Current Title, Department, Employer:
PhD Student, McKay Orthopaedic Labs & Department of Bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania

Brief Bio (Past Education, Research Positions, etc.):
I received my B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin in 2017, where I worked as an undergraduate research assistant in Willerson Center for Cardiovascular Modeling and Simulation. My main projects in this capacity were aiding in the development of novel mechanical testing systems for investigating the material properties of ventricular myocardium and heart valve leaflets. After graduating from UT, I began my PhD in Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania in the McKay Orthopaedic Labs. The central theme of my graduate research is investigating the factors that influence tendon healing, including the impact of systemic factors like age and the role of specific matrix proteins such as the small leucine rich proteoglycans biglycan and decorin.

Who have been your mentors?
In undergrad at UT, I was spent many years working in Michael Sacks’ lab. His excitement for research was contagious, and he was extremely trusting of me as an undergrad researcher. My time in his lab inspired me to seek a career in research and attend graduate school. It was also his recommendation that led me to attend Penn for my PhD and select Louis Soslowsky as my principal investigator and primary mentor. I am very grateful to Lou for his mentorship and guidance as I mature as a person and scientist. Specifically, I love how Lou gives his graduate students ample space to grow and develop with the knowledge that you have his experience and expertise with past students to catch you if you fall. I also receive phenomenal mentorship from surrounding faculty and physicians, including Nat Dyment, Andy Kuntz, Joel Boerckel, Rob Mauck, and Rebecca Wells. I feel strongly that I have amazing mentors surrounding me at Penn and that these folks will continue to be mentors to me throughout my career.

What are you currently working on?
Currently, my main projects are 1) investigating the impact of age on Achilles tendon healing in the rat and 2) investigating the temporal role of the SLRPs decorin and biglycan in tendon healing using inducible genetic knockout mouse models. These projects have led to some exciting data (which will hopefully be published in the not-too-distant future) but have also taught me valuable research and technical skills that I believe will serve me well as I complete my PhD.

What project(s) are you looking forward to in the near future?
In the spring of 2020, I took a course co-taught by Rob Mauck and Rebecca Wells called “The Extracellular Matrix,” where we talked extensively about how cells interpret and react to local mechanical cues provided by their surrounding ECM. While the world was coming to a screeching halt with the coronavirus pandemic, my mind was racing with the possibilities of how these concepts could be applied to the tendon field. With this newfound mechanobiological passion in mind, I am beginning to investigate how tendon cells perceive and react to mechanical strain stimuli from the surrounding tendon ECM via cytoskeletal and focal adhesion components. Thus far, this project has taken me down a path of in situ mechanical loading and live confocal microscopy to visualize matrix to cell strain transfer. While this project is very new to me and our lab, I am very excited to see where it goes as I complete my PhD. 

What was the last book you read for fun and would you recommend it?
I am almost finished with Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, which I have been listening to on Audible. It is certainly very long winded (~26 hours in length), so it may not be for the faint of heart. However, I have found its lengthiness to be terrific for listening to during lab work that might otherwise be somewhat mundane (for instance, sitting in the dark TEM room alone for hours on end). In this book, he goes into the pros and cons of all the decisions he made as president. What has struck me has been the similarities between the decision-making processes he describes to those we make as scientists – balancing risk and reward, cost/effort with practicality, and the likelihood of failure or successful and compelling results. I would recommend this book to anyone with 26 hours of upcoming experiments to do! 

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Twitter Handle (personal or lab): @ThomasPLeahy