ECM in regulating muscle stem cells’ fate. 

Last but not least, Dr Heo discussed the epigenetic landscape of aging tenocytes, with an amazing spatiotemporal video on the dynamics of nuclei genes that he took using Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy (STORM). The talk also emphasized the role and potential of H3K27me3 as disease suppression related to aging. 

All of their talks were amazing, and I am looking forward to learning more from them in future CEMB events!

We did not only focusing on research during the CEMB Retreat; we also had the chance to explore beyond our usual boundaries: highlighting academic innovation and commercialization, facilitated by Treena Arinzeh, CEMB Director of Diversity; and delivered by Forough Ghahramani and Judith Sheft from NJ Edge and NJ Commission of Science, Innovation and Technology, respectively. It was heart-warming to discuss women’s roles in academic entrepreneurship. 

Later on, we had break-out sessions where trainees met with Recruitomics Consulting to discuss recruitment processes and tips for applying to industry jobs, while faculty discussed ways to increase diversity and recruitment , facilitated by Abreeotta J William-Jones, Assistant Director of Education and Diversity & Treena Arinzeh. The first day continued with the keynote session, Science and Storytelling, by Aurora MacRae-Crerar. 

The last session for Day 1 was actually the one I was looking most forward to: the poster session and reception! It was my first in-person poster presentation during my PhD, so I was so excited to get insights from other CEMB researchers. I really enjoyed this session, as I got to discuss my work with other trainees and receive helpful feedback on my research. 

Outreach and trainee research were the focus for Day 2 of the retreat on October 25th. With the Franklin Institute, we brainstormed developing a mobile museum exhibit, facilitated by Jayatri Das, Rachel Castor-Diephouse and Eric Welch. It was fun to work as a group with other CEMB communities from all-levels, and we are excited to turn this plan into a real mobile museum exhibit!

Afterwards, Rebecca Wells, CEMB Co-director, moderated the Trainee Pilot Grant Talks, featuring an amazing line-up of trainees: Madhura Nijsure with her talk on periosteal cell; Haijiao Liu who presented his work on mechano-engineered and vascularized organ-on-chip model; Huiyong (Morgan) Li with his talk on mechanochemical changes on cirrhosis; and Karen Xu introducing her project on crosstalk between cytoskeleton and ECM in meniscus development. Congratulations on receiving your grants and great job on your presentations! 

I am so glad that the CEMB retreat provided a great venue to talk with other trainees informally as well.  A happy hour event led by CEMB-TLC was the cherry on top of the sundae for our CEMB Retreat. I finally met the other CEMB trainees, some of whom I met at the Science Engagement Institute and others I’ve only worked with remotely through the Trainee Leadership Council. My heart was so full! I got the chance to know the other trainees as well and listen to their science and stories of their personal CEMB journeys. 

Thank you for attending The 2022 CEMB Retreat!
Huge appreciation and congratulations to the CEMB for organizing the event with huge success!

Written by Ghiska Ramahdita, CEMB Science Communication and Social Media fellow, images source from Annie Jeong & Huyen (Gwen) Nguyen.