BME Graduate Student Wins NSF Research Fellowship

Dewi Harjanto (BME) is one of four BU students to receive this year’s NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
Dewi Harjanto (BME) is one of four BU students to receive this year’s NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

The National Science Foundation has awarded biomedical engineering graduate student Dewi Harjanto a 2010 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. She is one of four Boston University students—the only one in the College of Engineering—to receive the prestigious award, which provides a $30,000 annual stipend and $10,500 cost-of-education allowance for up to three years to outstanding graduate students deemed likely to contribute significantly to the advancement of science and engineering in the U.S. Past fellows include several Nobel Prize winners and industry and government leaders.

“Dewi is a student every professor dreams of having in his or her lab,” said Assistant Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, Medicine), her advisor since 2008, when both were based at the University of Texas in Austin. “Not only is she exceptionally smart and academically gifted, but she also singlehandedly organized our lab to ensure that we were up and running in just a month after moving to Boston last fall. This is a well-deserved honor for a very talented student.”

Supported by the fellowship, Harjanto plans to continue research focused on improving our understanding of the complex mechanical, biochemical and structural signals emerging from the local environment of tumors—signals that collectively contribute to cancer cells’ ability to inflict harm by moving from the tumor site to distant locations of the body. Known as metastasis, this process is responsible for nearly all cancer-related deaths.

“Understanding how cells move is a complex, interesting, and as-yet unsolved problem whose solution could provide a lot of insight not only into how cancers spread, but also how organs form and wounds heal,” said Harjanto.

In her proposal to the NSF, entitled “Quantifying Individual and Collective Cell Motility in 3D Environments,” Harjanto observed that while cell migration is critical to the progression of tumor metastasis and other diseases, nearly all cell migration studies have focused on single cells on two-dimensional slides, inadequately representing what really happens in the body. She proposed a set of experiments aimed at producing a clearer, three-dimensional picture of how human cancer cells migrate in vivo.

To help produce that picture, Harjanto plans to systematically evaluate how the cells’ properties—and those of the extracellular matrix through which they navigate independently and in groups—synergistically affect their motion in 3D environments. She’ll use her experimental results to develop and validate computational models developed in parallel in the lab, all in pursuit of a systems-level understanding of individual and collective cell migration in 3D environments.