Abigail Koppes: Advancing Technology, Treatment, and Diversity in Biomedical Engineering
Abigail Koppes, associate professor of chemical engineering, can pinpoint the moment when her interest in biomedical engineering began. She was a high school student preparing to undergo heart surgery.
“I had a disorder called AV nodal re-entrant tachycardia,” she recalls. “It happened one day at softball practice. They ended up having to call an ambulance and they caught it on the EKG.” The ‘it’ she refers to was a heart rate of over 300 beats per minute.
The corrective procedure was successful. Just as significant, however, was a conversation with her doctor about surgical innovations used in Europe at the time that were not yet approved in the United States.
“It was the very first time I’d ever heard of biomedical engineering,” Koppes says. “It started my journey into thinking about that as a potential career.”
That journey led her through undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs in the discipline, including a co-op at the Cleveland Clinic. During those years, she honed her interests in nerve repair, microfluidics, and biomedical microelectromechanical systems (bio-MEMS) a technology used in cellular-level lab investigation. She might have entered a career exclusively in research had she not discovered an additional aptitude during her years of study: teaching.
Kicking Off a Career
“I applied for postdoctoral positions and fellowships,” Koppes says of her next career step, “because I had found that I really liked that mentorship. I really liked being able to teach as well as do the research.”
She landed her fellowship at Northeastern through the university’s Future Faculty Fellowship program, an initiative of the ADVANCE Office of Faculty Development aimed at increasing diversity, funded at the time through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. She was one of the first to participate in the program and remains involved as a mentor and advisor to new fellows. It was an inflection point in her career, connecting her with Rebecca Carrier, associate chair of research in the Department of Chemical Engineering, where she studied tissue-engineered systems for retinal and gut epithelial repair.
After joining the Northeastern faculty as a full-time professor in 2014, Koppes found a new area of focus in the complex interplay between the nervous and enteric systems, the so-called ‘gut-brain’ connection. While nutrient absorption from the gut to the bloodstream is well understood, she explains, “there are mechanical sensors, chemical sensors in your gut—for flow, for digesting food—and we don’t know how that signal is actually transduced to the nervous system. We want to know what is turning it on or off, and how.”
Since then, Koppes has continued her gut-brain research, garnering a Trailblazer New/Early Career Investigator Award from the National Institutes of Health with Ryan Koppes, also a professor in the College’s chemical engineering department. The funding provided by the award helped to set up her Advanced for Neuroengineering Laboratory, which focuses on the interface between neurons and surrounding tissues. She has expanded her collection of accolades as well, both for her level of professional accomplishment (including a Rita Schaffer Young Investigator Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society in 2020), and her research (exemplified by a CAREER Award from the NSF in 2021).
Koppes has also helped advance her field as an innovator. Building on research funded by her Trailblazer and CAREER awards, she and several colleagues received a patent in June of 2022 for an assembly method of a microfluidic device colloquially known as an “organ-on-chip.” These devices allow researchers to model and test highly specific cellular interactions in vitro, without the complicating factors of a living host. The patented method will simplify manufacturing and reduce cost, ideally making the devices more widely available.
“It’s really tailorable technology,” notes Koppes. “We hope that more people will use it for things like personalized medicine. You could potentially take samples from a person from different parts of their body and put it on there, and then do things like drug toxicity or environmental screening, or what type of chemo-therapeutic would work best for this person. That’s the dream.”
Koppes was party to another patent granted just a few weeks later, this time for technology to aid in peripheral nerve repair. This innovation uses a combination of polymers—gelatin methacryloyl and methacryloyl-substituted tropoelastin—to help rejoin severed nerve fibers, promote nerve regrowth, and reduce scar tissue formation. The mechanical properties of the resulting composite can be tuned by altering the ratio of the two polymers.
Koppes’ pace of discovery shows no sign of slowing—she has more patents in the application phase for advancements in both millifluidic devices (similar to microfluidics) and technologies to improve nerve repair and regeneration.
Beyond research funding, her NSF CAREER grant enables another effort that Koppes finds both rewarding and vital: outreach to underserved student populations.
“We have a few high school students in the lab this summer, and I’m talking to an elementary school teacher up in Topsfield, hoping to visit their class.” Despite their differences, she explains, rural and urban students sometimes face similar challenges, whether geographical or financial, in accessing STEM educational opportunities. Increasing access and broadening opportunities for a wide range of both learners and teachers is key to maintaining the pace of innovation.
“There are a lot of different ways to succeed in this field,” Koppes says, “and different approaches are needed to enable us to make innovative discoveries. Without having diverse perspectives, whether it’s gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual identity, or the numerous other ways that people identify, we’re not going to make the progress that is needed to advance, especially in human health.”
What happens when medical technology advances without taking human diversity into account? Koppes points to the example of the pulse oximeter, a device that measures blood oxygen levels using light absorption. Though they’ve become ubiquitous in hospitals and doctors’ offices, studies have shown their accuracy to be inconsistent when used on darker-skinned people, possibly contributing to increased mortality among nonwhites during the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequences like this are reason enough for Koppes to dedicate her time and effort to increasing diversity, whether in her department or in her field at large, serving on the diversity committee of the Biomedical Engineering Society.
Support for Success
Koppes is aware that, as a woman, she herself represents another variation in the roles of engineering researchers, professors, and principal investigators, long played chiefly by men. It’s one reason she strives for diversity in her lab and helps foster it at the university level through networking and mentoring efforts, such as a ‘mastermind’ group for women faculty.
“There was a group of us that were all pre-tenure at the time,” she says, recalling the Mutual Mentoring Advancement Program funded by Northeastern’s ADVANCE office. “Different departments and different colleges. We would show up with an agenda or problems to discuss. We had a writing workshop in Barnstable in 2021 during the pandemic where we worked on grants and things like that.
“At this point, I think everyone who’s gone through the program has gotten tenure, or they’re going through tenure right now,” she notes, indicating a tangible return on the investment in this kind of peer-to-peer support.
“Being in an environment like that is one of the reasons I wanted to be at Northeastern in the first place.”