Swetha Chandrasekar is an engineering graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in Bioengineering. She earned her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers University's School of Engineering.

Chandrasekar came to Lehigh with an extensive amount of experience, including research in tissue engineering at Drexel University, studies in bioplastics and synthetic biology with Utah State's Biological Engineering Department, bioMems and Electrical Engineering at Purdue University's Birck Nanotechnology center, and research in biochemistry and protein purification at Princeton University.

She is also the Bioengineering department's co-representative for the Lehigh Graduate Student Senate, and is the founder of the Bioengineering Student Seminar Series.

Chandrasekar's interests include nanomechanical signaling, tissue engineering, stem cells and cell-material interactions, which she discusses in an exclusive Q&A below.

Can you briefly tell us about the focus of your research and why it has captured your attention (what do you find most compelling about this area of research?)

My research focuses on cell-material interactions in the brain. I study how carbon nanotubes, commonly used for targeted delivery therapeutics, can cause alterations in the growth and development of brain stem cells. Long term, this project aspires to coax the brain to regenerate – a very involved and complicated process. This and the impact it could have on patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases is what draws me most to the work.

What’s the ultimate goal and significance of this research?

The goal is to understand how the nanotubes enter and exit stem cells, but more importantly how they alter the cells. A previous graduate student showed that these nanotubes actually increases the differentiation yield of stem cells into neurons ten-fold! This means that if we can understand and harness these mechanisms, it can potentially lead into the development of natural healing therapies to help patients with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. It’s the ambitious idea of a self-regenerating brain.

Is there anything novel to your approach? Was there anything surprising that came out of the research?

The novelty in my research really comes from the techniques used. We use confocal micro Raman spectroscopy to image the nanotubes inside neural stem cells. Raman spectroscopy is a technique that measures bond vibrations and turns them into spectral images as opposed to images you get from a typical visual microscope. This is important because nanotubes are 1 nm in diameter- too small for the typical light microscope to even see!

What is the significance of your findings thus far, or what could be the significance of potential findings?  (How do you hope your work will contribute to the field)

So far, we have concluded the way that the nanotubes enter our specific cell type. That was a big moment that has helped us focus a little bit more going forward. Now that we know the method of entry, some of what comes next (where the nanotube goes, what it does inside the cell) is a little easier to predict and test for. And along those lines, I just completed a deep dive into some of the players that are most likely involved in this process and identified a few to test that may help us draw a link between that method of entry, and the differentiation of these stem cells into neurons.

What kind of special opportunities have enhanced your graduate experience at Lehigh? 

Early on in my degree, I had the privilege of heading up the development and launch of the Bioengineering department’s first Graduate Student Seminar Series. It was a great way to build a stronger bond between the graduate students while being able to discuss research in an informal yet productive manner. In my third year, I had the chance to participate in the inaugural year of The Creative Scholarships Institute, a personal and professional development program for PhD students. It was a transformative experience that came at the perfect time in my degree, and led me to meet some of the brightest and most supportive people on campus from a range of disciplines. It opened my eyes about communicating your research to a broad audience, and the merits of bringing your authentic self into your research and your career moving forward. But, most importantly, teaching and mentoring have been the most rewarding opportunities I have had on campus, as both a teaching assistant as well as a graduate research mentor. A few of my students have continued on to become graduate students in Bioengineering themselves and there’s so much pride in seeing someone reach the potential you always knew they had, and knowing that you got to play a small part in getting them there.

What is the most significant takeaway from your Lehigh experience, thus far? 

The greatest takeaway from my graduate career is the importance of three things: curiosity, proactivity and community. Continued curiosity, always asking “Why?”, is a big driving mechanism in grad school. Stop asking why, and you’ll find yourself stuck. Proactivity is key because you really get to choose what kind of graduate career you want. Do you want to stand in the stands, or do you want to be running? I wanted to run, so as much as I can, even if I feel swamped or tired, I say yes! It’s led to me to a lot of great opportunities and great people. Finally, community is my favorite. I’ve learned that the more I focus on others, the more fulfilled I feel. There is always something to learn from each person you meet, and I’ve learned that knowledge is best shared. You’ll find that the more you collaborate with others, the more you accomplish and the more you learn along the way that you wouldn’t have if you tried to go it alone.

How have your unique experiences influenced your approach to the next steps for your research? How do you envision them guiding you beyond Lehigh?

My experience at Lehigh, from classroom to lab, has gifted me with the confidence to constantly question and improve my research. Moving forward, I hope to hold myself to a higher standard of research, and to focus on building natural therapies that support existing human systems safely and ethically. I aim to remain a lifelong learner, to carry curiosity with me as I continue my research career beyond Lehigh.