Stories

Academics & Research

Instilling Entrepreneurial Skills in Engineers

The School of Engineering is placing emphasis on teaching entrepreneurial skills to students, and has joined the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN), a collaborative effort of more than 20 colleges and universities nationwide.

Think Outside the Box: Widener Encourages Engineers to Think Like Entrepreneurs
By Sam Starnes
Chas Evans, an engineering major with a minor in business, is leading creation of a campus entrepreneurs Club with the help of Vicki brown, an engineering professor and chair of civil engineering.
Joe Viscuso '73 had been working as a civil engineer for six years when he launched his own engineering firm in Chester County.

The year was 1979, a down economic year marked by soaring energy prices and hefty inflation. A friend he ran into didn't offer much encouragement. "He told me, 'You couldn't be starting at a worse time,'" Viscuso said. But Viscuso's firm—initially called Brandywine Engineering Consultants—took hold in spite of the lagging economy and grew to employ 50 people. It eventually merged with a larger firm and grew to 650 employees, before being acquired by Stantec, an international engineering corporation traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Viscuso, a member of Widener College's first graduating class, is now a vice president with Stantec. He said the entrepreneurial urge to start a business in a down economy turned out to be a good decision although it ran counter to the logic of many at the time. "It's like jumping rope," he said. "It's easiest to jump in when the rope is at the bottom."

Jim McCarthy '92 took a similar leap when he started his business, McCarthy Engineering Associates, in Reading, Pa., in the year 2000. "It took my entire life savings and then some," he said.

But McCarthy's firm grew and was ranked fifth in the nation by CE News among small firms with fewer than 100 employees. An entrepreneurial drive is something McCarthy said he was born with. "I always wanted to own my own business," he said. "I had a lawn care business from the time I was 12 years old until I went to college."


Although McCarthy and Viscuso are two Widener engineering graduates who have demonstrated entrepreneurial success, a growing number of engineering educators and industry leaders say that too many engineers lack entrepreneurial skills and business savvy. Dr. Timothy J. Kriewall, an engineering graduate of the University of Michigan who is president emeritus of Wisconsin Lutheran College, said this goes back to a failure of colleges to teach entrepreneurial thinking. "If we teach only math and problem solving, we are going to lose," Kriewall said. "It's not about solving problems—engineers have to create and innovate."

Kriewall, now program director for the Kern Engineering Educational Network (KEEN), visited Widener in December as the university began its association with the collaboration of more than 20 universities. KEEN has agreed to help with grant money and inclusion in the program that pools knowledge on developing an entrepreneurial curricula in engineering education. "We influence 18,000 college students a year," Kriewall said.

Although entrepreneurship is the objective, not all engineering students should expect to follow in the paths of Viscuso and McCarthy. Many might become "intrapreneurs," a term used to describe innovators who work within companies and bring a creative approach to their position. "This program is not about entrepreneurship," Kriewall said of the KEEN Network. "It's about introducing an entrepreneurial mindset.

Dr. Vicki Brown, a Widener associate professor and chair of the civil engineering program, said forthcoming enhancements to the engineering curriculum will emphasize entrepreneurial skills. "Our engineering students need to be educated in technical fundamentals—but they need more than just that," she said. "They need business acumen. They need customer awareness."

Brown is working on a plan to inject an entrepreneurial skills education into engineering courses, starting with Engineering Techniques, a freshman year course that will address product innovation and the role of engineers in society. Courses in subsequent years will integrate basic business concepts and cover commercialization of projects, and faculty will undergo KEEN training on best practices for developing an entrepreneurial mindset with students. All of these changes have the goal in mind of creating a well-rounded engineer. "We need a breed of engineer who is more than just a technocrat," Brown said.

