College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Hannah Bygd: Using materials to advance immunology

Graduate student combines interests in materials science and biochemistry

Driven by her diverse educational background, graduate student Hannah Bygd is using her well-rounded knowledge to make a big impact on the medical field.

Bygd, a graduate student at Iowa State studying materials science, is looking at macrophage reprogramming. She and Kaitlin Bratlie, an assistant professor and Mike and Denise Mack Faculty Fellow, study how different materials properties can alter cell phenotype and function.

After she grew up in New Richmond, a small town in western Wisconsin, Bygd went to Luther College for undergrad and majored in chemistry with a minor in biology. “I originally thought I wanted to do forensic science or even med school, but I couldn’t decide for sure what I wanted to do after I graduated,” she said.

A professor suggested she participate in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergrads program, so Bygd started applying and was accepted to study polymer science at the University of Southern Mississippi for a summer. “I decided from there that I really wanted to go to grad school because I liked the research,” she said. “I like the problem solving and critical thinking and saying to myself ‘okay, well this didn’t work so what do I do next?’”

When she was looking at programs for grad school, Bygd thought materials science fit well with her interests in polymer science, but she also wanted to focus her research to utilize her biology and chemistry background. She applied to the materials science program at Iowa State, but she didn’t apply to a specific lab. When she was accepted, she had to identify professors studying polymers and eventually found her way to Bratlie’s lab. “She does a lot of biology and immunology,” Bygd said of Bratlie’s work. “I liked the biology, chemistry and polymer research, but I was really interested in the medical applications.”

Some of the work Bygd is doing in the lab for her thesis deals with diabetes therapeutics. When people have Type-1 diabetes, the cells in their bodies that produce insulin are killed off by their immune systems. Bygd’s work suggests encapsulating these important cells within a polymer particle so the diabetic immune system doesn’t recognize the cell as a threat, allowing them to survive.

The material would also help to reprogram macrophages that are an essential part of the immune system. This reprogramming of their phenotype is useful because it would cause them to respond in a way that allows for successful transplantation rather than rejection of the implant. So far, the lab has been able to find materials that both change the macrophage phenotype and are electively permeable towards essential nutrients but against toxic molecules and cells.

“Cell work is a very up-and-coming treatment option. The more you think about the way the body works and all of its details, the more you can think broadly about treatment options,” Bygd said. “The applicability of the research and techniques is so wide.”

She adds that understanding cellular responses to materials for biomedical applications is an important focus of research in the drug delivery and medical device industry. “The more you know about these interactions, the more broadly you can apply your findings,” she said. “The ultimate applicability of this research is far-reaching.” Bygd will be wrapping up her research over the course of the next few weeks as she looks for positions in the medical device industry following her graduation on May 5th.