Biomedical Engineering Professor and Doctoral Students Present Significant Cardiovascular Disease Findings at International Conference in Abu Dhabi

From left to right: Ishita Tandon, Kartik Balachandran, and Prashanth Ravishankar.

A University of Arkansas biomedical engineering professor and two doctoral students presented their cardiovascular research at the International Conference of Tissue Engineered Heart Valves in Abu Dhabi earlier this semester. The conference, ICTEHV for short, holds yearly meetings all over the globe to create a dialogue between researchers that might direct and/or translate engineered heart valve treatments. The researchers traveled to the conference before travel restrictions caused by COVID-19 were in place.

Ishita Tandon and Prashanth Ravishankar are both pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering. Tandon’s primary research focus over the last few years has been on early stages of certain cardiovascular diseases, including how these diseases are diagnosed and treated. Ravishankar’s research concentrates on the structural scaffolding of heart valves and the issues presented by the engineering of such structures.

Both are attempting to tackle diagnostic and treatment methods for aortic valve calcification. This disease, which affects up to nearly a third of the aging U.S. population, can cause constriction from calcium deposits, leading to reduced blood flow in those afflicted.

Tandon and Ravishankar work alongside Associate Professor Kartik Balachandran in his mechanobiology and soft materials laboratory. Balachandran and his lab focus on bioengineering problems presented in cardiovascular diseases and specific neurovascular disorders. It is through Balachandran’s mentorship that led the two overseas to share their research with several hundred other engineers and clinicians.

Growing up in a family of doctors, Tandon said she always knew she wanted to work with biomaterials in some way.

“Unlike other kids, my childhood dream was to develop a skin graft artificially that my father, [a burn specialist], could transplant onto a patient,” she said.

During her presentation, Tandon discussed her findings on noninvasive, early diagnostic techniques for aortic valve calcification, research for which she currently holds a predoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association.

“Calcific aortic valve disease currently has no drug-based therapy, no mitigation or prevention strategies resulting in valve replacement as the current treatment standard,” she said. “One major challenge in intervention strategies is lack of early detection.”

Tandon said she hopes to fill that gap by developing a set of metrics that allow for early detection and, as a consequence, enhanced treatment.  She placed second in the Young Researcher Award for her presentation at the conference.

Ravishankar’s research, although similar in scope, differed in trajectory, focusing on the issues that might present itself in the replacement of calcified aortic valves. To show the realities of possible treatments, Ravishankar created a 3D environment mimicking the heart. This provided a blueprint of the pre-diseased valve so that the replacement tissues could later be engineered in laboratories.

Ravishankar noted that, in addition to the importance of his and others’ research, the conference presented an invaluable opportunity for networking with other engineers in similar disciplines.

“The most important thing personally for me was the fact that you receive excellent feedback from individuals who are highly renowned in the field that strengthens your research,” he said.

Just a few months earlier, Balachandran presented his collaborative research at the 17th International Conference on Biomedical Engineering in Singapore. That research, with help from technology provided by Associate Professor Kyle Quinn’s lab, focused on the sensitivity of select detection markers for aortic valve calcification.  He presented an update of this work at ICTEHV in Abu Dhabi, one that focused on identifying the signaling mechanisms that maintain the aortic valve in its healthy, pre-diseased state.

“I am extremely proud of Ishita and Prashanth for their dedication and to Dr. Balachandran for actively promoting his students to conduct critical research to address cardiovascular diseases. I would also like to thank the Graduate School for their generous support to our students”, said Raj Rao, professor and department head of biomedical engineering.

Both students said they hope to push their research beyond the walls of the university. Ravishankar plans on pursuing industry so as to create lifesaving products. Tandon will continue with postdoctoral research in an effort to put the newest technologies on the market for consumers and improve patient care.