One Widener engineering student is already seeking a blend f engineering and entrepreneurial education. Chas Evans, a junior civil engineering major who is earning a minor in business, said the reason he came to Widener is that it was the only school that would let him major in engineering, minor in business, and play football. A backup offensive lineman, he is taking ten extra courses to earn a minor in business. He said he has heard from employers that when they are looking to hire an engineer, many throw out resumes that don't have any business education. "Employers want engineers with business knowledge," he said. Evans is helping to lead an effort to start an Entrepreneurs Club on campus that will combine engineering and business students. Plans for the club are to take on a project and to invite a series of speakers who will come to campus to talk about entrepreneurial issues. "We want to get business and engineering students working together," Evans said.

After graduation Evans wants to go into real estate development and work on building new buildings and restoring old ones. "That's where I see engineering and business intersecting. You have to make sure from an engineering standpoint that a project can be done. And you have to from a business standpoint make sure it will be profitable."

As for alumni, McCarthy and Viscuso both applaud the School of Engineering's move toward integrating entrepreneurial skills into engineering education. McCarthy said that entrepreneurial spark is something he looks for in engineers he hires—he doesn't always find it. "Engineers don't think of things from an entrepreneurial standpoint," he said, adding that two-thirds of his staff are engineers who also need to think about solutions from a business standpoint. "It's important to integrate these skills into all classes."

Viscuso, who has taught Land Development to Widener seniors as an adjunct faculty member for eight years, said he emphasizes what he has learned in the field about project management and business. He said he often tells students that they have to think outside the box. "You've got to be more creative," Viscuso said. "Don't just sit in your cube and think that this is the way it has to be done."


ABOUT KEEN: The Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN) is an initiative launched by the family foundation of Robert and Patricia Kern, founders of Generac Power Systems, one of the world's largest independent manufacturers of complete engine-driven generator systems. Widener is one of 21 colleges and universities nationwide participating in the program begun in 2005. For more on the Kern Family Foundation, visit www.KFFDN.org, and for the KEEN, visit www.keennetwork.com.

A Big Battle at the Smallest Levels

A Widener biomedical engineering professor’s research focuses on the use of nanoparticles to save lives in the fight against breast cancer.

A Big Battle At the Smallest Levels
A Widener biomedical engineering professor is fighting the nation's second largest killer – breast cancer – with a tiny weapon: nanoparticles.

By Jennifer Dublisky
Dr. Bin Wang, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has a $450,000 grant to support his research into using nanoparticles to fight breast cancer cells that have become "chemo-resistant."
Annamarie Widener will never forget the second day of 2001.

While celebrating the New Year with a girlfriend, Annamarie, then 38, leaned over a table to hear her friend more clearly when she felt a lump in her breast. A regular at giving herself monthly check-ups, the size of the lump alarmed her. She scheduled a visit to the doctor. Two days later he told her, "You are too young to have breast cancer. You don't have a family history – it's probably a cyst." He sent her home with the recommendation to take vitamin E.

Still wary, Annamarie sought a second opinion from a general surgeon a friend recommended. The surgeon scheduled an immediate biopsy and removal. A week later doctors revealed that she had breast cancer rated as Stage 2B/3 estrogen negative Her2/Neu; level 3+—the highest level of this form of cancer. "His immediate reaction saved my life," said Annamarie. "The cancer would have taken over my whole body within months."

Doctors believed her aggressive form of cancer would not respond well to a standard chemotherapy regimen, so they prescribed an aggressive course of treatment using multiple methods. Thus began 18 months combining chemotherapy, radiation, and a new drug known as Herceptin. With her two children—Jim, then a junior in high school, and Deanna, in eighth grade— Annamarie, a Yardley, Pa., resident who works in payroll management, had a challenging path as a wife and mother. She persevered through her treatments trying to keep everything as normal as possible for her family.

Despite the severity of her breast cancer, the treatment went well but the threat of reoccurrence was always with her. "You still have the fear that it could happen and you think about it everyday," she said. "Soon after my treatments my doctor asked me to build a five-year plan for my family —'in case.'"

Part of that plan was getting her children through college. She and her son Jim, now a 2006 graduate of Widener, made their first visit to the Main Campus shortly after she finished chemotherapy treatments. "I remember visiting Widener University and thinking that my son would be safe," she said. "It offered a family atmosphere where all of the professors would get to know him. It comforted me knowing that he would be receiving an education."

