Rice BRC hosts Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute

Crash course designed to bring together scientific and ‘maker’ communities

“Print a copy” means something different than it used to at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC). In a monthlong crash course in August, the BRC hosted members of the burgeoning “maker” community in an experiment designed to bridge the gap between the worlds of professional science and hobbyist manufacturing.

The four-week Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute (AMRI) was the brainchild of Jordan Miller, a new assistant professor of bioengineering who joined Rice July 1.

“The maker community and the DIY bio community are a bunch of hobbyists who are learning how to make things based on information they find on the Internet,” Miller said. “Makers are focused on 3-D printing, digital art and finding new ways to fabricate things. The DIY bio community is an offshoot of the maker movement that’s devoted to biology and biotechnology. They’re also learning how to make stuff, but they’re tinkering with genes and living cells like bacteria.”

From left, AMRI fellows Andreas Bastian and Steve Kelly, AMRI participant Alfredo Flores, AMRI founder and Rice faculty member Jordan Miller and AMRI Fellow Anderson Ta. AMRI fellow and Rice undergraduate Ravi Sheth is not pictured.

Miller, who earned his Ph.D. at Rice in 2008, learned about the maker community while trying to solve a research problem during his postdoctoral stint at the University of Pennsylvania. Inspired by an intricate dessert, Miller hit upon the idea of using glassy sugar to solve a vexing problem in tissue engineering.

Tissue engineering, also known as regenerative medicine, is a fast-growing field aimed at capitalizing on advances in stem-cell biology to grow replacement tissues and organs that can be transplanted without risk of rejection. One of the major hurdles in engineering tissues and organs is ensuring an adequate blood supply. Scientists have struggled to grow tissues with the necessary vasculature to keep cells alive in large or complex structures.

Miller’s idea was to use 3-D printed temporary templates made of sugar to create channels that could supply blood to growing tissue. To realize the idea, he needed to first create an intricate sugar lattice and then add cells around it in a semisolid gel. Then, upon dissolving the sugar, he’d be able to pump blood through the lattice and supply the entire culture with nutrients.

AMRI fellow Anderson Ta tests a digital light projector.

But he wasn’t sure how to print sugar in 3-D.

“I posed my question to some folks in the maker community, and they were really enthusiastic about helping me,” said Miller, who published the research in Nature Materials in 2012. “The experience showed me that people in the maker and DIY bio communities were all very focused on learning. They’re seeking knowledge, and they’re learning how the world works. The ethos is very similar to that of science.”

In deciding how to set up his lab at the BRC, Miller hit upon the idea of AMRI, partly as a way to create the first iterations of some of the equipment that he hopes to use in the lab and partly to build a bridge between the maker and scientific communities.

“I wanted to design a framework that others could also follow where you bring people in from the maker and DIY bio communities and show them a little bit of science,” he said. “Most of the people in these communities haven’t focused on measuring things or quantifying things like you would need to in science. So we get a chance to teach them some of the science, and they get a chance to help us build some of the equipment that we need.”

The 2013 AMRI fellows were:

AMRI fellow Andreas Bastian makes preparations to test the 3-D printing system he constructed using a commercial laser cutter.

Andreas Bastian, an engineer whose interests range from traditional Japanese wood-fired ceramics to blacksmithing and engineering design of and for 3-D printers. Bastian, who now works as a research technician in Miller’s lab, used his AMRI fellowship to design and build an open-source 3-D printing system that uses a commercial laser cutter to make solid objects out of thermoplastic powder.

Steve Kelly, a mathematics student from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., who built a 3-D printer in his college dorm room. Kelly’s main interests lie in both open-source hardware and software development. His AMRI project aimed to improve upon DIY bio techniques for printing live bacteria with an open-source ink jet printer.

Anderson Ta, a technician at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Digital Fabrication Studio, spends his spare time lowering the barriers of entry to the world of making. Ta led some of the nation’s earliest “build-your-own 3-D printer” workshops and moonlights as an open hardware/manufacturing consultant. His AMRI fellowship involved using an off-the-shelf digital light projector for photolithography and 3-D printing of plastics and hydrogels.

Ravi Sheth, a Martel College senior and Rice Student Association external vice-president, who has worked as a Century Scholar in the laboratory of Rice bioengineer Jeffrey Tabor. Sheth, whose interests include 3-D bioprinting and synthetic biology, worked to develop “CellStruder,” a printer equipped with a 20-milliliter syringe extruder capable of precision printing of live cells.

AMRI was sponsored by Rice, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Ultimachine, Ultimaker, MakerGear and SeeMeCNC.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.