A research and teaching success

In receipt of a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship, Dr. Stephanie Bryant from the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado spent three months working with me, Dr Hazel Screen, in the School of Engineering and Materials Science at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL). Her visit was focused on three main objectives: shared research interests, student mentoring, and knowledge transfer.

Research
Our shared research interests focus on understanding how the cells within the different connective tissues of our bodies help ensure our tissues remain healthy. Through a process called mechanotransduction, the cells can perceive the loads we place on them, and ensure our tissues stay healthy. However, this process can often go wrong; a possible cause of many tissue diseases, and also partly why some tissues don’t repair well from injury. Over the last two years, Dr Bryant and I have been working towards the creation of a special system to see how cells respond to different strains, with the long term aim of learning how to encourage cells to repair injured tissues. The idea for our system is unique. We have made a ‘fibre composite’ material; a material containing stiff rods surrounded by less stiff matrix. By making the rods more or less stiff, you can change how much they stretch, and by placing cells on the rods, we can apply variable and controllable levels of shear and tension to the cells to monitor their behaviour. However, it has also been very difficult to realise and optimise, requiring complex chemistry and many developmental iterations. As a result of Dr Bryant’s visit, we now have a fully functional platform from which to study mechanical transduction, and the opportunity to make real progress towards characterising tissue metabolism.

Figure 1 Preparing our composite for manufacture jpg

To make our fibre composite materials, we take the small, stiff rods and coat them with cells before placing them in the middle of a mould and gelling another softer material around them.

Mentoring
Because this visiting professorship enabled Dr Bryant to work predominantly in the lab, she had the opportunity to work directly with several of my postgraduate and undergraduate students. This proved to be an exceptional opportunity to provide mentoring, as Dr Bryant’s accessibility meant that students could ask questions throughout the day and receive immediate feedback that could help their research. This was particularly key for one of our PhD students, Dharmesh Patel, working on an Arthritis Research UK funded project to characterise mechanotransduction in tendon cells. Dr Bryant was able to provide him with hands-on training in polymer chemistry and polymer synthesis, and also oversaw the acquisition of several key pieces of synthesis equipment. Indeed, as a result of the grant my lab is now fully set up to perform the necessary polymer synthesis for the project.

Figure 4 cells on rods jpg

We put hundreds of cells on every single rod. Here they are stained up to show them coating the rod surface. The cell nucleus is in blue. The green stain shows the cell cytoskeleton, which is a little like our own skeleton, holding the cell together.

Knowledge transfer
One other important component of the Leverhulme Visiting Professorship was the transfer of knowledge from Dr Bryant to QMUL and beyond. In addition to the obvious transfer of knowledge to my research group, Dr Bryant gave a series of targeted workshops and seminars. Two polymers workshops, for Medical Engineering students at QMUL, gave an overview of polymers in tissue engineering, before transitioning into hands on applications, demonstrating one of the most cutting edge technologies in tissue engineering with high clinical relevance. By additionally gifting the workshop material to QMUL, Dr Bryant has created a legacy for the school, with these activities now available to a range of our current and prospective students.

Figure 5 Working in the lab jpg

Stephanie and I working in the laboratories.

Dr Hazel Screen
Queen Mary, University of London 

Hazel was awarded a Visiting Professorship grant in 2011.