Cases like Annamarie's are far too prevalent. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women—one in eight women will develop breast cancer—and the second leading cause of cancer death for women. The impact of the disease has been felt by others in the Widener University community. Dr. Barbara Kay Toner, 52, of Mount Laurel, N.J., died of breast cancer shortly after completing her doctoral work in Widener's Center for Education in 2010. In November, Rebecca L. (Caltabiano) Cancila, 38, of Mullica Hill, N.J., a 1996 nursing graduate, died after battling the disease.
Breast cancer cells that become resistant to chemotherapy leave patients with no viable treatment options. Photo credit: CNri / Photo researchers, inc


Developing treatments that cure breast cancer is the goal of Dr. Bin Wang, a Widener University assistant professor of biomedical engineering who joined the faculty in 2011. Wang's research is supported by a $450,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation for a three-year project he started while teaching at Temple University in 2010. His research strives to develop a drug delivery system to overcome resistance to chemotherapy in breast cancer patients. Chemotherapy, the most common treatment for breast cancer, is given intravenously and is known to be very toxic, causing severe side effects. Some patients can become "chemoresistant," meaning that once a tumor is treated with the drug, it builds resistance and therefore cannot be treated effectively with chemotherapy again. "The scary truth is that there is nothing currently available to breast cancer survivors who have to face recurrence and become chemoresistant," he said.

Wang and his research team are currently growing cells to treat with chemotherapy so that they become resistant. He will then use nanoparticles—microscopic particles—to deliver drugs to the cells. (Nanotechnology is the use of particles consisting of a small number of atoms or molecules—a scale normally measured in nanometers, or billionths, of a meter.) "We always deal with something we can see; however, there are different phenomena that can happen when you study something so small," he said. "In my research, I have found that an injection of medication through nanoparticles goes through cells into the tissue and can stay in the blood for a long time, protecting the drug while traveling to the affected cell."

Currently, doctors use liposomes—essentially tiny, manmade bubbles—which are filled with chemotherapy drugs and then injected into the body to identify the tumors and release the drug. The downside of this method is that drugs often damage other parts of one's body, specifically "good cells," said Dr. Curtis Miyamoto, chairperson and professor of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Temple University School of Medicine. "There is always a race to get more chemotherapy into the cancer without hurting the person too much, which is why the potential for this kind of delivery system is very great."

Initial response rates of breast cancer to chemotherapy are often encouraging; however, a majority of patients often see tumors progress seven to ten months later. "These cancer cells eventually become resistant to normal doses of traditional chemotherapy and continue to grow and ultimately kill the patient," Wang said.

If the cancer is discovered late, recurrence can become more common in breast cancer survivors, causing many affected cells to become resistant. Wang said once a cell is resistant, chemotherapy is no longer effective and the five-year survival drops to well below 50 percent of patients. A targeted delivery system like the one Wang is proposing would be more effective and not only benefit those who become resistant, but also anyone being treated with chemotherapy. "Ideally in 20 years we will be able to inject nanoparticles and kill all tumor cells," Wang said. "They will be like small robots in our bodies defending our good cells, and only harmful cells will be destroyed."

Dr. Sabitha Pillai-Friedman, assistant professor of human sexuality at Widener and a certified sex therapist, is a breast cancer survivor who speaks frequently with other survivors. She said that most breast cancer survivors suffer from anxiety about recurrence. "This fear can be more intense for women who do not have a lot of treatment options," she said. "A targeted multi-drug delivery system to overcome chemo resistance, like the one that Dr. Wang is working on, would be a gift to women with those types of cancers."

Pillai-Friedman believes that a targeted delivery system of chemotherapy can benefit all breast cancer survivors. "Most patients that I treat in my practice are emotionally devastated by the side-effects of chemotherapy," she said. "Side effects such as hair loss, drastic weight changes, and skin problems contribute to altered self-image. This method of delivery could reduce side effects, subsequently reducing the emotional,psychosexual, and relationship problems that breast cancer patients and their partners face."

