GRIP, Internships Abroad A Summer of Lessons

September 18, 2023
By Wangari Mbuthia, SEAS '25

GRIP: Engineering Research in Singapore

With global news headlines featuring the “hottest temperature ever recorded”, hurricanes and wildfires, it is increasingly evident that our climate is changing. It is crucial for the world to examine the sustainability of its practices and to work towards solutions for the future. One such practice is the production of animal-based products like meat, which places huge environmental tolls on our planet. This need for sustainable alternatives was the setting for my summer research project: “Biomaterials for Bioengineered Meats”.

As the first country to ever legalize the sale of lab-grown meats, it felt fitting to be conducting my research at the National University of Singapore. Before this summer the extent of experience with meat alternatives was the Beyond Meat spaghetti bolognese at Houston Hall, but I was excited to be researching a sustainable alternative that seeks to rival traditional meats on a molecular level.

First I needed to gain context on the world of cultivated meats. I learnt about how meat is a complex hierarchical structure of skeletal muscle tissue composed of muscle fibers, connective tissue, and fat. I learnt that the same tissue engineering techniques that are used to make skin grafts or even whole organs can be modified to manufacture meat that mimics the same nutritional and sensory properties of meat. I also learnt about the scientific, sustainability and regulatory challenges of lab-grown meats. Such scientific challenges can be broken down into cell selection, cell media optimization, scaling up production and biomaterial selection – the focus of my project.

Now, growing a bunch of muscle cells in a flask does not make meat – cells need structure, mechanical and chemical cues to replicate the natural growth in an animal. This is where biomaterials such as hydrogels come in to provide that structure.

Over the course of 8 weeks, my lab partner and I worked towards this goal by investigating the effect of topographical and stiffness cues of the hydrogel on our growing muscle cells. During this time I, of course, learnt the science: 3D printing molds; hydrogel fabrication; cell culture; immunofluorescent staining and more. But even more than this, I learnt to be patient, to be persistent and to celebrate the small victories – skills useful inside or outside the lab.

Overall I am truly grateful for my summer research abroad. I am grateful for the lab lunches; laughs; and for the lessons learned from the experiences of those around me.

The Global Research and Internship Program (GRIP) provides outstanding undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to intern or conduct research abroad for 8 to 12 weeks over the summer. Participants gain career-enhancing experience and global exposure that is essential in a global workforce.