Tom Zajdel: From Skin Wounds to Ventilators

Talk to Princeton Postdoctoral Research Fellow Tom J. Zajdel long enough, and the egalitarian streak comes out.

Zajdel, 30, who has been at the University’s School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering for nearly two years, spent plenty of time during our conversation discussing electrical stimulation and environmental biosensing. But Zajdel, an Ohio native currently living in Montgomery, New Jersey, has an expansive view that allows room for conversation more likely heard from those studying the humanities.

Zajdel believes that Princeton turns out students that are more rounded, a place, he says, more “like a liberal arts college for engineering.” His grand vision is that engineering students take humanities courses seriously because ultimately, he says, engineering is about serving needs and values in a societal context.

And in the spring of 2020, Zajdel is putting that desire to apply engineering to the greater good more than any crystal ball could have ever foreseen.

Rewind to early March. Zajdel, who has a B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Ohio State and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, was, like the rest of us, engaged in normal routine: driving the six miles from his home to his lab at Princeton, working on cell migration to accelerate wound healing. He is engineering devices that use electrical stimulation to ‘sheep-herd’ cellular migration. Cells have a natural ability to sense and follow fields known as electrotaxis.

The idea is to eventually control cell migration at the edges of wounds in human tissues. Zajdel adds that this work might also have an application in cancer diagnostics, since some cancer cells move differently than their healthy counterparts under stimulation.

But this work came to a halt in mid-March, and Zajdel and others at MAE now find themselves knee deep in the battle to combat the virus that has changed our world, Covid-19.

At Princeton, Zajdel is working on a rapidly deployable mechanical ventilator. His thrust is the electrical system, designing printed circuit boards for a prototype that is being worked on in upstate New York. Testing was due to start by the beginning of May.

Zajdel cites the work of: his mentor, Daniel Cohen, an Assistant Professor of MAE; Julienne LaChance, a graduate student; Dan Notterman, a pediatrician and professor in Princeton’s Department of Molecular Biology, and Moritz Kutt, a research assistant at the Technische Universitat Darmstadt in Frankfurt, Germany, for their work on the hardware and electronics.

Led by Matt Heinrich, MAE is also working on face shields and PAPR (Powered Air Purifying Respirators) shields. The shields are made of acetate - an alternative to polyester films that were in short supply – and Velcro strips for more adaptability.

“It was frustrating to see the labs close,” Zajdel explains about the realization that he would not be commuting to work for the foreseeable future. “But we thought that we ought to be able to do something (to help the fight against Coronavirus).”

Zajdel was born in Cincinnati, home to the world headquarters of Procter & Gamble and an aviation division of General Electric. Many of the parents in Zajdel’s family’s orbit were engineers. Zajdel’s father, an electrical engineer, was also an amateur radio operator and Zajdel built circuit boards from the soldering kits his father brought home. As Zajdel explains it, “this cemented my path into engineering.”

When it was time to pick a college, one criterion was financial, since, as Zajdel remembers, “college was getting expensive.” Ohio State had a good engineering school with ample opportunities to do the sort of research he was interested in.

Zajdel graduated summa cum laude from Ohio State in 2012, having completed his thesis on asynchronous stimulation for cochlear implants. He implemented a novel electrical stimulation algorithm for the implants, which had been proposed but never tested on actual implant users.

Under mentor Michel Maharbiz, Zajdel received his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 2018. His dissertation focused on devices that electronically interfaced with bacteria, which are experts at biosensing biomolecules such as amino acids and glucose at speeds and power levels not achievable by electronics alone.

“Berkeley was starting to do a lot of work in that area,” says Zajdel. “Everyone was happy and excited to be there.” That collegial atmosphere was just one more reason to head to a region chock full of renowned research institutions such as Stanford and Cal Tech.

As far as Princeton, Zajdel this time followed a mentor muse, Daniel Cohen. “I never would have thought I’d have wound up here,” he says. Cohen, a graduate student at the time in Maharbiz’s lab, was getting ready in 2018 to open one at Princeton and needed a postdoctorate fellow. Zajdel graduated Berkeley that same year. Bingo.

Then, fast forward to March, 2020.

Zajdel had been talking to wound clinics about his work on skin wounds when everything changed. But “this is the perfect time to put my skills towards medical practice,” to use, he adds.

It should be noted that being part of something bigger is not enough to ward off sporadic frustration of the disruption to routine. “It is difficult to stay motivated sometimes,” he admits. “I’d prefer to be in my lab. It’s been challenging. A lot of Zoom. When you’re in the lab, ideas can simmer in that crucible.”

But he is now part of something that will resonate beyond the headlines of today. Zajdel agrees with the current thinking that the world and society are due for a reset. “I feel like we’re in one of those realignments,” he says, recalling his feeling after 9/11. “I think we might see a lot of behavioral change. Society will have to grapple with the question of what it means to be part of this post-viral society.”

The disparities that beset society may not change anytime soon, but Zajdel remains, above all else, hopeful. “I think this will reinject some good into the vein of society,” he says. And with that, he was off to his next Zoom meeting.

-David Krakow