Photo: Imaris Snapshot

NYU’s Tandon Labs VR App Takes New Students on a Magical Mystery Tour of Mechanobiology & Regenerative Medicine

For those working in STEM fields, communicating just what it is you do has always been a challenge: Explaining not only the details of the research— without provoking a glazing of eyes or throwing up of hands in the layperson — but conveying the visceral sense of excitement and joy that the work holds. To outsiders, and indeed even to some insiders-in-the-making, engineering, a field that encompasses a vast span of very different pursuits, can seem especially opaque.

“I’ve had engineering students, students who are pursuing an engineering degree, ask me, ‘What am I actually going to be doing?’” says Dr. Alesha B. Castillo, NYU Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering & Orthopedic Surgery. “It’s kind of a black box: ‘How did you get to where you are now? What kind of training do you have? What is engineering?’”

Finding Answers in Virtual Reality

Turns out there’s an app for that: Tandon Labs, NYU’s new virtual reality app, designed by Mark Skwarek, NYU Tandon faculty member and head of the Mobile Augmented Reality Lab. The app, which launched at SXSW Gaming Expo this year offers an immersive look, in brilliant technicolor, at the ground-breaking research in angiogenesis, or blood vessel formation, coming out of Castillo’s lab. It will be provided, along with a specially designed 3D cardboard viewer, to students admitted to the class of 2021 at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.

The research that the Tandon Labs app visualizes first appeared in a paper published last year, lead authored by Chao Liu, Castillo Lab’s Post Doctoral Fellow, along with Castillo and Weiquiang Chen, NYU Tandon Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. As Castillo explains it, the paper describes an in vitro device created by Chen that consists of a block of collagen with two parallel hollow channels running through it. In one channel bone cells, or osteoblasts, were grown, and in the other endothelial cells that make up blood vessels. The results were encouraging, to say the least. “What we saw was that blood vessels started doing something called ‘sprouting,’” Castillo says. “They started to branch outside of their channel, toward the channel that had osteoblasts in it. It’s awesome, because the growth is directional— the vessel knows where that signal is coming from, and grows towards that other channel. That showed us that osteoblasts are producing a signaling molecule that can actually control angiogenesis.” Castillo explains, that blood vessel growth is necessary for the regeneration and repair of bone, which is the lab’s broader focus, because in addition to blood, they carry other types of cells, such as immune cells, to the site of an injury. “But very little was known about how those blood vessels are formed, and what controls it,” she says. “To make a long story short, we’ve hypothesized that cells in bone play a role in controlling new blood vessel formation and the process of bone regeneration. This is a new area for us, so it’s actually really exciting.”

Photo: Imaris Snapshot

The Challenge and the Solution

The challenge for Skwarek’s team was to convey that excitement despite that, on the face of it, is a rather daunting subject for someone outside the field. The solution was creating a compelling visual experience, giving meaning to the research by drawing on its innate aesthetic appeal—what he calls “visual communication.” One of the first things that struck Skwarek and his team, he says, was the simple beauty of the images that were coming out of the lab.“ It was fascinating, and visually spectacular, which was one of the things that first drew our team to the project,” he says. For Skwarek, who comes from a background in art, how best to replicate this natural beauty proved an artistic as well as a technical challenge. To hear him describe it the process was not unlike directing a film, choosing “where the camera needs to be and at what moment it needs to be there. To be in the right place at the right time, from the right angle.” The result is an intense yet dreamlike world, where vivid pink capillaries pulse and branch and rainbows of signaling molecules swirl.

Skwarek gives enormous credit to Siyuan Qiu, his graduate assistant in Integrated Digital Media, whose dedication to the project, Skwarek says, was integral in bringing the complex collaborative effort to fruition in the space of just a few months. At each stage of the process—Skwarek’s team did all of the coding, as he puts it, “from scratch”—Qiu was in communication with Castillo and her Post Doc Liu, to ensure that every detail was depicted exactly as it had appeared in the lab. The end result, Skwarek says, while it looks somewhat outlandish, is in fact very nearly accurate. Even the app’s bright colors—Castillo admitted being partial to the vibrant hot pink—are derived, according to Skwarek, from the fact that researchers working at a cellular level use a variety of dyes in order to see what’s going on between otherwise transparent cells. “As a kid,” Skwarek recalls, “I used to watch these sorts of cell visualizations on TV with the understanding that they were guessing what it looked like. Knowing that this is actually what happened completely changes the experience.” With Tandon Labs, Skwarek says, “You’re looking at cells.”

