Dianne Little, BVSc PhD MRCVS DACVS
Associate Professor Department of Basic Medical Sciences and The Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering (Courtesy Appointment), Purdue University
Multidisciplinary Orthopaedic Regenerative Engineering (MORE) Lab
Bachelor of Veterinary Science (DVM Equivalent) – University of Liverpool, England (1998)
Master’s of Specialized Veterinary Medicine – North Carolina State University (2003)
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Surgeons (Large Animal Surgery) (2004)
PhD (Gastrointestinal Physiology/Biotechnology) (2006)
Post-Doc – Dr. Farsh Guilak PhD -Duke University Department of Orthopaedic Surgery (2007-2011)
Who has been (have been) your mentor(s)?
Emeritus Professor Barrie Edwards CBE BVSc DVetMed FRCVS from the University of Liverpool was my first academic mentor during vet school – Tragically he died in 2011, but he was a pioneer of surgery in horses, initially using chloroform anesthesia and straw bales to position the horses on their backs in the middle of a field for exploratory laparotomy. He kept detailed handwritten notes of tens of thousands of cases he had done on paper spreadsheets, and had an insatiable appetite for answering scientific questions. He always expected a thorough rationale and thinking outside of established norms for any new idea to solve a clinical problem. In the operating room/theatre, he was humble – the first to grab the broom or mop to clean up the floor after a messy case, no matter the time of night. He was an excellent artist, an avid supporter of cricket, and of Welsh rugby. When I thanked him for being a mentor, he said something that I think probably resonates with many of us – ‘The greatest privilege for a mentor is when their mentees go and do greater things than they could ever have done’. At the time I was really struggling, so it meant a huge amount to me that he believed in me enough to say that.
In the orthopaedic field, Farsh Guilak PhD totally took a risk on me – I was unemployed at the time, an ‘unknown’ in the field with no orthopaedic ‘pedigree’, very burned out, and done with academia – I was trying to choose between going to medical school or moving to industry. Farsh brought me into his group as a post-doc with some serendipitous industry funding ‘to do something in tendon’. At the time I had almost no background in orthopaedic research, but he gave me the freedom to learn and explore. He has been and still is an outstanding mentor through many challenges and transitions.
What are you currently working on?
Our main area right now is rotator cuff tendon tissue engineering, integration of multiple different ‘omics platforms – using multiomics in order to get a better understanding of how novel biomaterials can provide better cues to direct engineered tendon formation.
What has been the biggest challenge/issue for you lately in your research?
I think pandemic- and social justice-related. Of course the physical challenges – ongoing supply chain issues, quarantine and back to childcare/homeschool at the drop of a hat, the list goes on. However, the human costs of managing institutional expectations and the expectations of normal research operating frameworks – funding, publications, grant applications, peer review, teaching, etc. during the last 18-24 months have been the most challenging. My primary goal has been trying to ensure that everyone in the group fundamentally maintains their mental health, looks after their own and their families’ health – sometimes over thousands of miles, and maintains some level of work-life boundary. Secondary to all of this has been trying to maintain forward progress on research programs and academic careers within the pre-existing institutional and research frameworks. Balancing these two goals has been incredibly difficult.
What project(s) are you looking forward to in the near future?
As tissue engineering moves towards successful translation, as a field we need to be very cognizant of the narrow spectrum in which most research is conducted. Experimental conditions are usually ‘ideal’ and are optimized to a narrow range of ‘normal’ or ‘diseased’, but translation into the real world is not ideal, and both ‘normal’ and ‘diseased’ cover a wide spectrum of individuals, each with a different life course and allostatic load. I look forward to exploring these ideas more, to try to do my part to make regenerative medicine and tissue engineering approaches equally successful for all, and to ensure that our understanding of disease and of treatment responses fully incorporates understanding of the influence of extrinsic factors.
When not in the lab, what do you like to do for fun?
We have a small farm and raise all of our own grassfed meat and fish, eggs, and most of our own vegetables. Provides different sets of challenges to the academic environment, good thinking and ‘off’ time, plenty of physical activity, and spawns several new research ideas every year. There is a lot we miss in orthopaedics simply by not observing or thinking across fields (literally!).
What was the last book you read for fun? Would you recommend it?
Deep Work by Cal Newport. Something I had substantially difficulty getting back into post-head injury, and with all the additional distractions of the last 18 months. Highly recommend – particularly if day after day you feel as if you are not making progress on anything that ‘counts’.
What is the most unusual/unexpected item sitting on your desk right now?
The ‘Gastrointestinal Fortitude’ trophy – a trophy of the back half of a horse, with a Lego astronaut and Lego person sized exam glove glued to its back. In April I ran a challenge quiz for the veterinary students I teach, and the trophy of the back half of a horse was the closest I could find relevant to the gastrointestinal physiology module. The ‘Gastronauts’ were the winning team and decorated the trophy accordingly. In the other corner is a pile of sheep ulnas left over from a demonstration on bone health and fracture repair I did for a 3rd grade class a few weeks ago.
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