Neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation might not seem like three disciplines that fit together, but for Flavia Vitale, PhD, an assistant professor of all three, it makes perfect sense. As the director and principal investigator at the Vitale Lab, her research focuses on developing new technologies that help to study how the brain and neuromuscular systems function.
Years ago, while she was working at Rice University developing new materials and devices that work in the body in a safer, more effective way, former president Barack Obama launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, aimed at revolutionizing the understanding of the human brain. This emphasis on how little is known about brain structure and function inspired Vitale to refocus her research on developing technology and materials that will help researchers solve the mysteries of the brain.
In 2018, she joined the faculty at the Perelman School of Medicine in the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant professor of Neurology, Bioengineering, and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and founded the multi-disciplinary Vitale Lab, where her team develops cutting edge materials and devices that will someday help clinicians diagnose and treat patients with complicated brain and neurological conditions. She is also one of the engineers looking forward to using new combined clinical/research facilities in neuroscience at Penn Medicine’s new Pavilion where new neurotechnoloigies will be developed and tested.
When she’s not developing brand-new technologies to understand how the brain works, Vitale also has a tendency to bring her scientific mindset into the kitchen, where she enjoys baking and experimenting with fermentation with her two kids.
In this Q&A, Vitale shares her current research projects, and reflects on her experience as a woman in bioengineering.
Describe your background and how you came to Penn.
I have my master’s in biomedical engineering and my PhD in chemical engineering. I’m an engineer first and foremost, rather than a doctor like many of my colleagues in the Neurology department.
I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Italy, and came to Rice University in the United States as a visiting PhD student and basically never left. As a post-doc at Rice, I was working on developing nanomaterials — which are new materials, other than plastics, metals, or other more commonly used materials — and using them to make new devices that are more safe and effective for use in the human body.
I completed my neuroengineering training at Penn with Brian Litt, MD, a professor of Neurology and Bioengineering, and have been at Penn Medicine ever since. Litt is a pioneer in developing new technology for treating brain disorders, so working with him is a perfect position as I have been able to blend my expertise in biomedical and neuroengineering.
What research are you currently undertaking?
My main goal is to create tools that can help solve mysteries of the brain, and address the needs of clinicians.
My lab was recently awarded two grants totaling $4.5 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In order to obtain more precise insights, noninvasively, into brain activity to improve gene therapy treatments for a range of diagnoses, from Parkinson’s disease to glioblastoma. The first grant is designated for the development of a novel surgical device for delivering gene-based therapeutics to the brain. The second is for optimization and pre-clinical validation of a novel EEG electrode technology, which uses a soft, flexible, conductive nanomaterial rather than metal and gels. We hope to confirm that these technologies work as well as, if not better than existing ones.
Another exciting project I’m working on is the development of thin, flexible sensors that can sense muscle movement through the skin. These will help clinicians see how the patient’s muscles function, and assist in guiding rehabilitation with precision.
What are some challenges you face, and what are some opportunities?
There is a period after you’ve developed a new device or technology and need to validate it, but generating funding is often a huge challenge. Not only do you need to demonstrate that the device works, but you also need to show that these new materials are safe for long term use. The studies to meet those needs are long, complicated, and expensive, and securing the funding to properly test is a very rigorous process.
Another significant challenge in the field is recruiting women and diverse staff. There are huge opportunities for expanding the diversity of labs. Women and other underrepresented populations have less exposure to neuroengineering, so exposing young children, especially young girls, to this kind of research to spark their interest in this work is very important to me. One thing I am particularly passionate about is speaking to high-school age students — even some younger — to foster their interest in bioengineering.
I also work hard to mentor other young women in my lab, to help them build careers in this field so that they, too, can go on to mentor other women and expand the field.