Sophia Millan ’24

Biomedical Engineering Research to Enhance Bone Regeneration

Sophia Millan ’24 studies the role of circadian rhythms in bone regeneration to identify potential new treatment approaches.

Sophia Millan '24

Biomedical Engineering
Commonwealth Honors College

Shrewsbury, MA (originally from Margarita Island, Venezuela)

What drew you to this field of study?

Since I was little, I wanted to become a surgeon and help people. However, during the summer before my freshman year, I switched my major from biology to biomedical engineering. I never thought I would do engineering in college, but the number of different concentrations one could pursue and the merging of different fields drew me in. I was intrigued by the research being done, and I saw a way to merge my passions for medicine, chemistry, biology, and innovation in one major. I love working with my hands and doing experiments, so I felt like by studying biomedical engineering, I could find ways to help people through innovation instead.

How do you conduct your research?

My work seeks to understand the role of circadian rhythms in bone regeneration with the goal of identifying new potential approaches to treatment. Circadian rhythms are a 24-hour cycle, responsible for coordinating physiological and behavioral processes, which can be entrained by stimuli such as temperature, glucocorticoids (steroid hormones), light, and sleep-wake cycles. Dysregulated circadian rhythms have been associated with various diseases, including significant bone loss attributed to impaired osteogenesis (bone formation).

In the lab, I investigate bone regeneration and cell migration in response to the delivery of different biologics (drugs isolated from natural sources) on a circadian schedule. This specific approach has never been studied before, and we hypothesize that delivering these biologics at specific time points within the circadian cycle can enhance bone regeneration.

What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?

Most organisms have circadian rhythms, which help our bodies regulate physiological processes and behaviors and process outside stimuli. Therefore, it’s important to understand how circadian rhythms influence cell-to-cell interactions, such as proliferation and differentiation (both in a living organism and in a laboratory dish). The research I’m doing helps us understand how pre-osteoblast and osteoblast cells (involved in the formation of bone tissue) respond to drugs when synchronized/unsynchronized, and how their proliferation and differentiation rates change according to diurnal/nocturnal rhythms. Studying circadian rhythms in bone and other tissues can help us optimize tissue growth, improve integration of implants, and improve the efficacy of drugs by synchronizing all cells to a specific rhythm. This allows all the cells to work together under one clock, enabling them to send and receive signals at the same time. If translated into clinical settings, patients will spend less time and money in hospitals and can return to their normal lives faster.

It’s so interesting how sleep, food, and light can have such a big impact on our day-to-day activities and interactions.

Sophia Millan ’24 

How does your faculty mentor support your research?

My faculty mentor, Dr. Cathal Kearney, has supported me in every way possible during the past four years. When I first started at UMass, he gave me the opportunity to participate in research as a freshman and encouraged me to push myself beyond my comfort zone, both in and out of the classroom. He’s always had faith in my abilities as a researcher and student, which allowed me to grow and enjoy my experience in the lab. He's been there for me every step of the way and has provided me with all the resources to succeed as I pursued my engineering degree.  

What do you find most exciting about your research?

I love learning about how circadian rhythm affects the body and its intricate mechanisms. It’s so interesting how sleep, food, and light can have such a big impact on our day-to-day activities and interactions. I’m always reminding my family about the importance of having a sleep schedule, even though I don’t follow my own advice! I also find it very interesting to develop hypotheses about specifics problems in my project and find solutions.  

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud about never giving up, even when times were hard. Coming from an island in Venezuela, there were not a lot of opportunities for growth, and I faced a lot of challenges due to language barriers. My determination to overcome these obstacles has taken me further than I ever imagined. I’m also proud about presenting my research and about the growth I’ve had as a researcher. Starting with a few small projects, I am now carrying out an individual project on which I’m in charge of every step.  

How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?  

Conducting research has opened many doors for me, such as being able to participate in a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program in material science at Boston University, as well as presenting my findings at the Biomedical Engineering Society conference and the Massachusetts Undergraduates Research Conference. I like that I have been able to translate my classroom learning into hands-on experience and create my own experiments where I can just let my creativity and knowledge take over.

What are your plans for the future?

My plan is to complete my PhD in bioengineering at Northeastern University and continue studying tissue engineering, drug delivery, and chemistry. Eventually, I hope to merge my past and current experiences in research and have my own laboratory.

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?

There’s so much more than meets the eye. UMass allows students to participate in a well-rounded academic experience while exposing them to many small communities. There are a lot of activities, clubs, and labs that allow students to grow and find their people in and out of the classroom. It’s the perfect school to have a balanced undergraduate experience.

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