Undergraduate Research | Donie Falbo

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project. Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.

My project was specifically testing the cytotoxicity of 3D-printed Nitinol bone fixation devices for use in craniofacial plastic surgery. I used an assortment of assays and mechanical testing to determine if the plates will be viable in the human body; some of my asssays are as followed: PrestoBlue assay, Live-Dead Stain, Cell Culture, Ultra Sonication, and many more techniques.

  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project? Write one or two paragraphs to describe the change or transformation that took place.

My understanding of my capabilities has changed exponentially due to this STEP Signature Project. I have found out that I am now capable of being in an intense environment and contribute greatly to it. This project gave me confidence in my abilities; it has showed me that I am smart and able. I feel as though I am able to take on any task after this project. I went in very nervous and not knowing what to expect; after all, I was entering a plastic surgery research laboratory with no prior research experience. I started to grow in my abilities on day 1. This project demanded me to step up on an individual level and not depend on many people, and at first, that was scary. However, by the end of it, I gained so much independence and knowledge from it.

My view of the world was transformed through this project. I was able to see the world through scientist’s eyes and make major contributions. Before this, I had no idea about the use of 3D-printed materials in science, especially surgery. I soon was propelled deep into the language and world of plastic surgery where I was able to prosper and learn from the best of the best. I was transformed in a way where I now have so many connections all around the world. I was also transformed in a responsibility way. I was constantly challenged to problem solve on my own and find my own solutions to the issues that I was having. This project taught me how to be a team player and served as a catalyst on my journey to becoming a leader within the lab.


  1. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you? Write three or four paragraphs describing the key aspects of your experiences completing your STEP Signature Project that led to this change/transformation.


One major event that occurred during my time that contributed to my transformation is when the NiTi devices were rapidly eroding during a sonication, or cleaning, bath. The purpose of the bath is to remove powder particles and prepare the samples for the cytotoxicity testing. However, upon sonication, the samples were rapidly eroding. For reference, the bath is filled with an acid solution, but it should not make the samples erode. I then was faced with a challenge on how to change this situation fast without ruining all of the samples. I then completed a separate test with different time variables to see the optimum time that the samples should be in the water. I also concluded that, while we need to watch for air bubbles and remove them as soon as possible, it was also important to not do too much stirring as it would introduce too much oxygen into the acid bath and contribute to erosion. By doing this, I feel as though I transformed in my ability to problem solve and find solutions to problems on the spot. It is vital to be able to act fast, especially in a laboratory setting so I truly believe I gained skills necessary to critically think on the spot.

My interactions and relationships that I made during this project are some of the most valuable in my entire career thus far. I became very close with another undergraduate student who was also working with the nitinol devices. He and I would constantly communicate about the most effective ways to go about the research. We even developed an entirely new protocol for the lab together. He is a valuable peer resource that I now have for future reference.

Another relationship that I made was with my direct project leader, Agnieszka. She is not my PI, but instead, she was just the PhD student project leader for the NiTi project. I worked closely with her everyday on experiments that we were running and relied on each others assistance during the summer. We would brainstorm solutions to problems that occurred and investigated the ins and outs of our project together. She helped me grow more knowledgeable about the specific project that I was on. She is from Poland and has been working with these chemicals and testing methods for many years, therefore I was able to benefit from her experience.

Another grad student that I made a relationship with was Valeria. She is from Mexico and was the head of the Cell Culture and Surgery team. She oversaw all of the cell culture work going on in the lab. Since many of the tests that I would do had to do wit cell culture, she was a vital resource for me. She taught me about cells and proper handling of them. She helped to transform me into an expert with sterile cell culture work. Without her, it would have taken me twice as long. However, with her on my team, I was able to learn quickly and efficiently. We are still in communication. I plan to keep up with her and keep her as an important resource in my life. She helped me become more independent and confident.

Lastly, my PI has instilled confidence in me. I take his lab very seriously, and as I said, it was scary to enter this lab with no prior experience. He trusted me with his materials and depended on me to get the job done. I presented my work to him a few times throughout the semester and he was impressed every time. He helped me to feel more capable; when he would give me words of encouragement, I would feel as though I was on the right track and it motivated me to continue striving for success. He helped me grow so much intelligence on, not just my project, but all of his projects that he had going on in the lab. At each weekly lab meeting, we would go in detail about all of the projects and I learned so much from each of those. This experience with him helped me to grow as a scientist, student, and human.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? Write one or two paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.

This transformation was vital in the grand scheme of my life across all parts. It has helped me academically because I got to learn so much about different types of science: polymer chemistry, acids, mechanical testing, 3D-printed materials, cells, etc. I got to put my textbook knowledge to the test in a real-life laboratory setting. This helped to strengthen the concepts in my head. Also, I was able to grow personally due to all of the responsibility that was placed on me. It helped me to be able to grow in my ability to use my knowledge and capabilities for the better. This personal transformation was also due to all of the connections that I made. I was able to meet people from all of the world and work very closely with them. This helped me culturally, as I had to listen closely due to our language differences. This transformation was able to better me on all different aspects. I never expected this amount of growth from this project. Lastly, this change will be a strong aspect of my life as I progress through my education. Having this experience will assist with my competitiveness for medical school, as well as, give me much to talk about with admissions committees. This experience will be one that I will never forget.