Mentor Spotlight | September 2015
Department: Chemical & Petroleum Engineering
Describe your research/creative work in a few sentences that we can all understand: I am interested in regenerative medicine, using cells and biomaterials to help the body heal itself. For example, we have invented plugs and pastes that orthopedic surgeons can use to heal injured cartilage. Other tissues of interest include the TMJ (jaw joint), trachea (windpipe), rotator cuff, and inner ear hair cells of the cochlea.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research/creative work?
A: I have always had a creative side. But it was Prof. Christine Hrenya at the University of Colorado when I was entering my Junior year who got me involved in research. I didn’t even really know that professors did anything besides teach, and she was this new professor looking to recruit students to do research with her. I credit her with getting me involved in research and inspiring me to go further.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: The simple answer: A lot! A more concrete answer might be skills like cell culture, biomaterials synthesis, or mechanical testing. But a better answer would be that they get to work with their hands, and to participate in the generation of new knowledge, unlike in classes where the focus is on consumption of existing knowledge. More importantly, students who achieve a more advanced level in research come up with their own ideas, and that’s when it becomes most exciting for them, and they can’t wait to get back to the lab to test their idea and see whether it works.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research/creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: Creating new ideas, bouncing ideas back and forth with students and colleagues, is probably my favorite part of research--trying to solve problems that nobody else has solved. Sometimes it takes years to find out whether the idea works or not. Mentoring PhD students, with that 1-on-1 mentorship for 4+ years and the opportunity to help someone find and attain their career passion, is probably what makes the work most meaningful and interesting. In addition, the opportunity to improve quality of life for patients by providing their physicians/surgeons with more advanced technology is also meaningful and highly motivating to me.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: Look across campus (Pharmacy, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, molecular biosciences, etc.) to find professors doing work that most interests you. Focus more on where your interests lie instead of on your background or experience. Read up on their work, and then contact them with specific questions. When you find a lab, focus more on productivity than on just the number of hours spent. Don’t be afraid to fail, try new ideas, troubleshoot, ask lots of questions. And most importantly, have fun.
Q: For many students, doing research is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Have you developed any tricks or habits that help you to stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: I think the harder question would be to name a time when things DID go as expected, as that pretty much never happens. Research is at least 95% troubleshooting, trying to figure out why things aren’t working. When it finally works, you run the experiment, collect all your data, write up the paper, and move on to the next problem. As a PhD student, I lost several months of work due to cells being contaminated, and that has happened to students here at KU too. I always say the only way it is a total loss is if you don’t learn something from the failure. When things don’t work, brainstorm a list of reasons things might not be working, and create a prioritized list of new ideas to try and systematically execute them, and in parallel if possible. I think the greatest motivation is that sweet satisfaction when you finally overcome several iterations of obstacles and challenges; it is a reward that those who haven’t experienced those failures could never understand. The greater the failure and challenge, the greater the feeling of success feels when you reach it.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: With my wife, watching TV, going to KU sports and traveling. Most of my traveling is for work, but she comes with me most of the time and we always try to capture moments and see new things. We also have season tickets to KU football, basketball, volleyball and baseball. We also have good friends in our neighborhood, we get together for dinner frequently and watch sports. I also like to get to the gym as often as possible. I am really into music. I play the guitar and have been to countless concerts; my wife has traveled far and wide with me to see some of our favorite bands. I even played the drums on stage with my favorite band for about 2 minutes in front of 10,000 people once, but that is a story for another time…