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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day post featuring Dr. Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. You can learn more about the project, and who Ada Lovelace is at

gummy/people_gordana.jpgToday, I have chosen to feature Dr. Gordana Vunjak Novakovic, a well known researcher in the field of tissue engineering. According to her website profile, "Gordana obtained a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering at the University of Belgrade, in her homeland of Serbia. She stayed there as a faculty, raising in the ranks from an Assistant Professor to a regular Professor. Upon moving to the USA, Gordana spent twelve years at the Harvard-MIT Division for Health Sciences and Technology. As a Fulbright Fellow, she became fascinated by the concept of tissue engineering, and emerging technologies for improving and saving human life. She then joined Columbia University in 2005, where her laboratory hosts the Bioreactor Core of the NIH Center for Tissue Engineering.
Gordana's research has been focused on engineering functional tissues for use as models of diseases, in regenerative medicine and studies of stem cells. Gordana published 2 books, 40 book chapters, over 200 peer-reviewed articles and has over 30 issued or pending patents. She is a frequent advisor to government organizations on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, and the chair of her NIH study section. Gordana is serving on editorial boards of six scientific journals, and on numerous advisory boards and councils.
I first became acquainted with Gordana presence on the planent via a book she coauthored with cell culture guru, Ian Freshney, Culture of Cells for Tissue Engineering (Culture of Specialized Cells) . When I realized the coauthor was a woman, I found myself quite thrilled to know there was at least one prominent female researcher in the field of tissue engineering, a topic close to my heart.

Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic so kindly took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to speak with me yesterday.

Gordana, I was wondering if there was anything you experienced as a young girl that caused you to gravitate towards going into science?
"I guess you are born with some kind of curious mind that leads you to science. It is also environment to some extent because when you are really young, exposure to many different challenges and opportunities feeds your imagination and helps you decide how to go one way or another. I was fortunate to have both of these. I always liked experimenting and asking questions and I also had parents who were giving me many different opportunities to go and explore many different possibilities.

I knew what I wanted to do; something very interesting, something unusual and nonroutine but didn't know until I was a junior in high school that it was science. I ended up going into an engineering school and doing bioengineering research.

Now many research laboratories open doors for high school students and undergraduate students and give them an opportunity to get the science of biomedical research and then get inspired this way to pursue it.

I also asked out of my curiosity, how long she had worked with Bob Langer, one of the founders of tissue engineering and learned a lot about her life has been a series of opportunities that moved her from chemical engineering, to biomedical engineering and ultimately to tissue engineering (which is a subset of biomedical engineering). Her openness to new challenges has led to her to where she is today."

I'm interested in knowing about the excitement you find in scientific research.

"It is a lot of excitement! We all work very hard, and this is by choice. What the driver is is the excitement, because you see things in laboratories that are inspirational. So in a very general sense, what I find amazing and inspiring is that you can create conditions in the laboratory that mimic the conditions in an organism and then study processes that happen in our organism in a controllable setting. So this is the art and engineering of imitating nature, so we are creating the conditions for the cells to do their job.

What we see is the assembly of the cells into some functional structure so it can get a little cardiac tissue, which is generating force or get a little piece of bone tissue or a piece of cartilage. The exciting thing is that in all these pieces of tissue, we are looking into developing treatment options for people who are born without tissue, such a babies with cleft palate, or through trauma or surgery have lost some tissue.

If you can make small constructs in which you put the cells in so they are surrounded by other cells in the matrix, I would think that the responses from these cells will be much more realistic biologically. This is how technology is serving stem cell researchers.

I think that is some of the excitement. One more component, especially, is that stem cells and tissue engineering is a type of work where you CANNOT do yourself, just sitting alone at the end of bench. You DO need to work with other people and there are many many challenges and excitement and rewards of talking with people outside your area of expertise. So we have to work with many types of scientists and engineers and clinicians and this exchange of ideas that gives you exposure to knowledge in fields of medicine that you have not been familiar with is another exciting thing. This is the thing that drives you. It is a lot of excitement."

I see you were inducted into the Hall of Fame for Women in Technology in 2008. Congratulations. What piece of advice would you like to share with young ladies considering a career in science?

"I think that they should really try, and like the rest of us who are much older than they are, they should look into the HARDEST problem they can work on.

In graduate school, you are going to work very hard, so it is best if you can work on something that will make a difference. It will make a difference for you because it will be challenging you to be clever and creative, and may make a difference in the people around you. Don't choose something routine and easy, rather, choose something important.

Aiming high in terms of impact of the problems you are studying scientifically and practically are very important things.

The other important thing, is, in general, to think about the general environment and how it impacts you personally and professionally. You need to look for an environment that is supportive of what YOU want to do. It is good to aim for the best school you can get into, but the specific microenvironment, the specific lab, you enter is extremely important because this will determine not only how successful you are, but how good you feel about your work."

That'a beautiful answer and wonderful advice. Thank you for your time!

I enjoyed my brief conversation with her. She even inspired me, and I'm already a big believer in women in science and definitely in tissue engineering as a promise for the field of regenerative medicine.

Gordana has been recently quoted in Elle Magazine in an article about the future of healing skin, so you might want to check that out, too.

BioBusinessTV has a fabulous series of videos about stem cells and their uses in research. You can watch Gordana here talk a little more about her work.

Wed, March 24, 2010 | link 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tue, March 23, 2010 | link 

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