Tyler DiStefano is a PhD Candidate in the Spine Bioengineering Laboratory in the Department of Orthopaedics at Mount Sinai.
Who were/are your past scientific mentors?
There have been so many over the years (more than I can mention here!). My first meaningful BME research experience was at Rutgers University, where I participated in an NSF REU program in Cellular Bioengineering with Dr. Ronke Olabisi (now at UC Irvine). From that REU, I knew that I wanted to segue into biomedical research from my undergraduate program in mechanical engineering. I then joined NEI/NIBIB to do a postbaccalaureate fellowship within the intramural research program at NIH, where Drs. Anand Swaroop and Nicole Morgan were my primary advisors. My time at NIH was formative in my scientific development and ultimately motivated me to pursue a PhD. After matriculating into the PhD program at Mount Sinai, I joined Dr. Iatridis’s lab to carry out my dissertation research. He has been a key mentor throughout my time in grad school, but definitely not the only one. Other notable mentors include Drs. Alice Huang, Dirk Hubmacher, Kevin Costa, Eric Sobie, and Evren Azeloglu— They’ve really seen me grow as a researcher over the course of my PhD.
Can you give us a brief overview of your research?
My doctoral research is focused on developing minimally invasive cell-free tissue engineering strategies for intervertebral disc repair following discectomy. Specifically, I’ve been investigating the use of bioadhesive hydrogels with stem cell-derived extracellular vesicles to durably seal annular defects and decelerate the progression of intervertebral disc degeneration. This research is clinically significant because we want to mitigate the risk of recurrent herniation and prevent degeneration-related pain at the same level in which surgery was performed.
How did you get involved in orthopaedic research?
Although my early work in retinal tissue engineering was very exciting and equipped me with the necessary skills to undertake independent research at the doctoral level, I was particularly interested in combining my postbaccalaureate training in biomedical research with my undergraduate education in mechanical engineering. That being said, orthopaedic research was the perfect fit for me. The musculoskeletal system is full of fascinating and complex problems that draws upon basic biology, materials science, engineering, and so many other fields. Viewing myself as an interdisciplinary applied scientist, this was a very exciting space to move into for grad school and would afford me the opportunity to combine many facets of science that would sustain my interests throughout my PhD.
How has the ORS supported you?
The ORS has been a great forum to meet new people in the musculoskeletal research community, both within my scientific discipline/tissue system and beyond. Not only have I broadened my professional network through ORS, but I also feel that I’ve made life-long friends through the society. Throughout my PhD, I’ve also had a number of opportunities to present my work to a broad/diverse audience at ORS-sponsored meetings. In turn, these opportunities have certainly helped me develop into a better scientific communicator.
What is your favorite thing about the ORS?
Above all, my favorite thing about the ORS is the people. It is such a supportive, collaborative, and friendly community. And because of that, I’m happy that it’s my scientific ‘home base’ society.
Why do you believe diversity and inclusion is important?
Institutional and corporate efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are critically important to ensure that we have a diverse and globally connected biomedical research workforce. To that end, we have to ensure that those in positions of power double down on efforts to recruit and retain a diverse group of scientists and engineers at every level. Everyone belongs in STEM, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. As a gay man, I can personally attest to the incredible value of being able to bring your full authentic self to work without having to hide who you are. And there is plenty of literature to support that. But DEI is not just about supporting LGBTQIA+-identifying individuals. It’s also about creating an inclusive, supportive, and equitable environment for black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). As we progress well into this next decade, it is important that those in positions of power continue to actively dismantle systemic racism in order to retain the best and brightest scientists and engineers in all sectors.
What are your career goals?
Following the completion of my PhD, I will be joining Charles River Associates as a Consulting Associate in their Life Science Practice in NYC. Throughout my graduate training, I’ve always been interested in the intersection of business and translational science, really focused on the question, “How can I help those who developed new biotechnologies position their assets competitively in the marketplace?” Life science consulting is a great career path that will afford me the opportunity to do just that in a fast-paced environment and gain broad exposure to many different areas of biotech. Seeing myself as a scientific generalist, it was important to find a position with significant technical breadth since I get excited by a vast array of science, be it in the orthopedic space or elsewhere. In this role, I will specifically be focused on developing commercial strategy as well as pricing and market access advisement for therapeutics, medical devices, and diagnostics.
Although my next step is non-academic, I will never regret my decision to pursue a PhD. This degree has undoubtedly equipped me with the translatable skills needed for this career path. Moreover, life science consulting firms often require their associates to have a PhD in the life sciences or engineering!
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your scientific career? (socially, professionally, culturally, scientifically, etc.)
I think the biggest scientific challenge I’ve experienced (rather, am experiencing) is trying to successfully complete my PhD in the middle of a pandemic without burning out, while also being on a timeline to graduate in May ’21. It takes a village to finish and staying in close contact with my network of professional mentors, family, and friends has been critical to keep that motivation going. The biggest personal challenge I’ve experienced to-date was coming out of the closet. However, taking that leap of faith and overcoming that challenge to embrace who I truly am has been the biggest game changer in my life. Three years later, I am so incredibly proud to be openly out as a gay man doing research in a traditionally conservative discipline/clinical department. And I’m even happier to say that my institution has been firmly committed to supporting LGBTQIA+ trainees, faculty, and staff at every level.
Any personal interests or hobbies you would like to share?
Working out and staying physically fit has kept me mentally grounded throughout my PhD. That daily bit of “me” time is really important. Outside of the lab, I also love going out with friends, trying new foods/restaurants, dancing, and listening to live music (if and when that’s a thing again in a post-COVID world).
What personal advice would you give to new investigators starting out in the field?
Fully acknowledging that I’d also be considered a “new investigator”, there are two pieces of advice that I’d like to share with my peers: First, don’t be afraid to fail and fail often… But always make sure to walk away from your failures having learned something. Second, don’t become overly disheartened or fall into the downward spiral of imposter syndrome. As a scientist, it is necessary that we embrace resilience. Remember, we are where we are because we have demonstrated qualifications to be a member of that laboratory or graduate program— Plenty of people have believed us and will continue to believe in us.