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The Relentless Pursuit of Knowledge

Undergraduate alum Vincent Miao continues to expand his biomedical knowledge through the Harvard-MIT Medical Engineering/Medical Physics PhD program

For most people, hearing about research associated with the term “Frankenstein” may trigger some raised eyebrows. That’s not the case for Vincent Miao, who helped create and study novel biomaterials that share the name of the famous character during his time as a student at Duke University. 

As an undergraduate in Duke’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Miaoworked in BME Chair Ashutosh Chilkoti’s lab, where he focused on bio-inspired polymers that demonstrated shape-shifting abilities in response to temperature changes. Dubbed “Frankenstein Proteins,” these biomaterials could solidify into a scaffold at body temperature to promote tissue growth, making them useful for tissue engineering and wound healing.

“My research experience was definitely the highlight of my time in the department, and really at Duke as a whole,” says Miao. “I think it was really beneficial for me to see up-close how graduate students and post-doctoral students approach problems. That helped me formulate how I could approach my own research.”

In addition to his work in the Chilkoti lab, Miao was also able to participate in the Pratt Fellows Research Program, a competitive research experience that allows students to pursue research projects for course credit. As a Pratt Fellow, Miao explored more diverse polymer designs to create other complex and useful materials, ultimately winning Duke’s Helmholtz Research Award in recognition of his work.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from the Duke in the spring of 2018, Miao opted to continue his education, moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend the Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) program, a PhD program jointly offered through Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Each year, nearly 30 percent of Duke BME graduating seniors opt to continue their education and pursue advanced degree in prestigious universities around the country. For Miao, the Harvard-MIT graduate program presented an opportunity to hone the engineering skills he had developed during his four years in Duke BME.

“The goal of this program is to create researchers that have a more comprehensive understanding of clinical needs and opportunities for translational medicine,” says Miao. “We take pre-clinical classes with med students so we’ll understand how physicians approach treatment options, which helps inform what we’ll do in a lab and how we can design tech that can one day make its way to the bedside. There’s so much happening in biomedical engineering—everywhere you look you have a chance to make an impact on human health.”

Now, Miao is expanding that knowledge base as he collaborates with new colleagues in the MEMP program and rotates through research labs. In addition to the medical courses through Harvard Medical School, Miao is also taking a variety of engineering courses at MIT, with focuses ranging from machine learning to drug delivery. As he progresses through the program, he’ll also spend 12 weeks rotating through a Boston-based hospital––similar to third-year medical school students––so he can get a firsthand look at issues and needs in different specialties.

“There are an incredible number of biomedical challenges out there for us to solve in order to become better as a society,” says Miao. “Duke BME helped foster a sense of curiosity in me and other students, where we’re always looking to see what’s on the horizon. I’ve tried to bring that approach with me to grad school, where I’m excited to explore every opportunity that’s available to me.”