Bioelectronic modulation with porous and monolithic carbon membranes

How social challenges affect research, but can lead to new insights, better planning and help develop new bioelectronic devices.

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Friday, March 13 2020, we received the initial decision on the manuscript - positive responses from the Reviewers and the Editor with suggested revisions. The entire team mobilized, eager to work; plans were made, materials prepared, and experiments scheduled. In that first day, we exchanged almost 100 emails. Everything was going great…except it wasn’t. Over the weekend, the first rumors of a coronavirus lockdown spread through the University. On Monday, the department building already felt a little empty. By mid-week, half of the facilities had shut down. On March 21, Illinois entered complete lockdown and the University together with it.

I was out of the lab and scheduled to work from home. At first, this new situation seemed like a disaster for an experimentalist. I obsessed for the first couple of days - “How I can do research if I cannot generate any data?” or “I will run out of work in a week!”. Thankfully my gloomy expectations were soon dissolved; I was in possession of a large amount of data awaiting processing and many important research articles “saved to read later”. Once we had derived all the obvious interpretations from our data, my advisor, Prof. Bozhi Tian, suggested that we look for unexpected connections. This endeavor not only showed our old data in a new light, but revealed new directions for future research.[1] I prepared and optimized my designs and fabrication strategy for the carbon membranes, and I closed many loopholes in our initial interpretations of the results.

Twelve weeks passed in the blink of an eye and the University began to reopen. Soon I was facing another challenge – shift work! Not only was I not used to it, but my access to the research facilities was highly limited. Moreover, my colleague Dr. Menahem Rotenberg was leaving to start his independent career in a couple of weeks. Dr. Rotenberg’s expertise was critical for many of the bioelectronic experiments so I had to undertake expedited training on many techniques. These challenges made me realize the importance of two things: a clear work plan and a balanced time schedule. Daily workplans were essential to maximally utilize available shift times. I was surprised how much data I could generate when my distractions (such as my daily pilgrimage to the coffee shop) were kept to a minimum. Devoted to benchwork on the morning shift, I was destined to work on data analysis from home. The best decision I made was to schedule this analysis for the evening. The majority of my early afternoon was then open for relaxing, physical exercise, and calls to family and friends. This structured balance of work and out-of-work time allowed me to maintain energy and positivity, and also make efficient research progress.

In this project, that spanned both pre- and post-lockdown research, we developed porous carbon-based bioelectronic devices with hierarchical architecture and micro-supercapacitor-like design. [2] We applied materials, strategies and designs frequently used in energy research to new bioelectronics purposes. Our self-assembly approach yields materials with graded porosity that form soft interfaces with which cells preferentially interact. We patterned the material into devices for functional bioelectronic interventions in cells, tissues and organs. Our research demonstrates how design paradigms from one field can support new methodologies and applications in another, and will stimulate more similar developments.

While working on this project, I also identified new avenues for future research. I realized the importance of understanding biological function on a cellular and subcellular level, especially in the context of subthreshold stimulations and directing development of cardiomyocytes in cell and tissue cultures. I am now working on new methods for bioelectronic stimulation with the goal of developing an entire system for functional investigations. My envisioned system will autonomously train and analyze biological structures with the help of techniques from the emerging fields of machine vision and machine intelligence. The challenge is formidable, but as I learned this year, we can achieve our goals even in the most unforeseen circumstances.

[1] "Quiet Brainstorming: Expecting the Unexpected." A. Prominski, and B. Tian, Matter 3.3 (2020): 594-597.
[2] “Micelle-enabled self-assembly of porous and monolithic carbon membranes for bioelectronic interfaces.” Y. Fang, * A. Prominski,* M. Y. Rotenberg,* L. Meng,* H. Acarón Ledesma,* Y. Lv, J. Yue, E. Schaumann, J. Jeong, N. Yamamoto, Y. Jiang, B. Elbaz, W. Wei, B. Tian, Nature Nanotechnology, (2020).

Aleksander Prominski

Graduate Student, University of Chicago