Ishita Tandon and Olivia Kolenc on Society of Women Engineers Conference

Ishita Tandon and Olivia Kolenc are both PhD candidates for the Biomedical Engineering Department at the University of Arkansas. This past year they attended SWE’s yearly conference for women in California. Below they discuss networking benefits, memorable experiences, leadership knowledge, and awareness and ability to navigate challenges faced by minorities within the field of engineering.

Olivia Kolenc:

In November of 2019, I had the privilege of traveling to California to attend WE19, the Society of Women Engineers’ (SWE) largest conference to date. WE19 was held at the Anaheim Convention Center, filled with over 16,000 people ready to “Live, Learn, and Lead.”

I had yet to be a part of an event focused on women and diversity, so it was thrilling and inspiring to be surrounded by so many women and men dedicated to empowering women and minorities in STEM. I explored what WE19 had to offer, including sessions on a wide range of educational and professional development topics, an enormous career fair with over 400 attending organizations, special group meetings, and invitation-only programs such as SWE’s Collegiate Leadership Institute (CLI).

I have been a member of SWE since 2018 and currently serve as the vice-chair of the graduate student group on campus, GradSWE. Through my involvement with GradSWE, I was selected as one of 108 participants in SWE’s 2019 CLI. CLI is a program offered at each annual conference focused on helping undergraduate and graduate students develop their career and leadership skills.

The CLI program began with networking with other participants during WE19’s opening ice cream social and over dinner, where I got to know a few other graduate students. After having the opportunity to explore the conference, we were assigned mentees participating in the SWE Next High School Leadership Academy. I briefly mentored Alyssa, a high school sophomore. We spent a few hours together talking about her interest in robotics, the college application process, potential career paths, and interacting with industry representatives at the career fair.

On the final day of the conference, I attended a day-long CLI leadership colloquium. The colloquium sessions centered on providing us a framework to evaluate and discuss our strengths and weaknesses to learn what skills we as individuals needed to target to best enhance our educations and careers. We examined six competencies leaders need to develop for success and worked in groups to assess our progress in these areas. We also reflected on conventional leadership strategies, how they are currently changing, and how we can form a personal leadership structure based on leadership habits that work with our strengths. The colloquium culminated in small-table networking sessions with SWE leadership in various professional positions within, and outside, engineering.

Being part of CLI made attending WE19 much more significant to me. Not only did I garner so much new information on navigating the current challenges women and minorities face through the conference, but I also learned valuable strategies I can use to improve my own leadership abilities. After WE19, I was excited and energized to share what I learned through CLI and now have plans to conduct a leadership workshop for graduate students through GradSWE.


Ishita Tandon:

Four of the officers from Uark Graduate SWE RSO attended the We19, the annual conference of SWE. I have been involved with Grad SWE at Uark since 2018. I first served as the communications chair in the inaugural committee and then as the financial chair this past year. We have dedicated our RSO to hold professional and personal development events and social/ networking gatherings for Uark Students.

Some of the events which stood out to me were “I Have a PhD in Engineering – Now What?”, “Mentoring in Graduate School Panel”, “Strategies for Applying for a Job in Academia”. While I was more interested in professional development workshops, We19 offered leadership development, collegiate competitions, career fairs and social nights too. I had the opportunity to know a lot about industry careers in R&D after pursuing PhD. I also had the chance to meet and network with the SWE graduate leadership team and discuss with them opportunities for involvement and collaborations. 

This also opened the door for me to apply to the We Local Collegiate competitions. I was shortlisted as one of the 5 finalists to present my research in form of a talk and a poster at the We Local held in Salt Lake City in February, 2020. I was honored with $250 award, certificate and SWE swag for the same. The We Local, Salt Lake had a small group of men and women focused on professional development and networking. There were many workshops and seminars offered including “to post doc or not to post doc”, “resume workshop”, “flexibility in communication styles and a lot more.

