Flipping the Gender-Demographic Script

In the University’s Health Design Lab, women power 3D bioprinting efforts.

In mid-August, Dr. Kristy Shine’s bioprinting-research team at the University’s Health Design Lab (HDL) underwent a proverbial changing of the guard. Despite the transition of students involved, the shift didn’t change what makes the group an outlier in the field.

The 3D-printing field is traditionally a male-dominated one, but since the Jefferson Core Bioprinting Facility’s formal inception in 2019, Dr. Shine’s team has proudly been a predominantly female group.

It’s a source of pride not only for Dr. Shine and the female students, but also for Robert Pugliese, the HDL co-founder and director of innovation design for the University and Jefferson Health.

All-female bioprinting team
Members of the University's Health Design Lab's 3D Biolab team: (right) Devin Morrison and (left, top to bottom) Anne Hughes, Dr. Kristy Shine and Dayna DiPiero. (Photos/Robert Pugliese)

They see it not only as a positive step toward gender equity, but one that highlights what makes the lab truly special: its multidisciplinary approach. Team members come from a variety of educational backgrounds. That speaks to the very spirit of Jefferson’s Nexus Learning approach, and the University’s multi-campus strengths, which connect academic disciplines and establishes creative, collaborative, real-world learning environments for students.

Dr. Shine, an MD/PhD assistant professor of medicine at Jefferson, notes that bioprinting is an emerging field. Most of those involved are engineers, a majority of whom are male, though the numbers are catching up.

“It’s exciting to see young female students involved in science, technology and design. Having a woman industrial designer create the lab’s physical space was a welcomed opportunity,” she says, noting the demographics in STEM have jumped from less than 20 percent when she started in the field to 25 to 30 percent today.

“We have more women in pipeline STEM educational programs than ever before, but the numbers in the workforce remain underrepresented in technology-driven fields,” she continues.

What is great about our facility is the range of student backgrounds and interests, and how their interactions spark new directions and transitions into novel areas of research.” –Dr. Kristy Shine

Devin Morrison, an industrial design student, was the bioprinting team’s design consultant and first lab manager.

She drew upon her five years of experience as a welder building product tankers and container ships at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to troubleshoot during the installation and setup phase of the lab. (The bioprinting lab is located in a repurposed currency storage cage in the back of the massive bank vault, where the HDL resides in the basement of 925 Chestnut St.)

Next to join the team was Anne Hughes, a biomedical engineering student from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) who reached out to the team seeking a summer internship as she lived in the Philadelphia area. Her interest shows the diversity of academic pursuits within the team.

When Morrison transitioned to a student intern role at Jefferson’s department of orthopedic surgery, and Hughes returned to WPI, they handed the reins to Dayna DiPiero, a Jefferson biotech major currently working on her master’s with an interest in studying tissue engineering.

“We are excited Dayna is able to join us his year,” Dr. Shine says of DiPiero, who grew up in nearby Conshohocken and attended Plymouth Whitemarsh High School. “Like her predecessors, she’s incredibly talented and her collaborative nature makes her a great fit.”

All-female bioprinting team
As an industrial design student, Devin Morrison was the bioprinting team’s first lab manager.

Dr. Shine explains that the 3D Bioprinting Facility was designed to support anyone at Jefferson who is interested in applying bioprinted models in their research. The ability to print 3D structures—including cartilage, tissue and other biological substances—holds promise to study cell and tissue interactions in a manner more similar to the body, ultimately improving medical treatments for an array of ailments.

“One of the most compelling applications of bioprinting is tissue/organ development. We have a shortage of organs for transplant and people are dying on the transplant list,” Dr. Shine says. “While we as a research community have not met this need, bioprinting makes the possibility more concrete.

“As we head toward that goal, there is also great value in understanding where these models can be used in basic sciences,” she adds. “We are using bioprinted models to better understand implant design, wound healing and cancer progression. This is a better way to understand our existing therapies and design new ones.”

All-female bioprinting team
Dr. Kristy Shine has been lauded for "training the next generation of female scientists and leaders."

Currently, the lab is working on projects that examine how cancer cells migrate to bone, the relationships between bone and nerves in dental implants, and models through which blood vessels and clots could be created.

“What is great about our facility is the range of student backgrounds and interests, and how their interactions spark new directions and transitions into novel areas of research,” she says.

Pugliese also shares that Dr. Sue Menko, anatomy professor and vice chair, helped champion the acquisition of bioprinters as a Jefferson core resource, and Dr. Rose Ritts who, as executive vice president and chief innovation officer, provided support to outfit the 3D Biolab.

“The importance of representation cannot be understated. There are still huge disparities in female representation in many fields, especially traditionally male-dominated fields, such as engineering and biotechnology,” Pugliese says. “It’s amazing to have leaders like Drs. Shine, Ritts and Menko at Jefferson, training the next generation of female scientists and leaders.”

I think it’s super cool what we’re doing. It seems almost like science fiction. It’s a sci-fi fantasy for nerds. –Dayna DiPiero

For her part, DiPiero is excited about the challenges that lie ahead in a practicum placement recommended by a professor this summer, and which meshes with what she wants to do with biomedical engineering.

“Everything fell into place quite nicely,” says DiPiero, who was first exposed to the lab when she learned of students making swabs for COVID testing earlier this year. “I think it’s super cool what we’re doing. It seems almost like science fiction. It’s a sci-fi fantasy for nerds.”

Though she only had three days of overlap with her predecessors, she says they’re already helping her if she calls with any issues. As for the all-female nature of the team, she appreciates Dr. Shine’s mentorship.

“When you’re in many STEM fields, you don’t come into contact with many women,” DiPiero says. “Dr. Shine knows what it’s like to be a woman in the field, and as an ER physician. It’s about what people think when they see you versus what you really are in the company. I’m getting that from her, and it’s very useful, because as women, we all have to deal with these same things.”

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