College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Undergraduate enhances lessons with research, explores bioengineering

For Christian Tormos, working in a research laboratory is second nature. Actively participating in research projects since his freshman year, Tormos, now a senior in chemical and biological engineering (CBE), is investigating a treatment for acute mechanical damage (AMD) that can to occur to cartilage and lead to post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA), a disorder that occurs from wear and tear on a joint after an injury.

Christian Tormos presenting his research at Iowa's capitol building.

On April 4, 2012, he was one of 24 Iowa State University undergraduates who presented their research to legislators and others during the seventh annual “Research in the Capitol.”

Tormos is assisting Stanley Chair in Interdisciplinary Engineering, who serves as chair and professor for CBE. Mallapragada is part of an interdisciplinary research team working in collaboration with the University of Iowa to develop a new gel substance that when injected, bonds to and stabilizes injured cartilage.

Currently, patients suffering from PTOA are treated after they have dealt with a lot of pain and find it difficult to perform day-to-day activities. By this point, treatments are primarily for pain management. Mallapragada’s group is proposing that treating AMD early after an injury can potentially prevent the condition.

For Tormos, the research became a personal matter when he learned his father was having knee pains. Christian accompanied his father to the next doctor’s visit, where he was diagnosed with PTOA and told there wasn’t really a cure.

“If we can make significant discoveries and ultimately treat PTOA and osteoarthritis in the early stages by addressing AMD, we could save people, like my father, from a lot of pain,” he says.

As the only student working on the project, Tormos is responsible for all aspects—from planning for the next step in experiments to training new students who will take his place after he graduates.

Tormos says the most challenging part of the research is what he loves most. “I see the research as a puzzle. There is not really a manuscript on how to target PTOA but there are clues. You have to read the literature to see what new technologies have been developed and engineer them to fit the research project. Often times the solution to these problems come from creativity or by failing so many times you actually learn how the material behaves and you are able to finally find something that works,” he says.

His passion for research started as soon as he came to campus. His first laboratory experience was in the biofuels area, working for Brent Shanks, Mike and Jean Steffenson Professor. He then switched gears to bioengineering after talking with Mallapragada about research in tissue engineering.

He got involved in the AMD/POTA research project after joining the Ronald E. McNair program, designed to prepare participants for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. Since Tormos had been working in Mallapragada’s lab and he enjoyed the focus of the work, he asked if she’d be his mentor.

“Research for undergraduates is incredibly important,” he says. “While working in research you get to see and experience the technology of tomorrow. It’s something you just can’t learn in a classroom.”

Tormos says presenting his work at the capitol was a memorable experience.

“It was great talking to senators, representatives, and the public. The challenge was to present my project so they could relate. For example, I had a couple of people who happened to be runners when they were younger, so I explained to them that this research could help them with their current knee pains,” he says. “It was a great feeling when they insisted for me to continue this work in order for them to start running again.”

After graduation, Tormos plans to attend graduate school and continue his passion for research.