A Fantastic Voyage

The app experience begins from the perspective of a student entering Castillo’s Laboratory for Mechanobiology & Regenerative Medicine, a room cast in the dark umber-yellow light that helps to maintain a sterile environment. After being given an overview by a member of the project team, the user is whisked through the eyepiece of a microscope and descends into the in vitro device. There, not only do users get an immersive 3D view of the process by which osteoblasts use chemical signaling to encourage angiogenesis, they also get a chance to participate by pushing the button on their viewer to increase the speed of blood vessel development when cued by visual signals and the beautifully eerie electronic soundtrack designed by Tandon Integrated Digital Media Program Associate Professor R. Luke DuBois.

Skwarek says that this gaming element was designed with the goal of creating a point of entry for the general public. “We’re trying to go after somebody who’s not interested,” he says. But this means of engagement is not just fun and games—the gaming aspect both describes and reenacts what happened in the lab. “When we applied a mechanical stimulus to the osteoblasts, we saw even greater vessel formation,” Castillo explains. “We interpreted that to mean that mechanical stimulation activates greater release of the signaling molecules.” When the user pushes the button it recreates this effect.  

Making Women Feel at Home in Engineering

Castillo’s lab, being headed by a young female faculty member, is still something of a rarity in engineering, and she hopes that the Tandon Labs app will serve as a tool to help more young women find her and initiate a conversation that could help them feel more at home in the field: “It starts that dialogue,” Castillo says, “‘How did this app come about? What does this work mean? How did you end up here?’” Sadly, female mentors remain rare in STEM fields. Castillo, in her two years at Tandon, has fielded questions from female students, even beyond her department, who find themselves in search of someone who has blazed the trail before. “If female students can see this cool app and then realize that it’s coming out of a female-led lab, it can be great tool to start bridging young female investigators with potential female role models and mentors,” she says.

Yet Castillo hopes that all students, especially those outside of engineering, will find something to appreciate in the VR app. “There’s a level of enthusiasm that’s difficult to initiate with students who are being brought up in, and feel very comfortable with, a digital or a gaming world,” she muses. “What VR does is help conceptualize our work in 3D. You can see it with your own eyes and have engagement, which is part of the gaming aspect. It helps people understand and also remember it, where otherwise it’s me just trying to explain to you what we’re doing.” Castillo sees the Tandon Labs app as a part of a move away from lecture-based learning toward a more immersive, hands-on approach. “I think this is the very beginning of exploring opportunities that we really haven’t tapped into much, using these other media to really excite students and show them what is available in STEM.”

Create an App, Engage Students, Repeat

Tandon Labs app excursion into the microscopic realm of osteoblasts and angiogenesis is not the first time Skwarek’s and his team have used VR to help get admitted students excited about what lies ahead for them at NYU. Last year, the team designed and built an app called Tandon Vision that allowed prospective students to take a virtual trip to Mars using a robot conceived by NYU Tandon’s Lunabotics club, an annual participant in NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition. While Tandon Labs is very different, Skwarek says, the goal remains to create a work that captures NYU’s best and brightest minds at work and offer a window into their world. “The idea was to show incoming students the excitement that surrounds these areas of research,” Skwarek says, “to both show off their accomplishments and get a new generation of people excited about extending these lines of research.”

Skwarek’s team is already hard at work on a new app that will give the VR treatment to another corner of Tandon’s world. In this next chapter, users will visit NYU’s MakerSpace, a state of the art rapid prototyping facility where students can bring their ideas into 3D-printed reality. Skwarek says he plans to focus on the projects that are being made there in addition to the technology. And future students will get to immerse themselves in what happens when creativity coexists with the latest in digital fabrication tools.