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What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
Read sci-fi or fantasy novels, needlepoint, and arts and crafts with my kids.

Do you play any musical instruments?
No, not a musical bone in my body. But I love to dance.

Do you play any sports or do any athletic activities?
Not any more, but used to be a runner.

What is your favorite non-science book, magazine, or blog?
I love fantasy and science fiction books. My past favorites have been Ender’s 
Game and anything with dragons.

What’s the most frequently played song on your mp3 player?
I love Motown, Latin Salsa and Indie. But I listen to about anything.

How do you describe yourself?
Organized and fact-based. Playful and lighthearted. I have been told I’m “mother hen” at times. I guess other’s well-being always touches my heart.

Who do you look up to and admire?
My parents are my biggest mentors. They have accomplished so much with such limited resources.

Other bio info that you’d like to share
I was born in England and moved to NYC in my early teens. My accent is neither NY nor British. 

Highest degree attained
Ph.D. in Bioengineering

Future degree(s) planning on pursuing
Would love to get Master’s in Technology Commercialization

Schools attended
High School: Kent School, Kent CT
Undergraduate: Started at Cornell University, finished at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy NY

Favorite classes/coursework in middle school, high school, college
Middle School: Physics and Math
High School: Physics, Math and Computer Science
College: Fluid Dynamics

What educational accomplishments are you most proud of?
That I completed both my Bachelor and Ph.D. degrees. During my early years, I was told I was not going to accomplish a lot. I have proved to myself that I am more than what others define me as. I have received many awards, including National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellowship, NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) and Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB) Graduate Fellowship.

What kinds of challenges did you overcome during your education?
My early years I was diagnosed deaf. After surgery, I had delayed learning and had a lot to catch up.

When I moved to the US, the hardest challenge was understanding the American accent and made courses like English and social studies very difficult.

In college, the biggest challenge was learning I was no longer the top 1%, in a sea of 1%. I had to relearn how to learn. It took me leaving Cornell and returning to college a couple of years later to re-establish myself. When I returned to school I was financially independent and had to take a lot of loans to pay back. To this day I am paying off my loans.

Current Employer
Texas Heart Institute, Regenerative Medicine Research Laboratories

Official Title
Assistant Director of Organ Repair and Regeneration Research

“Layman’s” Title
Bioengineer – an engineer that designs, builds and tests products to improve the quality of life for animals and/or humans.

Years in this organization/position
1 year, 7 months

What does your organization do?
The mission of the Texas Heart Institute is to reduce the devastating toll of cardiovascular disease through innovative programs in research, education and improved patient care.

In the Regenerative Medicine Research (RMR) laboratories our primary research focus is on growing a fully functional human heart.

What is your role in the organization?
I have dual roles. As Assistant Director I am responsible for all research projects that are ongoing in the lab. I manage schedules, budgets, write grants and papers.

As a bioengineer scientist, I am responsible for the design, build and use of bioreactors in tissue engineering projects. My background in naturally derived biomaterials also allows to me be involved in developing materials for designing cardiac tissue parts, such as patches and valves. 

Describe your work environment
The RMR has 23 members. The OR3 that I manage has 13 members. They include biologists, clinicians, and engineers. Education levels range from Ph.D., M.D. to recent Bachelor of Science graduates.

What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?
In our research, we use molecular biology and biochemistry tools and techniques, such as PCR, blotting, flow cytometry, and cell culture.

We also use engineering skills, such as 3D drawing and printing, machining, assembly of pumps and motors. More specifically, in biomaterials we perform chemistry and polymer science.

We also perform in vivo studies in both large and small animal models. The MDs use their surgical skills for surgeries and other medical skills such as imaging with echocardiography.

Because of the multidisciplinary work we perform, most of us have to learn other skills outside our expertise, such as engineers performing cell culture and surgery techniques, biologists learning and using bioreactors and controllers and surgeons performing molecular assays and histology.

Describe a typical day in your job
After checking email, members will check on any living experiment that is ongoing. Living means with live cells, which require a change in nutrients or checking oxygen or pH levels. If we are performing a decellularization, the tissue has to be cleaned and prepared and placed in the bioreactor. Solutions have to be made and sterilized and controllers have to be calibrated and recorded.

Afternoons are usually a continuation of morning events, unless reports, presentations or manuscripts are in preparation. Emails are checked before leaving to assure all important issues are addressed before leaving. 

The lab runs full staff 6 days a week for about 10-12 hrs a day. 

Describe an atypical day in your job
An atypical day would be complete focus on a manuscript or funding proposal preparation. We also have retreats when we all meet to discuss in depth the work being performed and to make sure everyone is striving for the same goals and visions. Related work by others is discussed and compared and new goals are developed if needed.

How is the work you do important to society?
Our research is translational to the patients and we hope to be successful in our work with innovative solutions to cardiac problems to be on the market and in use within the next 5–10 years. Our work is targeted to both human and animal patients.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role?
Dr. Taylor, the director of RMR, was the pioneer in decellularization of small animal tissues. We have improved it to cover human sized organs.

What projects or goals are you currently pursuing?
Our main goal is to build a human-sized working heart. As we strive for that goal, we are also aiming to build valves, cardiac patches and blood vessels. 

Current medical technical knowledge is limited and many people are on organ donor waiting lists. We want to provide other options.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Every organ in our body is made of billions or cells that work in a complex orchestration to function properly. Our biggest challenge today is just generating the volume of cells needed to perform the studies.

