Student Spotlight: Bill Bedell

Bill Bedell, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

What is your area of research? 

I am a systems biologist. My work typically involves assembling lots of scientific observations about a particular living system and then using an engineering approach to create new insights about the system as a whole. My graduate studies so far have largely revolved around understanding how blood vessels form, but I am transitioning to the area of insect cell biology.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I have always been fascinated by how life can assemble simple—but powerful—structures from the chaotic interactions of thousands of individual cells and molecules. The spots on a leopard’s fur are a common example: an elegant explanation for their origin based on chemical reaction and diffusion was proposed by Alan Turing half a century ago, and only recently have we started developing the experimental tools necessary to test these kinds of hypotheses. I wanted to come to Cornell to study blood vessels because they have remarkable (to a chemical engineer) transport properties. Furthermore, they are self-assembled by thousands of cells and nobody really understands how.

Why is this research important?

If we can understand how blood vessels form, we might be able to control where and when they form. This is particularly important in two fields of biomedicine: cancer biology and regenerative medicine. Tumors must recruit blood vessels in order to supply their ferocious appetites, so therapies have been developed which attempt to block the vascular system from sprouting new blood vessels near tumors. Regenerative medicine encompasses techniques ranging from wound healing to more advanced applications like tissue engineering and the creation of artificial organs. Researchers in regenerative medicine are essentially trying to grow human tissues from basic biological materials (e.g., donor cells and mixtures of proteins); the ability to fabricate blood vessels which can supply the tissues with a constant stream of nutrients is a major roadblock. Our success in halting (in cancer) or inducing (in regenerative medicine) vessel formation has been limited thus far, and this may be because we don’t have an adequate systems-level understanding of how blood vessels “decide” whether to grow.

The systems biology of insect cells, my more recent research focus, is also very important to advanced biomedicine. Insect cell cultures have emerged as one of the most cost-effective ways produce vectors for human gene therapy; the development of robust and cheap manufacturing processes using insect cells may bring cures within reach for millions of people with previously incurable genetic disorders. Experimentalists are making swift headway in developing the techniques necessary for such manufacturing processes, but often rely on trial-and-error to improve efficiency. I hope to develop engineering models for what’s going on inside each cell and bioreactor to better guide the design of basic experiments and the optimization of larger production processes.

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

I have never been very good at sticking to one topic, whether I’m doing schoolwork or hobbies. I love chemical engineering, and in particular systems biology, because it’s a framework that I can apply to an enormously broad set of problems. This allows me to learn new things all the time. I would probably have (or cause) trouble in other fields that are narrower and deeper.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

A graduate-level chemical engineering student essentially does the work of a scientist: forming hypotheses, designing experiments, interpreting results, and publishing papers. However, our training in undergrad places much more emphasis on designing commercial chemical processes. As a result, chemical engineers tend to think of everything in terms of a process—a network of interconnected “unit operations” each having different inputs and outputs. You’ll see me and other chemical engineers drawing lots of boxes with arrows running between them, whether we’re trying to figure out how to model a physical system or how to order lab supplies. Some people find these drawings funny when a simple written explanation would suffice.

You’re one of six doctoral students to receive a Commercialization Fellowship under the College of Engineering. Congratulations! Can you tell me a little bit about the technology you’ll be developing during this fellowship? 

The technology is actually a number of insect cell lines (i.e., cultures that are continuously grown and used in various applications) developed by the Boyce Thompson Institute. These lines are very similar to ones already used in science and biotechnology, with a few key differences. Most importantly, BTI’s new cell lines are lacking the adventitious (unwanted) viral infections present in most commercial insect cell strains. In switching to the new infection-free cell lines, gene therapy companies may save themselves a lot of headaches in trying to filter out all the unwanted viral particles, and could potentially reap other benefits related to the cells’ biology. I hope to use my knowledge of engineering and biology to interface between the customers (who are bioprocess engineers) and the technology’s developers (who are scientists).

What are you most looking forward to about the fellowship?

I’ve been doing either coursework or research nonstop for many years, so it will be refreshing to look at systems biology from a different perspective. I will be working alongside five other engineering Ph.D. students who are sure to be very talented and fun to be around.

In what ways will the work you do during this fellowship improve or expand your scholarship? 

The importance of commercialization in academic research is growing, especially in engineering. Lots of innovations come out of university labs, and many stakeholders are eager to see those innovations efficiently get put into practice. Unfortunately, many scientists and engineers (myself included) are largely unaware of the steps that go into launching a company around a new technology. I will be documenting and sharing what I learn to help others at Cornell (and beyond) know what commercialization entails and how to do it. I consider this a research topic like any other.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree? 

Cornell has a reputation for fostering a broad range of disciplines and thought—some say the broadest of any university. I knew that breadth would make Cornell a stimulating place to be during grad school. I also knew that Cornell has a powerful alumni network, making Cornell a smart choice for life after grad school. What I didn’t know was that alumni would be so active in campus life: some have already provided me with invaluable mentorship.

What’s next for you?

Hard to say! Depending on how the fellowship goes, I might be selling insect cells. I am also interested in management consulting, and I am testing those waters with a summer project sponsored by the Cornell Graduate Consulting Club.

Any advice for incoming graduate students?

Research is important, but you should think early and often about what you want to do as a career! Cornell has a large number of extremely supportive and dynamic student organizations that can help you find like-minded people and prepare for your future. I know I wouldn’t have taken the leap to pursue this fellowship without the support of Technology Entrepreneurship @ Cornell.

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School