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BME grad student finds right fit in microfabrication

Written By: Tom Ziemer


As if memorizing anatomy terms weren’t already enough of a mental workout, Sam Alkmin faced another layer of difficulty in his biomechanics class during the fall 2013 semester: He had to learn the names of the various parts in English, rather than his native Portuguese.

With a little help from his professor, Darryl Thelen, and the rest of his instructors, Alkmin persevered and, eventually, flourished during his one-year stay at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an international exchange student from Brazil.

 Sam Alkmin
Sam Alkmin

And his experience left such a positive impression that he returned two years later to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering.

“I really like Madison. The combination of the lakes, the community and the university is great,” says Alkmin, who’s entering the fifth year of his PhD in fall 2020. “I felt really, really welcomed by all the professors and the whole community. That helped a lot.”

As a member of Professor Paul Campagnola’s lab, Alkmin uses imaging and 3D microfabrication techniques to create models that mimic the structure of collagen fibers within the extracellular matrix that surrounds cells, allowing him to investigate the role their physical form plays in the spread of ovarian cancer.

In May 2020, Alkmin published a paper in the journal Cancers in which he and collaborators showed collagen fiber morphology exerted greater influence on the interactions between cells and the extracellular matrix than cell type (normal vs. ovarian cancer) did. The work underscores how alterations to the micro-architecture of collagen fibers are part of the process of cell migration—metastasis—from tumors to other parts of the body. Alkmin was also first author of a similar paper published in December 2019 in the journal Acta Biomaterialia.

By 3D printing more representative models, called scaffolds, of collagen in different states—normal and high-risk tissue or benign and cancerous tumors—Alkmin and other researchers in Campagnola’s lab are creating platforms that can sharpen drug testing.

“The fact that I am studying a disease that really impacts society right now, if my research can somehow help develop better biomarkers or better therapies, that’s the main thing,” says Alkmin, who’s also fabricating models to help other graduate students researching pancreatic cancer and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. “That idea is fantastic.”

Alkmin originally came to UW-Madison from Brazil’s Federal University of ABC through a since-shuttered exchange program called Science Without Borders. While looking at different universities, the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s undergraduate design curriculum caught his eye—and the hands-on program lived up to his expectations when he arrived.

“I really liked that process. We were able to have a client, we had a problem to solve, and we as a group were working with a specific budget to solve that problem,” says Alkmin, who helped develop a prototype of an ultrasound probe holder for cardiac exams.

But he also wanted to supplement his coursework with laboratory research. After perusing the research of biomedical engineering faculty members, Alkmin emailed Campagnola, who had an opening for the following summer.

“I had a little bit of experience with regular 3D printing already, but not like this,” says Alkmin, who quickly took to the work.

And when Campagnola began recruiting Alkmin to return for graduate school, it wasn’t a hard sell.

“I was pretty set on coming back to UW,” says Alkmin, who’s leaning toward pursuing a research and development role in either the medical imaging or biotechnology industry, ideally in the Madison area, after he completes his PhD. “I really liked the environment here. Winters are way colder than Brazil, for sure. But I really like the university and the whole experience.”