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Capstone Project – Learning Cell Mechanobiology Using A Stretch Chamber
An undergraduate capstone design project was structured to enhance students’ understanding of some aspects of cell biomechanics by building a low-cost and portable stretch chamber. Cells apply tensile forces to their surrounding media that are necessary for realization of different phenotypes. In addition to the contractile forces generated internally, cells are also subjected to the external forces applied by their extracellular matrix. A group of undergraduate students from Mercer University designed and tested a device to observe the effect of substrate deformation on the geometry and shape of adherent cells. The team was formed by students with different majors to work on a cross-disciplinary research project. The feasibility criteria were listed as the following: (1) The main frame of the device must fit on top of an Olympus CX31 microscope stage. (2) The main frame and motor must be able to hold up to the incubator conditions of 37 C with 98% humidity. (3) The main frame of the device must be able to withstand sterilization treatment. (4) The device must be able to stretch a thin film of polydimethylsiloxane and relax digitally at the user’s command. The stretch chamber was built and successfully tested to meet the feasibility criteria. The designed chamber offers several important advantages over the commercially available devices at much lower cost. Most notably is the incubator compatibility which allows running each test for several hours while the temperature, CO2 concentration, and humidity of the cell environment are kept constant. Students benefited from the cross-disciplinary nature of this research by learning about the functions of cells as a complex biological system, learning how cellular functions are regulated mechanically, and understanding how life science and engineering can be brought together to design biomedical devices.