Apart from deep appreciation and feedback offered on research presentations, I had two packed days of learning tips and tricks for enhancing my career, our SWE group and networking and making friends as well. The socials had professional, collegiate members and the leadership and organizing team, all enjoying food, games and good conversations. Indeed, the keynote speeches about an undergraduate’s journey from internship in NASA to Miss America pageant and a crew member of “The Maiden” which was featured in the documentary of the same name in 2018, were highly motivating. This whole experience inspired me more towards being involved in student organizations, enhance my leadership skills, appreciate the opportunities coming our way and strive for more. I hope to stay connected with the SWE strive towards further extending these opportunities to more women and underrepresented students from UARK. 

Abroad in India: Alexis Applequist on Bengaluru and Research

Alexis Applequist is a biomedical engineering student at the University of Arkansas. In summer and fall of 2019, she spent five months researching abroad in Bengaluru, India. Below, she reflects on her experiences and discusses what she has learned.

Traveling to a country with a rich and diverse history and culture to live for almost half a year has been, by far, the most eye-opening, thrilling experience of my life. Seeing the pictures and living the day-to-day life is incomparable. I’m so thankful to have had this humbling opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone to solo travel, research, help others, and learn countless valuable life lessons.

India’s mini Taj Mahal in Aurangabad

On July 4, I began (what felt like) my never ending flight to India. My family could see the excitement radiating from me the minute I had decided to go to India nine months earlier, but I couldn’t help but shed a few tears when it came time to leave them at the airport. One of the most amazing things about India to me was the number of languages spoken throughout the country. Hindi is the national language, but each state also has their own language, bringing the total spoken languages in India to 780. While the traffic was crazy and the amount of people constantly surrounding you could get to be a bit hectic at times, after a while I became comfortable with my daily routine traveling to and from work. Negotiating with the auto drivers for prices in the little Hindi I had picked up, getting to know my way around parts of the city, and acquainting myself with my favorite coffee shops and restaurants, I started to assume the culture and settle into my life in India. This cultural adjustment was made possible by the local friends I made. I also met people from countries including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Africa, China, London, Dubai, Kuwait, and others.

Though I did not take any classes during my time abroad, I earned credits by conducting research as an intern at a local medical technology startup, InnAccel. My research began with a small team interviewing cardiologists throughout India to determine the country’s most prominent needs in the cardio field. After wading through heaps of literature for weeks, the team decided to focus on a rechargeable pacemaker, Flexpacer. Our design includes a piezoelectric crystal which converts the heart beats’ mechanical energy to electrical energy to charge the pacemaker battery. After 500+ hours of research, our work was published with IEEE (see publication here). I am currently researching further with this company remotely from the US.

Kid’s innovation & 3D-printing camp in Bengaluru

In addition to my research, I attended seven engineering conferences, an IEEE workshop, and worked with a local NGO (non-governmental or non-profit organization). With the NGO, Aarogya Seva, I traveled to a government school outside of the city for a kids camp. Here, we talked with 1st-7th graders about innovation, 3-D printing, and how to use the skills they learned and talents to help others. Interacting with these bright, young, curious kids was definitely a highlight of my trip.

Alexis being blessed by an elephant in Coorg

While I spent five days a week in the office or at my flat in Whitefield (a subsection on the outskirts of Bengaluru) researching, I traveled most of South India on the weekends. My travels included Mysore, Nandi Hills, Chikmagalur, Belur, Yercaud, Pondicherry, Shivanasamudra Falls, Coorg, Ooty, Gokarna, Pune and Aurangabad. Some of these places had the crowded city vibe like Bengaluru, but most were a nice escape from the nearly constant envelopment of people. Some were quieter beach towns with gorgeous sunsets/sunrises while others had breathtaking hiking and waterfalls. A few highlights of my time abroad included being blessed by an elephant at Dubare Elephant Camp in Coorg, the tea and coffee plantations in Ooty, and spending Diwali (The Festival of Lights), India’s most celebrated holiday, with a friend’s family in Pune. The diverse landscapes across the country were nothing like I had ever seen before; it felt like I was in a painting.

