Jose Rivera: Measuring Forces Inside Cells

4/27/20 Pratt School of Engineering

A profile of an undergraduate engineering research fellow at Duke University.

Jose Rivera: Measuring Forces Inside Cells
  • Jose RiveraMajor: Biomedical Engineering
  • Advisor: Brenton Hoffman, Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Pratt Fellows Project: Determining the Molecular Mechanisms of Mechanotransduction

What drew you to the Pratt Research Fellows Program?

I think the main reason I wanted to become a Pratt Research Fellow was to complete a research project in the Hoffman Lab. It’s exciting to be a part of a research team, especially at one of the top universities in the United States. The program is also helpful because it provides compensation over the summer, and it’s nice to have that guarantee that I can be paid for doing research that I’m interested in.

What is your research project about?

The Hoffman Lab studies mechanobiology and mechanosensing, and that involves measuring how physical forces can shape and control cells. The way that Dr. Hoffman explained it to me is that we’re trying to look at medicine from a physical approach rather than from a chemical approach. My project involves developing different types of force sensors for the lab so we can measure these physical forces.

So these forces can either involve tension, which is stretching the cells, or compression, which squishes the cells. I’m specifically measuring tension and these forces are pretty small—on the level of piconewtons. It’s important to understand and measure these forces so you can get a better understanding of what’s going on in the body and use that new understanding to solve biological problems.

What drew you to this area of research?

The class that first drew me to my current research was BME 244, where I learned about how different muscles worked to control blood flow. The faster the blood flows the more the surrounding muscles dilate, and those mechanisms are understood to be a result of the endothelial cells measuring and reacting to how fast the blood flows inside these blood vessels. I learned that Dr. Hoffman’s lab deals with how the cells understand these forces and I thought that would be a cool thing to learn more about. When Dr. Hoffman was explaining his approach of looking at physical things for medicine I thought that it was something that hasn’t really been widely explored, which is exciting to me.

What has your Pratt Research Fellows experience involved?

The beginning of the program is structured so you’re mainly working on your project with your supervisor, which could also involve a graduate student that you’d work with. It’s really fun over the summer because you get to spend more time with other Pratt Fellows, and the administration also arranges cool events that help you bond with the other Pratt Fellows in your class. You bond over the research as well, and it’s fun to tell other people about the work you’re doing and learn about the projects they’re working on in their other labs, and you can sometimes even set up collaborations.

Into your senior year, over the fall and spring semesters, it’s a rush to the finish to get everything ready for the final presentations. You get to present all the work that you spent roughly a year and a half doing, which is really exciting.

Do you have any advice for students that would be interested in becoming a Pratt Fellow?

I recommend that any interested students start looking into labs as soon as possible. I think it’s important to get at least some type of prior experience before you join a lab so you know that you’re going to like the research in the lab, and so your principal investigator will also have an idea about your work ethic and how you can work together. I also recommend doing a little bit of “research” (pun intended) and email people in different labs about what you can do. The process of getting into a lab can be difficult, but once you’re there things start to get easier.

How do you think your experience as a Pratt Fellow has helped you as you prepare for life after graduation?

My goal after graduation is to go to medical school, and the Pratt Fellows program has been helpful as I try to achieve that. It helps give you important research experience that medical schools are looking for, which gives you that leg up on your competition. I think it’s valuable to say that you were involved in a program at Duke that gets you involved in biomedically relevant research and allows you to present your results to both your peers and faculty.

Pratt Research Fellows