Recalling the Past and Transforming the Future of Tissue Engineering— Opportunities for Women in Tissue Engineering

By: Ngan F. Huang, PhD ( Assistant Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Stanford University Principal Investigator, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System
Recalling the Past and Transforming the Future of Tissue Engineering— Opportunities for Women in Tissue Engineering

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A Student’s Perspective of the Past

When I was a child, I had little exposure to engineering because my immediate family members were primarily in finance and business fields.  In high school I became interested in medicine after a summer research internship experience.  Towards the end of high school, I set my mind on going to medical school, wanting to become a physician to help treat patients.  A turning point in my career trajectory was the beginning of my first year in college.  At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all first year students are required to take physics and calculus courses as the foundation for many engineering majors.  From these courses and other introductory engineering courses, I learned that engineering is essentially an approach to problem solving—something that can be applicable to a variety of professions and even in one’s personal life.  In engineering courses, the fundamental concepts are tested in exams.  Without a complete understanding of those concepts, one would not benefit from having notes and textbooks available during the open-book exams.  Not needing to rely on rote memory, as was common in many of my biology courses, was refreshing.  Almost like a perfect storm, tissue engineering began to emerge during my college days.  In the late 1990s, leaders in the field like Drs. Robert Langer, Joseph Vacanti, and Anthony Atala inspired students like me to combine engineering with biology to engineer biological tissues as replacements for diseased or injured tissues.  At the time, many of us naively thought that tissue engineering would be successfully able to engineer artificial hearts and blood vessels within a few years.  Although the separation of hype from reality was quickly made apparent, many of us students remained undeterred and hopeful that tissue engineering would be a promising approach towards regenerating diseased tissues. 

A Professor’s Perspective of Tomorrow

With the nurture and support of professors along the way who motivated me to pursue the field of tissue engineering, I find myself, nearly two decades later, now in the role of nurturing the next generation of tissue engineers.  Many technologies have advanced in these last twenty years, giving us the ability to perform certain experiments that were not possible in the early days of tissue engineering.  Some of these advancements include the generation of scalable numbers of therapeutic cells using induced pluripotent stem cells as the cell source for tissue engineering, the design of smart biomaterials with instructive cues that control cellular behavior, the development of organoids and organs-on-a-chip as models to study tissue behavior in smaller length scales.  I believe the impact of tissue engineering in the coming two decades will require merging with other disciplines such as gene-editing and artificial intelligence to better control and predict how engineered tissues develop and function both in vitro and in vivo.

Motivating the Next Generation of Women in Tissue Engineering

Back then as a female college student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I recall that many of the engineering majors were predominantly male-dominated.  Now in academia, although some disciplines have a more even distribution of females and males at the lower ranks, statistics show that the dropout of women becomes more apparent in the higher ranks.  I believe some of the causes of the glass ceiling include the demanding work hours, implicit biases against women as leaders, and conflicts between the demands of being an academician and mother.  Nevertheless, I believe tissue engineering is a burgeoning field for female researchers.  In the advent of efforts to promote gender diversity at the institutional and departmental levels, the glass ceiling over time is becoming a thinner and breakable barrier.  Below are suggestions for female trainees who are starting independent research careers in tissue engineering or other bioengineering fields:

  • Seek out advocates: Find at least one mentor who you admire or someone you want to emulate.  Build organic connections with that person, with the goal of having this person advocate for you in areas of career development.  Unlike a mentor who primarily provides support and advice, advocates actively seek opportunities to nominate you for career advances or service opportunities.  Advocates can be male or female.
  • Build multi-disciplinary research collaborations: To develop innovative research ideas often requires approaching tissue engineering from other disciplines.  Multi-disciplinary approaches are becoming the norm, and tissue engineering can benefit greatly from other disciplines including computational biology, microfluidics, and materials science. 
  • Find emotional support: Rejected grant applications or manuscripts can be emotionally draining, even for seasoned investigators.  Seek colleagues or friends to seek comfort and to share in the disappointment. 
  • Seek out resources to make work-life balance feasible: With three kids (and a fourth on the way) and a busy spouse, I feel that balancing work and family life is one of the most challenging aspects of being a female academician.  The separation between work and family obligation is not black-and-white, although for some it creates more degrees of flexibility.  Seek out resources at your institution to help with dependent care during conference travels, or tenure extension with the birth of a child.  Even if work vs life is not balanced right now, be comforted to know that the situation will change over time, and it may be possible to achieve better balance in a few more years.
  • Join the movement to promote women in engineering at all levels: Everyone can participate in this movement.  Senior faculty can mentor junior faculty women; postdocs can mentor female graduate students; and undergraduates can mentor high school students.  We can all make a difference in the lives of women engineers.  Let us celebrate Women in Engineering Day by remembering mentors and colleagues who have help women advance their career in engineering.   #INWED2019

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