What are your current research interests and/or what is a project you are currently working on?
My two main projects involve bioprinting cancer cells onto intact microvascular networks in a dish and investigating the effects of aging on stem cell contribution to angiogenesis. Both projects highlight our laboratory’s interdisciplinary research interests and the value in collaboration with fellow faculty at the University of Florida. A big challenge in the biomimetic model, whether for therapeutic testing or basic science discovery, is matching the complexity of real a tissue. A few years ago, our laboratory introduced a new approach – just cutting out a tissue and culturing it. We have shown that blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, immune cells and interstitial cells remain viable and functional. We now use this model to view, for example, cancer cell migration or stem cell fate in new ways.
Who or what has inspired you to pursue this career?
I must have been inspired by my family. My mother was a kindergarten teacher and my father taught high school for over 20 years. He also taught at West Point and followed a long line of educators. His great grandfather was a professor at the University of Virginia and his family founded Marion Military Institute in Alabama. Moreover, I just really like learning, scientific discovery, sharing the way I think, intramurals and college campuses. All of these characteristics coupled with the opportunity to advance our understanding of what we know about microvascular physiology reinforces my passion for being an academic researcher and teacher. I feel extremely fortunate – being a professor has connected me to amazing scientific leaders across the world. Who knew studying the microcirculation and biomedical engineering would provide opportunities to inspire others?
Why did you decide to focus on cancer?
My undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering and my first job involved designing refrigeration circuits. Somehow that led me to studying the microcirculation. During my doctoral and postdoctoral at the University of Virginia and the University of California – San Diego, I was exposed to the intersection of engineering, the microcirculation and pathologies, the most motivating one being cancer. The microcirculation is a common denominator for multiple diseases, but cancer represents an extreme scenario with uncontrolled vessel growth and dysfunction. In fact, tumors do not grow without a chaotic microvasculature. Understanding why a tumor microvasculature has gone wrong and how to control it drives me to ask new questions.
What excites you about your work? What is exciting to you about your field right now?
I love the feeling of looking into a microscope and seeing something that maybe no one else in the world has seen. At the core of my engineering background, I am an observationalist and get excited about the next discovery. Microvascular research undoubtedly benefiting from the integration of cutting edge imaging technologies, such as in vivo multi-photon imaging, and emerging fields, including machine learning and artificial intelligence. We are only starting to appreciate the impact of contemporary interdisciplinary approaches on establishing new paradigms for the future.