Miyamoto also sees great potential in Wang's research. "This is going to make a difference in people's lives," he said. "The way we treat cancer will change because of people like Dr. Wang. He is trying to make a difference that will impact the future."

Annamarie, now an 11-year survivor, is in complete remission. After she made it through the first five years and beat the statistics, she revisited her five-year plan. "I am fortunate not to have had a recurrence, since the likelihood that I should have was high," she said. "In the beginning every morning you wake up thinking I'm a cancer patient—you realize you are not immortal, but the further you go away the easier it becomes."

Her son Jim vividly recalls his mother walking onto Memorial Field at Widener for his commencement in May 2006. "I considered myself lucky to have my mom at graduation after everything that she had gone through," he said.

Annamarie said attending his commencement "signified two things: My son was a college graduate and ... I survived."

Bettering Lives

Biomedical engineering research at Widener improves the quality of life for people with swallowing disorders.Dr. Mark Nicosia, a Widener faculty member since 2004, has been researching swallowing disorders since 1997, and has made great strides in the field.

Improving Quality of Life Through Biomedical Engineering
Widener Engineering Professor's Research Impacts Common Medical Disorder

By Jennifer Dublisky
Widener Associate Professor Dr. Mark Nicosia is assisted in his study of swallowing difficulties by senior mechanical engineering major Michelle Martelli.
Most of us don't think twice when we take a drink of water or swallow a bite of food, but for many it is not easy.

A disorder causing severe difficulty in swallowing—commonly known as dysphagia—is estimated to affect up to 30 percent of people above the age of 65, and 50 percent of nursing home patients. Though most common among older people, individuals of all ages can suffer from dysphagia, especially those who have been diagnosed with a stroke or nervous system disorder.

Strides in managing this difficulty in swallowing through biomedical research have been made by Dr. Mark Nicosia, associate professor and chair of Widener's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Explaining the intricacies of his work is not simple. "It's not your normal family dinner conversation," he said. "When people find out about my research and start asking questions, they will learn that even though it seems like such a simple process, it is actually quite complex from both a medical and mechanical perspective."

What does it mean to suffer from dysphagia? It is a struggle to swallow—which could occur in the mouth, throat or esophagus (the tube connecting the throat to the stomach). Currently, Nicosia focuses on the head and neck region—known as the oropharynx. "Swallowing disorders in this region can be caused by an illness or traumatic event, such as a stroke or cancer that affects the tongue and throat muscles," Nicosia said. "These muscles move substances from the mouth, through the upper digestive system to the stomach."

When patients are unable to swallow, doctors and nurses may need to insert a feeding tube. Avoiding this option by successfully treating swallowing disorders is a goal of experts working in this field, said Renee Silo Bricker, a speech language pathologist who clinically treats patients with this condition. "Though a feeding tube may be one option, the ability to continue eating would give the patient a stronger quality of life," Bricker said.

Nicosia, a Widener faculty member since 2004 who also conducts biomedical research on technologies to improve cardiovascular surgeries and suturing in Caesarian section operations, has been researching oropharyngeal swallowing disorders since 1997. "I wanted to be involved with real issues," he said. "I had heard stories of people who wouldn't go out to eat because of the underlying embarrassment of the struggle with eating."

After focusing early research on the esophagus, he moved to address mechanical issues of swallowing in the head and neck, as many of the therapies used to treat swallowing disorders in this area are mechanical in nature.

He hopes to develop modifications based on understanding how the propulsive forces applied by the tongue lead to successful swallowing. Much of Nicosia's research is based on different age constituencies and their health levels, as well as abnormal and normal swallowing behaviors. He focuses on changes that occur in swallowing as part of normal aging. "Change occurs over the normal life span," he said. "I want to see what factors may make it more difficult to deal with an insult—for example, head and neck cancer, or a stroke." He has seen these various changes when examining swallowing behavior in a wide range of individuals up to 95 years of age with healthy swallows.

