Senior Design Team Explores New Medical Material

By the time they reach their senior design courses, Drexel Engineering students are accustomed to finding solutions to common problems in uncommon places. This is especially true for Karli Akin, Angelique Rudi and Rosalie Vitale, a trio of Materials Society and Engineering majors collaborating on a project to turn the shells of crustaceans into a lifesaving new fabric.

Akin, Rudi and Vitale brought all of their experiences to the table. In her pre-junior year, Vitale worked at Dutch State Mines (DSM), a biotech research company, testing the kinetics of polymer membranes. She also traveled to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as part of an international STAR Scholars project, where she tested the durability and porousness of membranes. Akin also spent a co-op at DSM as a biomedical manufacturing researcher, and most recently worked at Johnson & Johnson in new product development.

The three are creating fibers out of a solution made with a key ingredient from the shells of crustaceans called chitosan. Chitosan is a biodegradable compound found in the outer shells of crustaceans that has antibacterial and antiviral properties and is hypoallergenic. A gel created from the fibers can be spun into fabric for wound dressing. Using a new method of spinning fibers which preserves nontoxic acids, called touch-spinning, the group can evaluate the ability to process these fibers and turn them into usable materials. Touch-spinning allows fibers to form from a chitosan solution and would eventually create a bandage that is both eco-friendly and safe for sensitive or allergy-prone patients.

In addition to using their own strengths, the team has worked with Drexel’s larger Natural Materials and Polymer Processing group headed by Caroline Schauer, PhD, Margaret C. Burns Chair in Engineering and Interim Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement. “It’s been great to collaborate with and learn from the rest of the NMPP group as well,” Akin said. “[They] have all played a huge part in making sure we have access to the resources we need to successfully carry out project tasks and objectives.”

The open-endedness of senior design was much different from classroom experiences, the team said. The increased flexibility that comes with an open-ended research project is full of opportunities to problem-solve. “The senior design experience has certainly been a great way to gauge how projects for research and development-based roles are executed and function in general,” Akin said. The team’s diverse experiences on co-op brought the opportunity to innovate.

“I think we’ve all learned the value of collaboration in a research and development setting,” Akin shared. “The three of us each have our own unique research experiences from co-op, so having the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another has greatly helped in cultivating the improvements and innovation we’ve achieved in our overall design process.”