Why has an engineer’s perspective on human cells attracted so much interest?
My background is in immunology and biomaterials — looking at how our immune system responds and recognizes biomaterials in our bodies — within the context of regenerative medicine. I’m investigating how we might get the immune system to help us recover better after injury. This becomes really critical as we age and as we develop other malignancies, such as cancer. But one large aspect of this research that is overlooked is the fact that personalized medicine plays a huge role in how each person’s body responds. The consideration of race, sex and age will help us understand diseases better and build better biomaterials for clinical applications.
Why are you developing many different drug and therapy models with a variety of human cells? Aren’t all human cells basically the same?
Many researchers only really consider one sex, one ethnicity in their models, and that’s a really limited perspective. We know clinically that different populations respond differently, even if it’s the same drug or treatment. Take redheads for instance: They respond differently to pain medications. So, metabolically they are different. These differences must be considered. In fact, the National Institutes of Health mandate the consideration of sex.
What motivated you to focus on lupus?
The idea came when I was talking to [a Johns Hopkins colleague] at the gym one day about the contribution of sex, age and ethnicity or ancestry to our work. Since I’ve been at UF, it’s become a fascinating aspect of my group’s work.
We started with lupus because systemic lupus erythematosus is one of the most disparate forms you can find. It’s like night and day differences between women who are minorities who get it and women who identify as Caucasian. Of 100 people who get it, 90 are women, and 76 of those 90 are going to be women of color.
Has UF’s community helped your research?
Oh, yeah. Before I moved down here, I reached out to UF lupus expert Dr. Laurence Morel, who is now one of my mentors. I emailed her out of the blue, “Do you want to work with me on this?” and she responded, “Absolutely!” Through our conversations, we’ve combined my passion with her expertise. Since then, I’ve gained collaborators in the College of Medicine’s lupus clinic and faculty in UF’s Institute on Aging (including Dr. Mark Segal, Dr. Tom Pearson and Christiaan Leeuwenburgh). This is just another reason why UF is such fertile ground for me and my team.
What will your team’s work mean for health care?
We’re trying to close the loop between translational medicine at the [lab] bench and clinical data in the hospitals. We’re trying to connect that personalized medicine aspect with the consideration of age, sex and ethnicity to the models that we develop in the lab. Hopefully, this will help us learn more about the diseases we study and why certain populations respond divergently from others.
Why did you come to UF?
Well, it was a combination of prayer and a visit that led me to believe, “I could grow here.” Both my chair, Michele Manuel, and my dean, Cammy Abernathy, are committed to diversity, whereas in general, academia really struggles with diversity in faculty. UF is a leader in this regard. The Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering has more African American women in tenure-track roles than any other university in the United States. My chair is a Black woman who leads the top eighth materials science department in the country. And my dean is one of only about 70 female engineering deans or directors in the country.
You recently participated in UF’s Black Voices in Research storytelling event. Why did you take part?
Through vulnerability we can change perspective on our own prejudices. We are all prejudiced, we all carry bias, but taking time to say, “This is my experience,” and then having other people respond with, “Oh, wait! That resonates with me,” allows us to see each other from a different context. It allows us to connect and build a network. Through these connections, we’re able to become better researchers and better scientists, and that’s the true mission.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was 10, I was obsessed with biology. I watched a PBS series on mold … so I decided I was going to grow some with a Ziploc container, some bread and water. I wiped my fingers in dust, put the dust on the bread, sealed the Ziploc and hid it in my mom’s dresser. I remember my mom finding the mold a week later — I was successful! From there, my love of biology grew.
What do you like to do when you’re not researching?
Other passion projects, such as working out and being physically active, are an absolute requirement for me. My favorite is Zumba or dance fitness. I also enjoy reading and learning about personal finance. With COVID-19 limitations, I’ve also enjoyed calls with friends and setting up different communities virtually.
What was your reaction when you found out you were on the Forbes list?
I found out that morning when everything was already released. I’m the kind of person happier doing my work, planning and interacting with my students, or training them to do things and seeing their excitement. So, when I found out, I was kind of like, “OK.” I let my family know and then I tweeted about it because I thought it was worth celebrating, but literally within the next 30 minutes I went back to my writing group and kept writing the rest of the day because I was trying to complete additional proposals.
So no celebration at all?
Yeah, well I think I bought myself my favorite meal: chicken tenders and fries. I know it’s not the healthiest, but it’s really good every now and then.