Carnegie Mellon University
August 19, 2019

Erin Kavanagh Researching Artificial Lungs in Germany as Fulbright Scholar

By Emily Payne

This September, Erin Kavanagh will leave on a 10-month journey to conduct research on artificial lung devices in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar.

“I chose Germany because it is a pioneer in creating medical devices,” said Kavanagh, who will be working at RWTH Aachen University’s Institute of Applied Medical Engineering in the lab of Jutta Arens.

This work will build off her experience at Carnegie Mellon University with Professor of Biomedical Engineering Keith Cook, a collaborator of Arens’. Kavanagh began working in Cook’s lab during her sophomore year, where she was involved in various aspects of artificial lung development, including building devices, rolling fiber bundles, potting and leak-testing finished devices and running in vivo test circuits.

Using her strengths in biochemistry, Kavanagh later moved on to helping to develop a system for delivering antibiotics to the lower respiratory tract via perfluorocarbon emulsions.

“A lot of the students in the lab are engineers, but they don’t have knowledge on cytotoxicity and mechanisms of action for drugs and chemicals in general. In dealing with perfluorocarbons, which are an emulsion with other molecules, I had to look at the molecules themselves, the compounds, and think how could this break off in the body and be dangerous? That’s where my knowledge of biochemistry comes in,” Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh’s interest in Germany began in the summer of 2017 when she was selected as a visiting scholar to do research in Aachen, Germany. The following summer, she attended the Goethe Institute for an intensive German language experience.

When she began thinking about applying for a Fulbright, she was interested in returning to Germany to gain a deeper understanding of the country’s different research methods.

"I hope to bring knowledge from in vivo testing from my lab at CMU to the lab in Germany and learn valuable skills from them about perfecting in vitro testing of medical devices."

For instance, Germany does not support in vivo testing, which occurs in a living organism. As a result, the country is much more specialized in in vitro testing methods, which seek to isolate tissues, organs or cells to conduct testing outside a living organism.

The focus has made Germany an expert at bringing devices to market almost exclusively through in vitro testing; Kavanagh is excited to see how they accomplish this, but she is also curious to learn more about the stigma against in vivo testing.

"I hope to bring knowledge from in vivo testing from my lab at CMU to the lab in Germany and learn valuable skills from them about perfecting in vitro testing of medical devices," she added.

Outside of the lab, Kavanagh plans to join the Aachen University’s rowing team. At Carnegie Mellon, Kavanagh was the rowing team’s varsity coxswain, the person in charge of navigating the boat for the rowers.

“Some of the most important lessons I learned during college were not in the walls of a classroom but rather in a racing shell at sunrise on the Allegheny River,” she said. “I found an amazing team and group of people that pushed me outside my comfort zone and helped me discover a love of being a coxswain and an adaptive athlete.”

She is thankful for the support and guidance of her research advisor, Keith Cook, her undergraduate advisor, Karen Stump, as well as Richelle Bernazzoli, assistant director of undergraduate research and national fellowships, throughout the application process.

After completing her Fulbright, Kavanagh plans to pursue an advanced degree related to the medical field.

The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sponsors the Fulbright U.S. Student Program to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries."