Associate Professor

Department of Orthopedics, Washington University in St Louis


BS Mechanical Engineering, UC Berkeley
MS Biomedical Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Ph.D. Biomedical Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
MS in Clinical Investigations, Washington University in St Louis

Who has been (have been) your mentor(s)?
I did my PhD training with Professor Deepak Vashishth and Postdoc with Professor Tamara Alliston, both of whom were instrumental to my training and career development, and they have become good friends and life-long mentors to me.  My senior colleagues are compassionate mentors and crucial collaborators to many of my research projects (Matt Silva, Lori Setton, Linda Van Dillen, to name a few).

Specific Area of Interest:
My research program integrates musculoskeletal bioengineering and regenerative medicine to discover novel and new therapies for precision medicine and rehabilitation. Musculoskeletal conditions, including low back pain, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis, afflict nearly 90% of all Americans. There is an urgent societal need to engineer innovative solutions to alleviate the public burdens of these diseases. We investigate the disease mechanisms that affect structure-function relationships of musculoskeletal tissues with the overall goal of developing tissue engineering and regenerative strategies for these diseases.  Through concerted collaborative efforts between engineers, molecular biologists, physical therapists, and orthopedic surgeons. More recently, we have started to collaborate with neuroscientists and physicists to investigate the tissue crosstalk between the nervous system and IVD biology in order to better understand the physiology of chronic pain in musculoskeletal disorders.

What are you currently working on?
We’re engaged in understanding the pathoanatomical and pathophysiological mechanisms of the intervertebral disc (IVD) that lead to low back pain.  These efforts include looking at the cross talk between the IVD and the central nervous system, immune system, and bone.  We are also looking at the dysregulation of growth factors and ion channels that contribute to IVD degeneration and the development of low back pain symptoms.

We’re also excited about a collaboration with an industry partner to improve the prediction of fracture using in vivo, patient specific measurements of bone quality.  Participating in the translational research and seeing how the science continues to unfold into clinical adoption is an enlightening process.

What has been the biggest challenge/issue for you lately in your research?
The biggest challenge by far is the loss of the spontaneous interactions with my lab members and with colleagues.  A lot of great discussions come from quick chats in the hallway or in the elevator; often, coffee breaks lead to stimulating and creative new ideas; and being to drop into the hustle and bustle of a full lab is energizing!  Unfortunately, the public health precautions necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic also minimized these interactions.

What project(s) are you looking forward to in the near future?
The best part of science and research is the collaborations and the ability to constant learn and incorporate new findings.  Thus I’m looking forward to the fruits of on-going collaborations, as well as developing new collaborations that will lead us to doing new science that we haven’t been able to do!

When not in the lab, what do you like to do for fun?
We try to spend as much time outdoors as possible nowadays.  This can range from hiking, biking, going to the park, or the zoo.

What was the last book you read for fun? Would you recommend it?
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.  It was recommended by a colleague, while and it turned out that most, if not all, scientists exhibit a high degree of resilience and grit.  It was both a humbling introspective and inspiring motivator to see such a complex human trait laid out in a methodically way.  I would recommend!

What is the most unusual/unexpected item sitting on your desk right now?
I have a small abstract ‘thinker’ sculpture that I acquired on trip to South America a few years ago.  The ironic resemblance of the figurine to myself brings me a chuckle, helps me to refocus, and reminds me of the pre-pandemic days of global travel!

Watch the video interview with Dr. Tang.