His current research focuses on the development of computer simulations to study the manner in which swallowed liquids move through the oropharynx. The ultimate goal is to use this knowledge to optimize therapies designed to improve swallowing. A good example is the current practice of modifying the thickness of beverages for people who aspirate thin liquids (liquids with consistency similar to water). By adding "thickener" to liquids, clinicians slow the liquid flow through the oropharynx and avoid aspiration into the airway. Nicosia's research could help identify optimal levels of "thickness" for various disorders.

He collaborates with clinicians in fields involved in managing swallowing disorders, such as gastroenterology, otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat surgeons), speech language pathology, and geriatrics. He has a particularly close relationship with speech-language pathologists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on the development of interventions, such as exercise regimens for throat muscles to improve swallowing.

One of these collaborators is Jacqueline Hind, a researcher who played a leading role in a decade-long randomized, multi-site clinical study, which was the largest trial in dysphagia funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in which Nicosia participated. "He played an instrumental role in the standardization of fluids used for dysphagia diagnosis and management," Hind said.

Another part of Nicosia's research that has played a significant role in clinical development, Hind said, was on pressure generation in the oral cavity. During a swallow, the tongue presses against the hard palate, pushing the liquid ahead of it. Nicosia and his colleagues in Wisconsin were interested in quantifying the pressure generated by the tongue during swallowing. They used sensors attached to the hard palate to measure pressure during an isometric task (subjects were instructed to "push your tongue against the roof of your mouth as hard as you can") and during normal swallows in groups of older and younger individuals. "There was a decrease in lingual strength (i.e., isometric pressure) with age while pressure generated during swallowing was unchanged," he said.

This implies that normal swallowing does not require the full strength of the tongue, and instead individuals have a "reserve," defined as the difference in pressures attained during swallowing and the maximum (isometric) pressure attainable by that subject. However, as individuals age, this reserve decreases (maximum isometric pressure decreases while pressures recorded during swallowing do not change), leaving someone potentially more prone to having a swallowing disorder in response to an illness or traumatic event.

This was a significant finding, Hind said. "Nicosia's analysis of pressure data in the oral cavity provided the field with critical information on how pressure generation changes with age," she said. "The information set an important stage for the development of lingual strengthening devices, some of which are currently patented."

She said his efforts successfully complement medical research in the field. "It is great to have biomedical engineers to collaborate with to extend our clinical research efforts," she said.

Michelle Martelli, a Widener senior majoring in mechanical engineering, has assisted Nicosia in his research. "Seeing my research applied is the best part," she said. "It's great to see the actual progress we are making."

Even though he has accomplished much, Nicosia remains committed to working to provide even more relief for those afflicted with dysphagia. "There is so much room for future refinement of our understandings of the various cause and effects," he said. "If we can make advances to optimize the way swallowing disorders are treated, then it would bring a significant change. It is very important to realize the impact eating can have on the quality of one's life and how not being able to swallow affects that."

This story originally published in Widener Magazine fall 2010 issue.

New Major On Campus

Biomedical engineering, a new major on campus launched in 2011, prepares Widener School of Engineering students for careers in an exciting, expanding industry.

Biomedical Engineering New Major on Campus
Above: Widener School of Engineering Associate Professor Dr. Zhongping Huang researches artificial kidneys for biomedical engineering applications.
A new undergraduate major in biomedical engineering launched in fall 2011 prepares students in the School of Engineering for careers in a rapidly growing field.

Biomedical engineering combines engineering and medical technology to find ways to improve the quality of human life. Biomedical engineers develop a wide variety of therapeutic and diagnostic products, and advance treatments through improvements in technologies used for kidney dialysis and treating difficulties in swallowing.

The demand for biomedical engineers nationally is expected to grow, and the local demand for experts in the field is strong. National forecasts expect biomedical engineering jobs to increase by 72 percent by 2018, far more than the 16 percent growth forecasted for all professional occupations. In addition, the Greater Philadelphia Area ranks as the second largest area of employment in the nation for biomedical engineers.

For more information, visit http://www.widener.edu/biomedicalengineering