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Spotlight on Students: Bill Bedell

  • Affiliation: Ph.D. Commercialzation Fellow
  • Hometown: Portland, Oregon

Bill Bedell grew up in Portland, Oregon, the son of two engineers. “I guess you could say I was indoctrinated early into the engineering mindset,” says Bedell. “It gave me the ability to not be afraid of big problems.” Initially, Bedell’s scientific bent came out as a love of biology. “Instead of being that kid who was always taking things apart, I was always outside picking up worms because I thought nature was fascinating.”

Bedell, who is now a Ph.D. student in the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has, in a way, come back to his love of biology. Bedell does his work in the lab of Abraham Stroock, who is the William C. Hooey Director and Gordon L. Dibble '50 Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. In fact, Bedell came to Cornell for his Ph.D. specifically for the opportunity to work with Stroock. “Coming to Cornell was an easy decision for me,” says Bedell. “and Abe has been very supportive of everything I have done here.”

As an undergraduate at Oregon State University Bedell knew that he wanted to go on to graduate school. He also knew that he would need research experience in a lab to improve his chances of getting into a program he could be excited about. “I knocked on a lot of doors, looking for a lab where I could get some experience,” says Bedell. The undergraduate research position he found, in a lab whose focus was on biomimetic microfluidic devices, sealed the deal for Bedell. It confirmed that he did indeed enjoy doing research and it helped him focus on a specific direction for his own research goals.

When he started his doctoral program at Cornell, Bedell worked with Stroock on creating artificial blood vessels. These “blood vessels on a chip” were a living system that was capable of angiogenesis—the growth of new blood vessels. Gradually, Bedell moved into building computer models of what was happening at the genetic, molecular, and cellular levels as new blood vessels grew. The number of genes involved and the cascade of reactions that take place during angiogenesis are staggeringly complex, so this effort to model what is happening has made some progress, but is still far from complete.

Bedell has also branched out into a project with Paul Debbie, Director of Technology Transfer and Licensing at the Cornell-affiliated Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI). They are exploring how best to use proprietary insect cell lines that have been isolated at the BTI. These cells have advantages over other commercially available cell lines; for example, BTI’s cells lack unwanted viral infections that are common to other insect cells. Bedell has been awarded one of the first batch of six Commercialization Fellowships from the College of Engineering. These Commercialization Fellowships are an entrepreneurship initiative designed to help doctoral students in Cornell Engineering identify and pursue potential market opportunities for a technology of their choosing.

Bedell’s first step on this new project was to figure out how insect cells were being used in the biopharmaceutical industry – particularly in the manufacturing of recombinant viruses for gene therapy. Step two was to engage in ‘customer discovery,” where he interviewed as many people in the gene therapy industry as he could to simply listen and understand the challenges these scientists and engineers were facing in commercializing their therapies. His third goal is to help develop scalable bioprocesses based on insect cell culture that could enable more researchers and companies to successfully bring gene therapies to market. Bedell will be visiting a research and development consortium in Austria soon to learn more about the challenges of pioneering new manufacturing methods.

With so much focus on the business side of things, you might think the Commercialization Fellowship has shifted Bedell’s focus away from his doctoral studies and academic career growth.  “The opposite is true,” says Bedell. “Ironically, this whole experience has strengthened my desire and my ability to work in academia. I have a better sense of what sorts of problems are worth pursuing; I have a better idea of how to plan out a program of research; and I have deepened my ability to pivot and work on new problems. Everything is coming together quite nicely, and, as I said, Abe (Stroock) has been very supportive.”

Bedell hopes to finish his doctoral studies in 2017.

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