Alexis in a traditional, Indian saree

After returning to the US, I will finish the last year of my bachelor’s degree and continue on to my doctorate. I plan to study cardiovascular device development with a focus on low-cost solutions. While designing for the Indian market, I learned there is a large focus on device development for areas with unlimited resources such as medical supplies, power, funding, and skilled medical personnel. Unfortunately, these cutting-edge devices being produced often cannot be used in many places, such as India, due to lack of resources. As an American, I find myself taking for granted the medical technology we already have that unreached populations so badly need, let alone, so many other basic “needs” (e.g., hot water, a showerhead). Overall, India helped solidify my passion for low-cost medical research, opened my mind to future international travel, and most importantly, showed me just how blessed I am to have been given the life I have here in the US.

“What lies ahead of you & what lies behind you is nothing compared to what lies within you.” -Mahatma Gandhi


17th International Conference on Biomedical Engineering

Various educators and researchers, including organizers, invited to the conference.

Pictured above: various educators and researchers, including organizers, invited to the conference.

Associate professor Kartik Balachandran of biomedical engineering presented his collaborative research findings at the 17th International Conference on Biomedical Engineering, ICBME for short, this past December.

An invited speaker, his talk focused on the sensitivity of select markers that determine calcific aortic valve disease progression. These findings were part of a collaborative project with associate professor Kyle Quinn’s lab, which pinned down early markers of the disease. His talk was titled, “Two Photon Excited Fluorescence Microscopy Metrics Are Sensitive to Early Phenotypic Changes in Calcific Aortic Valve Disease in Vitro and Ex Vivo.”

Balachandran found the conference to be both memorable and imperative to the outreach of researchers in the field of biomedical engineering who are working to develop and spread novel biomedical technologies. 600 participants were present, spanning a total of 30 countries; such demographics show the extent of such scientific outreach.

The ICBME is a four-day annual conference organized by the Biomedical Engineering Society in Singapore. They’re considered one of the most recognized conferences worldwide that provide “the latest developments including emerging challenges faced in the advancement of the Biomedical Engineering sector.”

Balachandran was also invited to present this research at the International Conference of Tissue-Engineered Heart Valve and Heart Valve Society Meeting in Abu Dhabi on February 14, in addition to two of his doctoral students. A Newswire on this conference is forthcoming.

NIH-NIDDK/KUH Yale Summer Undergraduate Medical Research Fellowship: Sanidhya (Sani) Tripathi

Sani Tripathi is a second-year biomedical engineering student. This past summer he earned a fellowship to participate in Yale’s Undergraduate Medical Research Program. Below he recounts his experience, including application process and eventual acceptance, as well as plans post-graduation.

As a freshman attending the University of Arkansas, I was initially unaware of the countless opportunities that students have. Having completed many research projects in high school, I wanted to continue that during my undergraduate career. Being part of the First-Year Engineering Program (FEP) and taking the Honors Research Experience course, I was fortunate enough to start working in a lab (Rajaram Lab) about a month after I moved-in on campus. Having heard about REUs and other summer research fellowships pursued by previous honors students, I was motivated to begin my search.

I vividly remember sitting on my bed working on homework when I received an acceptance letter from the Yale School of Medicine inviting me to participate in their summer undergraduate medical research program. I was beyond ecstatic to be in the position I was and ultimately chose to spend my summer in New Haven, CT for 11 weeks. The program, funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), was designed to give students a “hands-on” research experience in clinical and basic science labs focusing specifically on kidney, urological, and hematological diseases.

