BINGHAMTON RESEARCHERS, SCHOLARS & ARTISTS SPOTLIGHT
Meet a Faculty Mentor
Assistant Professor of Bioengineering
Dr. Gretchen Mahler is an exceptional faculty member in the Binghamton University Bioengineering Department who is carrying out innovative research in her field. She is currently "using microfluidics and 3D scaffolds to create dynamic, physiologically realistic cell culture models of organs and tissues." Through this research, she aims to attain a better understanding of how cells behave in healthy and disease-inhabited bodies and how different cells interact with different drugs. This research can help minimize animal testing and "provide tightly controlled, reproducible experimental conditions."
A native of Western Massachusetts, Dr. Mahler was initially interested in becoming a doctor when she was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But after participating in research under her faculty mentor, Dr. Susan Roberts, she developed an interest in biochemical and biomolecular research. Dr. Mahler began her own cell culture project when she carried out an honors thesis on developing an in vitro system to look at drug metabolism and toxicity. Later, she went on to complete a PhD at Cornell University and also did a postdoctoral fellowship there.
After Dr. Mahler earned a position at Binghamton University, she not only hit the ground running with her own research, she also actively began to include undergraduate engineering students in her lab. "Taking in lots of students really affected my career path in a positive way. It is important, fun, and exciting to try and give research experience to many motivated and qualified students as possible." She reaches out to students in different ways ranging from putting up posters to speaking in introductory Watson classes. She welcomes students to email her to seek out opportunities to become involved with research.
Dr. Mahler explains her approach to undergraduate mentoring: "When I train new students—both undergraduate and graduate—I have a 6-8 week cell culture boot camp, where I give them homework, have them conduct mini-experiments, and assign projects... I have to be patient to be with the undergraduates as they are just starting out." One of her undergraduate student mentees, Yudi Pardo, in particular shows maturity and aptitude for research. "Yudi is a different case altogether. He is trying to recreate biological solar cells using photosystem cells. He knows how to culture cells. He even designs and performs his own research, which is part of bigger project he has been pursuing since high school. All in all, he operates on a level beyond most graduate students."
Dr. Mahler clearly has a natural aptitude for mentoring undergraduate students and helping them to pursue their interests. Not only does she teach students about work in her own field, Dr. Mahler also nurtures independence and innovation in her students. "I discovered how much I enjoyed research when I had the opportunity to become involved as an undergraduate. This is why it is so important for me to make sure the students here have plenty of chances to gain research experience."
....and her Student Mentee
Yehudah (Yudi) Pardo,
Senior Bioengineering major
Bioengineering student Yudi Pardo is developing biological solar cells that are more environmentally friendly and efficient than the silicon-based solar cells used today. His project involves finding a way to increase the stability of photosystems extracted from cyanobacterial cells. His interest in this area began when he was enrolled in a biology course at Rockland Community College as a 9th grade student. Yudi explains: "I did a paper on the biophysics of photosynthesis. I learned about the extraordinary efficiency of solar energy harvesting in photosynthetic organisms."
Before coming to Binghamton University, Yudi was homeschooled while simultaneously taking courses at Rockland Community College. As a high school student, he understood that he needed to learn a lot more before he could move ahead with his experiments. His idea involves genetic engineering, which is why he initially hit some roadblocks. "I needed to identify and characterize certain aspects of my research. My work at Rockland Community College provided useful data but I needed to understand the problem fully before I could work on a solution. It is a big challenge because I was trying to artificially manipulate a process that is extraordinarily complicated in itself."
At Binghamton, Dr. Gretchen Mahler has been a catalyst in assisting Yudi in carrying out his research. "She has made it possible for me to have access to many tools, chemicals, and equipment necessary for me to test my ideas." The interdisciplinary nature of his project has also allowed him to utilize resources elsewhere on campus. He has coordinated with Dr. Schertzer in the Biology Department as well as members of the Analytical Diagnostics Laboratory.
Research is not always easy. Yudi says, "Research is uncertain and will always have problems. But overcoming those issues and reaching a solution is always rewarding." Instead of tackling the whole problem at once, he tries to approach it in smaller stages. "I set myself up with a series of short term goals so I could better understand the problems and reach an effective solution."
Outside of the laboratory, Yudi is President of the Circus Arts Association. He is an avid juggler and found the organization his first semester at Binghamton. But research has always one of his core interests. Even from a young age, he was fascinated by it. His father is a statistician and helps teach him data analysis. Yudi comments, "Statistics is the heart of science." For the future, after being offered fully funded Ph.D. positions at several accredited universities, Yudi will be pursuing a Ph.D. at Cornell University.
Articles written by: Tasfia Rahman '14