By Ingrid Hernandez

On Friday, Feb. 17, the Biomedical Engineering Department presented the fifth annual Heart Day Symposium at FIU as part of the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Seminar Series. 

With sponsors including the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, the Florida Heart Research Foundation and One Blood, the event was an opportunity for students and faculty from around the country to learn and have discussions on the current research and challenges being addressed in cardiovascular medicine. 

“The Heart Day Symposium really shows FIU and the field of engineering at its best – connecting our cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research and educational excellence to real impact through partnership with our South Florida community,” says Dr. Darryl Dickerson, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME), describing the event’s outreach and contributions to advancements in cardiovascular research. 

Following opening remarks from Dr. John Volakis, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing, Dr. Joshua Hutcheson, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering (BME), and Dr. Dickerson, the event’s featured speaker was Dr. Christopher Chen, the William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University, Founding Director of the Biological Design Center, and member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.  

Dr. Chen presented his seminar titled “Engineering the Next Generation Models of Cardiovascular Physiology and Disease,” which discussed his team’s efforts to rebuild tissue-like structures from component cells, the things they’ve learned regarding control systems that drive tissue organization and function, and how these platforms serve as experimental models of human physiology and disease. 

“The final stage of failure for many organs is a transplant,” said Dr. Chen. “But we believe that if you can make small pieces of these tissues that can replace function in failing tissue, then we can actually prevent the need for transplants.” 

Having grown tremendously in size, this year’s Heart Day Symposium included numerous abstract presentations from FIU and other universities, including Boston University, Harvard University, and the University of Oxford, among others. 

“This started as just an idea that I had talking to Dr. Sharan Ramaswamy back in 2017 when we had some budding cardiovascular research in the department and said, ‘Let’s have a month dedicated to what we like to think about,’” says Dr. Hutcheson. “Each year, the interest has grown with more and more people coming to these events, and we’ve had more students coming to work with us that have been interested in this area.” 

Afterwards, STEM NOLA, a New Orleans-based charitable organization working to engage members of the community into the world of STEM, presented an interactive exhibit for students from Miami Coral Park Senior High School and Hialeah Gardens High School. The students are part of FLAME, a dual enrollment program between Miami Dade County Public Schools and FIU facilitated by the Center for Diversity and Student Success in Engineering and Computing (CD-SSEC).

STEM NOLA’s exhibit included sheep heart dissection and an artificial lungs construction activity for the students to complete in groups. 

Dr. Calvin Mackie, CEO and Founder of STEM NOLA and STEM Global Action, and his organization first presented at Engineering Research Center (ERC) symposium, after which the NSF-funded ERC CELL-MET invited them to participate at this year’s Heart Day Symposium. 

“To see high school students actually doing something with their hands lets us know that there’s still a thirst among high school students to be engaged,” says Dr. Mackie. “What we’ve done at STEM NOLA is we’ve curated activities that stimulate them with things that they may be interested in, which is why we started the event and got them up moving, clapping, and singing about the heart.” 

BME Interim Chair and Associate Professor Dr. Jorge Riera gave closing remarks regarding new core facilities and investments at FIU to further pursue cardiovascular research, as well as more equipment for the BME department in the near future for organoid development. 

Future projections were also presented to work together with the Miami Cardiac and Vascular Institute at Baptist Health, the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, and the MME department to further cardiovascular research. 

The winning abstract posters this year were “EGFR Inhibition Alters Caveolin-1 Trafficking and Prevents Vascular Calcification in Vitro,” which won 1st place and was presented by Sophie Ashbrook; “Mechanical Stretch Influences the Calcifying Potential of Caveolin-1-Dependent Extracellular Vesicles From Vascular Smooth Muscle Cells,” winning 2nd place and which was presented by Mohammad Shaver; and “Biomanufacturing Aligned Cardiac Tissues with Embedded Vasculature” winning 3rd place and which was presented by Paul Stankey. 

To close the day, the Heart Day Symposium had a panel discussion, which included Dr. Eric Griggs focusing on community health and medicine, Claudia Correa, a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Nutritionist and a certified Health and Wellness Coach by Wellcoaches on behalf of the Florida Heart Research Foundation, Associate Dean of FIU’s University Graduate School Dr. Lidia Kos, Dr. Mackie, and Dr. Dickerson. During their panel, the guests answered questions regarding their careers and what led them to pursuing cardiovascular research. 

For next year’s Heart Day Symposium, plans are underway to grow its community outreach area outside of researchers at FIU to promote more general awareness on cardiovascular health and cardiovascular research. 

“What we’d really like to do, especially as we get more high school groups involved, integrate this event with other things we’re doing like the Florida Heart Research Foundation-funded summer research program to bring in pre-college students who are interested in cardiovascular research, and then recruit some of these students to FIU to perform research at the undergraduate level, and perhaps some of these students will even stay for graduate school,” says Dr. Hutcheson. 

“It can become this program where we reach students early and get them interested in cardiovascular research and they could be the ones to help solve clinical problems associated with cardiovascular disease.”