From the moment Claudia Benito Alston first peeked into the Fab Lab – a crowded room in Votey Hall full of 3D printers, laser cutters, micro-controllers and other high-tech gizmos – she was hooked.
“It had so many instruments for creating things, it just really looked cool,” says the mechanical engineering major, who graduated in December.
That first look turned out to be a window on Benito Alston’s future at UVM that the then-sophomore couldn’t have imagined.
Following her initial encounter, Benito Alston landed a work-study job in the Fab Lab, which has since expanded to a large new space, where she took a particular interest in 3D printers, boxy machines of various sizes that create dimensional objects by building up film-thin layers of plastic, directed by a computer design program.
"I really started learning their capabilities," she says.
When a design project came along that would enable her to put her 3D printer chops to work and was related to an academic area she was interested in – biomedical engineering – she jumped at the chance.
The project, to develop a type of 3D printer called a “bio-printer,” which used living material rather than plastic as its basic building block, had additional appeal for Benito Alston: it was centered in UVM’s highly ranked on-campus medical school, where faculty often found time to work with and mentor undergraduates.
“When I saw a doctor at UVM’s medical school was heading up the project, I really wanted to get involved,” she says.
The doctor was Dan Weiss, professor of medicine at UVM’s Larner College of Medicine and a member of the Vermont Lung Center. His project was so provocative, it approached science fiction.
Weiss’s goal, in partnership with a colleague at the medical school, was to use a 3D printer to bio-print breast implants made from a living material like collagen for women who’d had mastectomies. The material would also serve as a scaffold, in future stages of the research, for stem cells that would differentiate inside the body into living breast tissue. Weiss also wanted the device to print a variety of other living materials, which could serve as scaffolding, for instance, for lung tissue in patients with lung cancer.
Benito Alston was part of a student team led by postdoctoral student Robert Pouliot that “designed and wired up” an off-the-shelf 3D printer so it would serve the new purpose, Pouliot said.
The project was a major success.
“Dr. Weiss is very happy,” Benito Alston said. “Whatever further research he and his team do will require minimal engineering input.”
“The sky’s the limit in terms of what we’ll be able to do with it,” Weiss says.
The bio-printer success led to yet more 3D printer work for Benito Alston. A graduate student who knew of the project recruited her to work on another student team to develop a 3D printer that would extrude two different materials at the same time, a novel application Patrick Lee, a faculty member in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, needed in his research.
Art Imitates Engineering
For Benito Alston – a dual citizen who grew up in an artistic household in Spain – the wonders of 3D printers and the Fab Lab extended beyond engineering to the art classes she took as part of her art minor.
A true evangelist, Benito Alston reveled in showing her fellow art students how the Fab Lab could be used to make art – like a human skull she created with sections of corrugated cardboard cut by a laser printer, half covered with clay and half exposed, so her fellow students could behold the wonder of the Fab Lab-created architecture beneath.
Ultimately, though, she wants to attend graduate school and put her technical expertise to use in a biomedical engineering career, one for which UVM has given her unique preparation.
“When I apply, I’ll have a lot of previous knowledge and a lot of technical information that other kids may not have.”