Notes from the Editor: Here is an interview with SFB’s 2019 Young Investigator Award winner Stephanie Seidlits, assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Seidlits’ research seeks to engineer biomaterial-based models of central nervous system (CNS) tissues, use these models to understand how microenvironmental cues regulate tissue function, and apply this knowledge to the development of new clinical treatments, in particular for spinal cord injury repair and brain cancers. Prior to joining UCLA, Dr. Seidlits received her PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin as a joint advisee of Prof. Christine Schmidt and Prof. Jason Shear. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratories of Prof. Lonnie Shea at Northwestern University. Among the most recent awards that Dr. Seidlits received in recognition of her innovation are an NSF CAREER Award, an NIH R21 Award, an American Brain Tumor Association Discovery Grant, a UCLA Hellman Fellows Award, a University of California Cancer Research Coordinating Committee Research Award, a UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center and California NanoSystems Institute Stem Cell Nano-Medicine Initiative Planning Award, UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center Innovation Award, and the 2019 SFB Young Investigator Award.
GZ: First of all, I want to congratulate you again for receiving the
SFB Young Investigator Award, as well as many other awards. I
would like to start by asking: When did you become interested in
SS: Thank you. I am honored to be the recipient of such a
prestigious award. I was first exposed to biomaterials research
as an undergraduate student in bioengineering at Rice University,
where I had the opportunity to learn a lot through both my
classes and my time as a research assistant in Prof. Tony Mikos’
lab. During my studies, I became particularly intrigued by the
role of the extracellular matrix as an essential regulator in cell
and tissue function. Biomaterials seemed like the perfect tool
to study the matrix as they can be engineered to mimic many
of its key features and applied externally to living cells or tissues
to evaluate their responses. I study the brain and spinal cord.
There are still many questions about the mechanisms underlying
the basic functions of these tissues and how these go wrong in
cases of injury or disease. Biomaterials provide unique tools that
can be used to study these pathologies while simultaneously
developing clinically translatable therapies.
GZ: Would you give some brief highlights of your research
work? What impact you would like to make in terms of helping
people and improving quality of life?
SS: At the interface of engineering, neuroscience and medicine,
I work to develop biomaterials that mimic the extracellular matrix
of CNS tissues. I aim to use these biomaterials as scaffolds that
can interface with the CNS to direct cell behavior and facilitate
tissue repair after injury. In addition, my research is developing
these biomaterials as preclinical models of brain tumors that
can be used for personalized medicine. For both applications,
biomaterials enable us to untangle effects of the complex factors
in the microenvironment so we can really start to nail down the
specific factors that may lead to clinically actionable treatments.
To do this, my lab uses a vertically integrated approach, where
the same biomaterials can be used to make discoveries in
simplified, controlled settings in vitro, and these findings verified
in more complex settings in vivo using the same biomaterials.
By repeating this process, we can iteratively refine both in vitro
models and therapeutic approaches. Ultimately, I expect this
multidisciplinary approach to speed up the development of
much-needed therapies for CNS injury and disease.
” M Y A P P R O A C H TO B I O M E D I C A L
R E S E A R C H I S TO G A I N A D E E P
U N D E R S TA N D I N G O F T H E C L I N I C A L
P R O B L E M S F R O M T H E B E G I N N I N G , T H E N
D E V E LO P T H E T E C H N O LO GY N E E D E D
TO A D D R E S S T H E S E P R O B L E M S . TO D O
T H I S , I L I K E TO B E G I N A N Y P R O J E C T
BY C O N S U LT I N G W I T H A N U M B E R O F
E X P E R T S W H O C A N P R OV I D E M A N Y
GZ: How big is your research group? What can you share with
our readers about how you run your group and motivate your
students or postdocs? What are the challenges and the rewards?
SS: Currently, my research group is composed of about four
PhD and undergraduate student members (Figure 1). They are
from diverse academic backgrounds, including bioengineering,
chemical engineering, chemistry, neuroscience and molecular
biology, which is a distinct advantage when pursuing highly
interdisciplinary work. I try to foster a supportive lab culture that
focuses on teamwork. Research is filled with challenges, and I
believe that the collective of all of our ideas and efforts will lead
to not only the best scientific products but our continual growth
and evolution as conscientious scientists. I am incredibly lucky
to have the chance to work with such talented and dedicated
individuals at UCLA and have found watching their growth as
scientists and engineers to be extremely rewarding.
