Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation

Pennsylvania State University

Specific Area of Interest
Tendon/ligament biomechanics, mechanobiology, and remodeling

Who has been (have been) your mentor(s)?
I have been blessed with a number of great mentors throughout my career, including Dr. Steffen Leonhardt at the RWTH Aachen University who helped me navigate my career transition from mechanical engineering to biomedical engineering. Drs. Dawn Elliott and Robert Mauck were extraordinarily helpful in teaching me how to conduct research, manage a lab, write grants, give presentations, etc., and have been the models that I strive to emulate as a faculty member. Additionally, Drs. Hazel Screen and Jess Snedeker have been incredibly supportive and open, providing me with advice and insight as I develop my research program.

What are you currently working on?
Broadly, my research investigates the interplay between tendon multiscale mechanics and mechanobiology in the context of tissue remodeling (e.g., degeneration, repair, and development). We currently have three active projects pursuing these research interests. In one study recently funded by an R21, we are investigating the mechanotransduction mechanisms that drive embryonic tendon development. Specifically, we are using multiscale mechanical testing, computational modeling, and ultrastructural imaging to determine the specific structural and mechanical changes that occur during development leading to a functional load-bearing tissue. Additionally, we are using CRISPR/Cas9 constructs to test whether specific mechanotransduction pathways mediate proper tendon development, with the ultimate goal of informing and enhancing tissue engineering approaches. Our second project (supported by a pilot grant from the AR3T) uses tendon explants to determine whether the cartilaginous, fat, or calcium deposits observed in tendinopathy are due to altered biophysical stimuli presented to endogenous stem cells in fatigue-damaged tendons. Finally, in a third project (supported by an internal pilot grant), we are studying the role of mechanical forces and mechanotransduction during post-surgical remodeling of ACL reconstructions. Specifically, we are interested in testing whether deficient or aberrant mechanobiology contributes to the high rerupture rates of allograft ACL reconstructions in young active individuals. The findings of our work will help develop novel mechanobiological strategies in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine with the aim of enhancing tendon/ligament regeneration and repair.

What has been the biggest challenge/issue for you lately in your research?
As a new faculty member, everything feels like my biggest challenge! Everything is a first (writing my first grants, developing my first classes, training my first students), which makes things exciting but also slow and daunting. Still, my biggest difficulty/mistake so far has been correctly identifying the greatest technical challenges that limit progress on my projects. Often, the things I think will be easy are much harder than I expected, and sometimes (but not as often) the things I think will be hard are not quite such a challenge. So prioritizing the focus of my small lab in the most fruitful directions has required constant adjustment.

What project(s) are you looking forward to in the near future?
Honestly, the projects that I am currently working on are those that I am most excited about. However, I have had to turn away a number of collaborations to maintain the focus of my lab and I hope to work on these projects in the future. One is to study the multiscale mechanics of cellulose fibers in plant walls, which have many similarities to collagen fibrils in tendon. Another is studying whether mechanical forces applied to cell nuclei induces epigenetic changes that lead to altered cell behavior (e.g., cancer metastasis, stem cell differentiation).

What advice would you give a researcher just starting out in the field?
I’m not sure what “just starting out in the field” means (I feel like I fit that description), but my advice for anyone earlier in their careers (i.e., postdocs, graduate students) is the same that Dr. Alan Grodzinsky offered in : “Work only in areas and on projects that completely drive your interest and curiosity.” I was fortunate during my PhD to design my own dissertation and having the opportunity to work on my own idea was really motivating. Without this internal drive, I don’t believe my PhD would have been as successful. The other piece of advice is to believe in yourself. I had a lot of self-doubt about whether I would make it in academia, and ultimately I decided it was better to try and possibly fail than not try at all.

When not in the lab, what do you like to do for fun?
I have two small children (age 2 and 4) who take up pretty much all of my time outside of the lab. They are incredibly grounding and really help put the stress of work into perspective. Having children has definitely made me better at prioritizing my time and mentoring my graduate students. Unfortunately, data show that marital status/family responsibilities is the most important factor differentiating participation of men and women in engineering. Specifically, single women are 22 percentage points more likely to be working full-time as scientists/engineers compared to women with small children (93% vs. 71%), while there is the opposite effect for men (National Research Council 2001. From Scarcity to Visibility: Gender Differences in the Careers of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers.)! So clearly several professional and societal changes are necessary in order for the “hobby” of raising children to be something universal in academia.

What was the last book you read for fun? Would you recommend it?
The last book I read was Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein. It presents research regarding the pressures that girls and young women experience regarding sex, body image, and assault. Definitely eye-opening as a man and father, and I would highly recommend it.

September 2019