Student spotlight: Yunfei Niu

Lauren Smith

Aug 21, 2023

Yunfei Niu stands in front of Doherty Hall

In the biomolecular engineering lab in Doherty Hall, Yunfei Niu is using a capillary electrophoresis method to rapidly check if mRNA used in vaccines is intact and properly folded. She is working with Jim Schneider, a professor of chemical engineering, to develop rush assays to quickly tell how much mRNA is in a sample, if it's folded properly, and if it's the right quality. The vision is to offer a standard quality control protocol for lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) used in vaccines.

High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is currently used in industry for mRNA quality control. It requires expensive solvents and maintenance, and throughput is limited by extensive wash and conditioning steps. Additionally, the gel electrophoresis methods widely used in lab-scale testing of mRNA for LNPs are too slow for routine analysis of vaccine feedstocks.

Because electrophoresis instrumentation is relatively cheap and easy to use, Schneider's new method could be deployed not only in biomanufacturing but also for routine testing at point-of-use to ensure safety.

Niu, a master's student in the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering (MS-BTPE) program, started working in Schneider's lab at the beginning of the spring semester and plans to continue through her graduation in December.

She chose Carnegie Mellon's MS-BTPE program for its interdisciplinary courses. She liked the continuity from her undergraduate studies in bioengineering, which also combined chemical engineering and biological sciences.

Niu comes from a family of doctors. Her father is also adept at working with computers and electronics. Watching him sparked Niu's interest as a child. When it came time to choose her own course of study, she knew she preferred something logical, so she chose engineering.

Niu appreciates that the MS-BTPE program balances lecture courses and lab experience, including wet labs. "This program is really focused on how we can learn skills that are very helpful for finding jobs or doing research in the future," she says.

A group of 13 young adults pose for a photo.

Yunfei Niu (front row, center) with MS-BTPE classmates.

Thinking about her job search, Niu feels well-prepared for opportunities in both biological sciences and chemical engineering. "We are learning some really useful information about what we might be asked if we have a job interview with a pharmaceutical company," Niu says.

The MS-BTPE students whom Niu knows from last year's class all either found a job or are pursuing a Ph.D. after graduating last December.

Niu emphasizes that the MS-BTPE program is a small and supportive community. "Everyone in my program is a close friend," she says. "We also have a lot of time to talk with our advisors and professors."