Chem-E to BME - Betre's Path to Graduate School

March 15, 2004

Helawe BetreFor soft-spoken New Yorker Helawe Betre, biomedical engineering research offers just the right amount of predictability vs. surprise to keep him intrigued for a lifetime."Certainly there are frustrations with experiments that don’t go as planned or that just puzzle me, but that’s the challenge and why I’m in the field," said Helawe, who emigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia as a teenager. "You think carefully designed experiments are going to produce certain results, and you get something else entirely. Then you spend months trying to figure out what that means. It’s wonderful."

Helawe has always liked applied sciences, and was attracted to chemical engineering as an undergraduate student at City College of New York. "I always knew I wanted to work in industrial setting with diverse group of professionals, and engineering seemed a logical choice," he said.

During his junior year, Helawe began exploring career options through student internships. He worked at Kraft Foods and the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, where an interest in biomedical engineering was sparked.

At the hospital, "I saw first hand how engineers could contribute to medical science, and I found that very intriguing," said Helawe.

Within 6 months, Helawe had chosen his life’s calling. "Biomedical engineering is a field where I can contribute for the next 40 years," he said.

Set on pursuing research in orthopedic biomaterials and tissue engineering and encouraged by his mentor at the hospital, Helawe began looking at university research labs for graduate school opportunities that matched his interests.

Helawe BetreDuke stood out both for its orthopedics research, and because he could immediately immerse himself in research, said Helawe. He contacted Dr. Lori Setton, lead researcher at the Cartilage Mechanics and Tissue Engineering Laboratory in the Pratt School of Engineering.

"Grad school is about, among other things, finding a good fit for yourself," said Helawe, and he liked that Setton ‘went the extra mile’ through several conversations and email to help him find out what was best for him. He met other member’s of Setton’s lab and recalls that "people seemed genuinely happy there, which was different than what I saw at some other places."

After five years in Setton’s lab, Helawe says he feels he really did get the true impression of the lab’s group dynamics. "Dr. Setton is phenomenal in all that she gives to her students," said Helawe. "It’s incredible how much she taught me and how much dedication she has to make us better and successful researchers. Even with two small children, she does it all, including having us over to her house for meetings while she is on sabbatical."

At the time, however, prepping himself for graduate work in biomedical engineering meant taking as many bio-related courses as he could in an already packed engineering course load.

Helawe studied biomaterials and biotransport, and ‘tried to understand how biological systems and engineered systems are similar and different.’

"Even from the beginning, I found the biological course material very exciting" he recalls. "Later, when I began conducting research, I remember spending days just to get cells to attach to a surface. The system is very complex, thus full of challenges; I never get tired of exploring it. In fact, I miss it when I’m away from the lab for too long," he jokes.

Helawe worked as a teaching assistant for his first three semesters at Duke, and taught three different courses. "Teaching was both fun and unbelievably time consuming, with sometimes as many as 40 papers to grade at a time plus preparing and teaching course labs. But I liked it because it was so very different than just sitting back in class and listening to someone. It was also challenging because Duke students are very smart."

Helawe still finds himself drawn to the classroom, however, often sitting in on lectures even though his doctoral coursework was finished years ago. "I know once I leave here I won’t have as much opportunity to go to classes and learn something completely new from some one who really wants to teach me, so I can’t just pass up that advantage now," he said.

"I think in the future, I’d like to be an adjunct faculty somewhere and teach again. But for now I’m more interested in product development," he said. "I like seeing laboratory work translated into clinical applications."

Now, Helawe is collaborating with Pratt biomedical engineers Lori Setton and Ashutosh Chilkoti and Duke rheumatologist Virginia Kraus on a technique to deliver drugs to the articular joints of people with osteoarthritis. Since osteoarthritis is a disease that is localized to a single joint, many of today¹s therapies are directly injected into the affected joint. However, due to the rapid clearance of these drugs, the drugs need to be injected frequently and at high dosage. Helawe’s goal is to make these drugs therapeutically effective for osteoarthritis by prolonging their time in the affected joint.

To do that, Helawe is utilizing a novel biopolymer based drug delivery system that is engineered to create a 'drug depot'. The drug depot will then release the drug into the disease-affected joint in a sustained and controlled manner. For his dissertation proposal, Helawe proposed a model of how the drug depot would work along with experimental data and model predictions showing significant improvements in the delivery of therapeutic doses of an anti-arthritic drug. For his dissertation, Helawe is completing the experimental work to demonstrate proof of concept, and validate his model predictions, for this novel drug delivery system.

For the last three years Helawe has been a NIH fellow receiving full support for his graduate stipend and research. In 2004, Helawe was awarded a United Negro College Fund Merck Graduate Science Research Dissertation Fellowship to support the completion of his doctoral studies. The award supports Helawe’s stipend with additional funds to support the costs of supplies, equipment and travel related to the pursuit of his doctoral research. He hopes to finish the major experiments for his dissertation in the Fall of 2004.

As foreshadowing for his future career in industry, Helawe is also getting to experience the process for technology patenting. "We have submitted our inventions to the university technology transfer office and are awaiting their response in how best to protect the intellectual properties for our work. We are also preparing manuscripts on the research for publication," he said. He’s conscious of the reality that in academia, peer-reviewed papers are a critical and important venue for getting new knowledge off the bench top and into clinics for people’s benefit.

In the near future, Helawe could end up staying in academia for a postdoctoral fellowship. "I’m very open to different possibilities, but ultimately, I see myself in industry leading a diverse research team with a broad research focus."