Engineering Alumna, Now Department Chair, Receives OCEC Award

For being a longtime mentor to the next generation of women engineers, Harvey Mudd College alumna and engineering Professor Elizabeth Orwin ’95 received the Orange County Engineering Council’s Distinguished Educator Award and President’s Award.

The awards were presented during the OCEC’s annual banquet Feb. 25. The event honors the accomplishments, quality and diversity of engineering and related scientific communities in Southern California.

Orwin, who holds the James Howard Kindelberger Professorship in Engineering and is chair of the Department of Engineering, is also director of the Engman Fellowship Program in Bioengineering, which trains students in biomedical engineering research and device design. Her lab’s main research focus is in the area of tissue engineering, specifically applied to the study and development of an artificial corneal construct. A recent a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded an ongoing research project aimed at helping those with corneal disease see better. Titled “Controlling Cell Phenotype in a Tissue-Engineered Corneal Model,” the research seeks to create viable, transparent corneal tissue that can serve as replacement tissue for diseased or damaged human corneas.

The Orwin lab is attempting to rehabilitate damaged rabbit corneal fibroblasts—responsible for wound healing in damaged optical tissue—and eventually create a tissue-engineered corneal replacement to supplant donated organs in corneal transplants. Their innovative engineering-inspired approach to this biological problem looks at the cell as a system and analyzes its response to individual signals and signal combinations in order to more effectively design a tissue-engineered cornea.

Orwin, whose background is in tissue engineering and mechanical analysis of soft tissues, began the cornea project during her PhD thesis at University of Minnesota and continued the project after accepting a faculty position at Harvey Mudd in 2001. Working over the past 16 years with student teams as well as Harvey Mudd Professor of Physics Richard Haskell and James Madison University Associate Professor of Biology Marta Bechtel (both co-principal investigators on the NIH grant), the Orwin lab has expanded its analytical capabilities and made significant progress in the production of scaffolds for tissue engineering, cell culture, analysis of protein expression and the design and manufacturing of devices to support its work. Their studies will lead to a better understanding of the role of biomimicry in the design and implementation of tissue-engineered systems, and the research will contribute to the understanding of wound healing in fibroblastic cells.

In addition to teaching courses in engineering design and engineering systems, Orwin has developed courses and programming in biomedical engineering. She has served as advisor for the Harvey Mudd chapter of Society of Women Engineers and has drawn on her extensive background, as well as her experience as an engineering alumna, to mentor many women engineers.