For 11 weeks, I was placed in Dr. Lloyd G. Cantley’s lab in the Section of Nephrology where the research focus was to look at the most intrinsic renal cause of Acute Kidney Injury (AKI): Acute Tubular Injury (ATI). The lab’s current work is dedicated towards determining mechanisms of renal tubular development and repair following ischemia/toxin exposure. Being intimidated at first, I was mentored closely by a Postdoc Fellow (Nikhil Singh, M.D., Ph.D.) and a 4th year medical student (Zachary M. Avigan) who helped me learn the ropes of important techniques I would need for my project. My daily schedule consisted of arriving to lab around 8:30 AM every morning and on some days attend meetings in the middle of the day and typically leave at 5:00 PM. I had the opportunity to attend weekly Internal Medicine and Nephrology Grand Rounds which lasted 1 hr. each where physicians, medical students, residents, fellows, and other faculty members all met to discuss cutting-edge research in the field and talk about cases seen at the Yale New Haven Hospital during the previous week. In some of the meetings, physician-scientists from other notable schools would come to discuss their research. Through these meetings, I saw how some of the research in labs at Yale were directly translated to the hospital setting and used to treat patients. Outside my work hours, I was also able to shadow a nephrologist and witnessed the physician-patient interaction. Finally, I also attended our lab group meetings to stay up to date on what others were working on as well as met with Dr. Cantley 1 on 1 to update him on my progress. He was always willing to help me grow scientifically as well as personally by giving me valuable advice!

My project was about looking more closely at cellular senescence, a mechanism linked to AKI, and studying the expression of a specific marker (p21). By performing immunostaining on Human Kidney-2 (HK-2) cells, I utilized immunofluorescence qPCR, and Imaging Mass Cytometry (IMC) to perform tests on my samples. IMC was an exciting technology that I got a chance to use which allows for the detection and quantification of more than 40 protein markers on a tissue section. The Cantley Lab is the first lab in the country to use IMC to look at kidney biopsy specimens specifically and answer basic questions regarding injury and repair.

At the end of the program, I along with 15 other students presented our posters at the KUH Summer Undergraduate Research Conference at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Our program along with 10 other KUH programs from Harvard, Mayo Clinic, Emory, Wake Forest, UT Southwestern, and others also presented their projects.

All in all, I am thankful for this experience and would like to express my gratitude to my mentors here at UARK as well as Yale School of Medicine for their consistent support. Looking forward, I am now leaning towards pursuing a Ph.D. degree after graduation due to the excellent experience this past summer and am hoping to possibly participate in another research program this summer!


Seven Questions for Justin Combs: International Engineering Program of Study Abroad

Justin Combs is a fifth-year student in the International Engineering Program at the University of Arkansas. In 2018-2019, he spent a year in Germany at the University of Darmstadt and Institute of Molecular Biology. Below he discusses the import of his travel abroad experience, advice for peers, and goals after graduation.


BME: Where are you from? How far along are you in your studies at the U of A?

COMBS: I’m from Bryant, AR and I’m now a fifth-year senior at the U of A (the International Engineering Program is 5 years).

BME: When/how did you first hear about study abroad opportunities for engineers?

COMBS: I heard about some while I was in high school, but I didn’t learn much until my freshman year at the U of A.

BME: Why Germany?

COMBS: Why not Germany? Germany is renowned for great engineering and there is a lot of really interesting medical research going on over there.

BME:   Where in Germany were you, and what did you accomplish (internship, study, etc.)?

COMBS: I spent the first part of the year in Darmstadt (south of Frankfurt) attending the Technical University at Darmstadt, then I moved to Mainz to complete an internship at the Institute of Molecular Biology.

BME: How has study abroad aided your knowledge of biomedical engineering?

COMBS: It was a great opportunity to experience other cultures around Europe, which I think will help me to assess and meet needs of other cultures and people around the world when designing devices or products in the future.

BME: Any advice for other engineering students similarly looking to study abroad?

COMBS: If you ever have the opportunity, I highly recommend it and that you embrace the culture of whatever country you’re in. Experiencing other cultures and peoples can only help to broaden your view of the world.

BME: Any plans after graduation?

COMBS: I want to go into industry for a couple of years, then apply to medical school.