What is the most exciting, most amazing, or scariest thing that has happened to you during your work?
The most amazing thing so far has been watching a small animal heart beat in a bioreactor. It is awesome to witness our work progress so far.

What would a teenager find interesting about what you do?
As an engineer, my favorite thing to do is to take apart something to see how it works and then put it back together again, hopefully better than before. I think a teenager would find it interesting. The other interest would be in watching surgeries.

What’s the coolest part of your job?
Watching a tissue engineered product being implanted into an animal model and seeing it live.

What are some of the perks of your job?
Flexibility in my time. If my kids are sick or need to make a medical appointment I can work around those schedules. 

Travel – I get to travel to amazing places to give talks, lectures and classes.

What are the downsides of your job?
The hours to work. The job can be rigid and you only work 8 hrs a day, but to truly get an appreciation of the work you do and see it come to fruition, longer hours are usually necessary.

If asked to “sell” this career to someone, what would you say to convince them to pursue it?
It’s fun doing something that you know can save another’s life.

What’s something that most people don’t know about your job/work?
That I must learn to talk with medical doctors and biologists. We all have our scientific language and must learn to communicate effectively to one another to accomplish our goals.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your job?
A lot of people believe we work with embryonic stem (ES) cells. We do not. The science of ES cells is too far behind and is not used in our work. I do not anticipate we would move to them.

What personal traits make you well suited for the work that you do?
Organized, inquisitive, patient and determined. Research does not always succeed on the first try. Most times it takes years to be only slightly successful. You must be patient with the science and yourself.

What career-related awards or other forms of recognition have you received?
I have received educational awards during my graduate career. I have also received Excellence in Bioengineering Award from Advanced Tissue Sciences. I have also received awards and recognition for my teaching at University of Louisville.

Previous employers and positions that have lead to your current role
Research Associate, Advanced Tissue Sciences, La Jolla, CA
Postdoctoral Fellow, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX
Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Bioengineering Department, University of Louisville, KY

Other positions not necessarily related to your current career
Unit Clerk, Beth Israel Hospital, NY, NY
Lifeguard, Brooklyn, NY
Doctor’s office clerk and assistant, NY, NY
Construction, rebarbing and roofing, Troy, NY

Best job you’ve ever had and why
I have had 2:
1. Doctor’s office clerk. During this job (along with a couple more at the time) the pediatrician of the office encouraged me to do more with my life and, both mentally and financially, helped me reapply to college. It set my career course back on track.

2.What I do now – The work I do now is sci-fi. We have been interviewed on BBC News, Discovery Channel's “Through the Worm Hole with Morgan Freeman,” and Science Channel's "Stem Cell Universe with Stephen Hawking." I *am* the sci-fi shows now!

Worst job you’ve ever had and why
I have always tried to help in finances of the family. One of my first jobs was sweeping floors in a garage after it closed. It was dirty and lonely. I have also done roofing. I am scared of heights but did it anyway to pay my way through school.

Biggest career “break” or notable moment
Obtaining my first funding from American Heart Association. I was officially an independent investigator. I was in charge.

Proudest career accomplishment
Having my students obtain national recognition for the work they did with me. My students are my legacy and to know I had impact in their lives makes me very proud.

What were you like as a kid?
Quiet, but inquisitive. 

What were your favorite books/shows/movies when you were a kid?
Anything scientific or fantasy. I loved shows like Bionic Man and Star Trek.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up at age 12? At age 15? At age 18?
12 – teacher
15 – astronaut
18 - astronaut

When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
During my sophomore year, I went to a lecture about fluid dynamics (fluid movement) through a heart. The beauty of blood flow made me want to change fields to bioengineering.

Who inspired you on this path?
I’ve had several great mentors in the field. But the patients I see daily inspire me to work through tough days – I do it for them.

What did you believe about this career before entering into it that proved to be different once you were in?
Bioengineering was a relatively new field when I joined, I had never heard of it. However, my biggest realization was about getting a professional degree. I thought all graduate students had to be unclean, scruffy, and never slept. When I became a graduate student, I learned that my schedule was what I made it and as long as I was committed I could be successful as well as have fun both in and out of the lab. Many of my friends met their spouses in graduate school.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what other career(s) might you have pursued?
I think engineering is always in my blood. So I would probably be a mechanical engineer most likely in the aeronautics. Otherwise I would be in nursing.

Why did you agree to become a JASON STEM Role Model?
Because I didn’t have many growing up. I certainly did not have any that were female or black.

What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing your career?
Find your passion!

What advice would you give students in general?
Never take no at face value. Learn why you were told no and then improve yourself to change the answer.

What are some interesting places you’ve traveled? (Can be career-related or personal.)
I have travelled a lot. My favorite was Japan. I loved the culture and history.  I have also been to Australia, South Korea, Hawaii, Thailand, Singapore and many places along both the Eastern and Western coasts of US.

What question should we have asked you but didn’t?
About work/life balance. Many young ladies, especially in engineering, have told me they thought they had to make a choice between family and a STEM career. That is UNTRUE. Yes you have to work a little harder, but some of the most successful women I know have more than 3 kids. It is all about finding the right support for yourself – both at work and at home.

Additional Resources
Creating a beating heart in the lab (UMN Health): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9XzN0-TQZc 
New heart built with stem cells (WayCurious): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9hEFUpTVPA
Who has the softer heart? (CBS News): http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/who-has-the-softer-heart
Texas Heart Institute Media Page: http://www.texasheart.org/Research/RegenerativeMedicine/media.cfm

 

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