Class of 2021: Ryan Friedman awarded NSF GRF to study bioengineering
Ryan Friedman describes the human body as a constantly changing system unique to every person. He is passionate about pursuing a career in biomedical engineering with a focus on studying ways to resolve complex problems that arise in the human body.
A senior in the materials science and engineering department, Friedman has received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship that will help him reach his goals. Next fall, he plans to pursue a doctorate in bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
Friedman knew at an early age that he wanted to learn about biomedical engineering when his grandfather was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He credits an early clinical trial with extending his grandfather’s life, thus giving Ryan more time to get to know him.
“I was able to see the positive affect of scientific innovation,” Ryan said, and this cemented his desire to pursue a career in which he could help people in similar ways.
At Virginia Tech, he chose to major in materials science and engineering after attending an engineering open house. An MSE presentation about a student competition caught his attention. This national student competition invites students to design and manufacture a small geodesic dome that is subjected to several thousand pounds of pressure. While this metallurgy-related project had no connection to biomedicine, it convinced Ryan that MSE was the right major for his undergraduate degree, and he quickly discovered Dr. Abby Whittington’s biomaterials lab.
“When Ryan first came to meet me as a sophomore, I was immediately impressed with his enthusiasm for biomedical research,” Whittington said. “He asked great questions and was able to take suggestions and criticisms to heart.”
“Ryan began working in my lab developing gelatin nanoparticles to deliver peptides,” Whittington said. “He soon mastered the technique and began teaching the newer undergrads in the lab how to make and characterize the finished product. Ryan has been a major asset to the lab by not only leading efforts in his senior design team but also training other students in a variety of techniques. He is welcoming and supportive of everyone in the lab.”
Besides lab work, Friedman pursued his passion through an internship with Johnson and Johnson where he worked as a product development intern in research and development on a combination products platform. He joined a wide-ranging team of engineers working to design a method to incorporate delivery of medicine into a contact lens that would be viable and affordable. That experience solidified Ryan’s career vision to close the sizeable gap that exists between innovative lab-based technologies and what could become an economically scalable product.
For Ryan, a Ph.D. offers the opportunity to learn valuable project management and communication skills necessary to manage a team of chemists and development engineers, in addition to developing the critical thinking skills of a researcher.
He’s finishing out his time in MSE working on a senior design project focused on toothbrushes. More specifically, his team is studying how to design bristles that biodegrade in water in a timely manner. He pointed out that most people think biodegradable means the toothbrush handle will degrade. However, the bristles are the major issue. “The nylon filaments can get tangled up in recycling machinery,” Ryan said. His team has been developing a material that will have the strength of nylon bristles but that will degrade completely in water within one to three months after the toothbrush is discarded.
Friedman gave high compliments to Professor Whittington, who he describes as “nothing short of amazing.” In his experience, Whittington proved to be the most understanding professor he has ever met.
“She is tremendously knowledgeable about what we work on,” in addition to being focused on encouraging the students to pursue personal and career development. Ryan credits her mentorship with fostering his success as a student and future scientist.
Update Summer 2021: "Biodegradable Polysaccaride Blends to Replace Synthetic Toothbrush Bristles" senior design project was selected as the 2021 Best Project in the MSE department. In addition, the project was submitted to the 2021 ASM Materials Undergraduate Design Competition and received second place, an award that carries a $1500 prize and a plaque. Congratulations to team members Thomas Canfield, Ryan Friedman, Sara McBride, and Kaavya Nimmakayala!