GZ: You are very successful in securing research funding from
highly competitive sources, such as NIH and NSF. In your
opinion, what are the keys to such successes?
SS: Although I began actively participating in grant writing as
a graduate student, I am still continually learning and refining
my skills. For myself, I have found the most challenging skill to
perfect is the art of distilling complex ideas into succinct text
that is clear (and exciting!) to readers with a range of scientific
interests. This requires me to block out time on my calendar
not only for “writing” per se but also actively thinking about
the significance of the problem and really drilling down to how
my approach can uniquely tackle the problem in an impactful
way. This also means that I write many, many drafts! My biggest
piece of advice is don’t be afraid to share your early drafts with
colleagues at different stages of their careers and with different
backgrounds. Then, don’t be afraid to completely start over and
rewrite your proposal based on their feedback. Remember that
crafting a competitive grant is a process!
GZ: What can you share with our readers in terms of the do’s and
don’ts in research program development, proposal writing, etc.?
SS: Core values to all of the work that we do as academics include
scientific integrity and public service. When experiments don’t
work out the way you expect or rejections mount, be patient,
tap into your creativity and trust that you will persevere. Don’t
let the pressures compromise your scientific integrity or vision.
Remember that we are all working toward the same altruistic goal
of advancing scientific knowledge to improve options for medical
treatment — ultimately helping people and society! Do remember
to be a conscientious and respectful collaborator, mentor, teacher
and contributor to the scientific community.
GZ: To date, you have published about 30 papers and received
some 15 grants. What percentage of your time is spent on
writing papers or proposals?
SS: It’s at least 50 percent of my time. However, what I am
working on, as far as grant or paper and the subject matter,
changes constantly depending on the needs of lab.
GZ: A successful young researcher often gives people the
impression that work is all of your life. You seem to be doing
extremely well balancing work and life by also being a mother
of a toddler. How do you do it? Can you share with our readers
something about your son and your family life?
SS: I am lucky to have a supportive family, so that I am not
doing everything alone! While it is a continual challenge to
work toward a balance, I have observed many faculty members
with children be successful, which gives me confidence that
it is possible. I have picked up tips from a variety of sources to
incorporate into a strategy that is personalized for my family.
For example, while academic research is a lot of work, it also has a
lot of flexibility about when that work can be done. This means
that, for example, my husband and I can alternate afternoons off
of work to spend with our son and make up the work hours at
night or on the weekends. My son recently turned 2 and will be
starting preschool full-time in the fall, so we will be moving into
a new stage to navigate soon. As my son grows up, I expect my
role as parent and the challenges of balancing this role with my
job to be constantly evolving, but this will keep life exciting!
GZ: Looking ahead, what challenges do you see in realizing the
impact you would like to make through your innovative research
SS: I believe my lab’s focus on engineering new tools for
intimate interfacing with brain and spinal cord tissue in a
way that takes advantage of the inherent biology has high
potential for clinical impact. However, translation will require
extensive interdisciplinary collaborations to integrate these
tools into standard and cutting-edge clinical strategies. I am
currently working with a number of collaborators, including
clinician scientists, engineers, chemists, neuroscientists and
pharmacologists, to secure funding for and perform the
preclinical studies required to advance these technologies
closer to clinical translation.
GZ: You mentioned several times the need to collaborate and
work with the right partners and clinician scientists. How do you
identify the right ones?
SS: My approach to biomedical research is to gain a deep
understanding of the clinical problems from the beginning,
then develop the technology needed to address these
problems. To do this, I like to begin any project by consulting
with a number of experts who can provide many different
perspectives. From these perspectives, I am able to refine
my own ideas, identify the first steps and design a strategy
that is most likely to lead to succeed. These interactions also
give me the opportunity to identify who might make a good
collaborator. I look for people who share my research goals and
priorities and can contribute an otherwise “missing piece” to
the work. In my experience, collaborations are most productive
when they are truly partnerships and both parties are invested
in all stages of the work.
GZ: What thoughts you could share with aspiring women
students and postdocs in the biomedical engineering fields?
SS: My advice is to have confidence in your own ideas and
abilities. While it is definitely advantageous to take into account
constructive criticism about your research and helpful advice
from others about your career path, ultimately you have to trust
yourself and do what you think is best.