Kaitlin Mccreery (MechEngr MS’20, BioEngr PhD’22) is pushing the frontiers of human cartilage research as a biomedical engineering PhD graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Mccreery is one of the first students to earn a PhD from the program, which began at CU Boulder in 2020 to bridge the gaps between science, engineering, and medicine.
“I am in the field of mechanobiology. It’s all about how cells respond to mechanical cues from their environments and how those cues affect cell differentiation, stem cell fate, and ultimately tissue architecture. There are a lot of questions here that haven’t been answered yet,” Mccreery said.
Her research is focused at the microscopic level and even smaller – on atomic-level interactions that determine how cells behave and build tissues.
“It’s difficult to disentangle the biomechanical and biophysical cues. We want to better predict things, but getting cause and effect determined is nuanced,” she said.
The research has significant implications for regenerative medicine, an area of growing importance to humanity.
Mccreery spent her masters and PhD conducting experimental research on cells under the direction of Corey Neu, a professor in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering. She is continuing in his lab this fall as a postdoctoral associate, expanding her investigations into multiscale modeling, using big data methodologies and supercomputers for biomedical research.
“There is a huge repository of data available that is underutilized. Anyone funded by the National Institutes of Health has to upload their data to government servers for anyone to use. A lot more medical breakthroughs could happen by integrating these large datasets. It’s a new frontier,” Mccreery said.
Building a career in biomedicine is the culmination of long-held aspirations for Mccreery, who has been interested in science since childhood.
“I’ve always wanted to be a scientist,” she said. “I did a project in middle school studying a fungus affecting amphibians in my hometown. I got really into research.”
It was perhaps an unlikely drive for Mccreery, who grew up in a household with a strong arts emphasis – her father is a professional cellist, her mother a professional violinist – but her parents encouraged her interests.
“For generations, people in my family have been musicians. I’m kind of the black sheep. Everyone else is in performing arts,” Mccreery said.
A North Carolina native, Mccreery enrolled at Duke University for her bachelor’s, earning a degree in physics. She was drawn to CU Boulder for her graduate education in part by the university’s collaborative culture.
“CU Boulder has a really great cooperative research environment. I’ve worked in many different labs during my time here. There’s cutting edge research happening, but people aren’t competitive about it. Science can’t happen in a bubble. To be a good engineer is to be an excellent teammate,” she said.
Mccreery’ hopes to continue a career in research long term and next year will begin a position with the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Biomedicine in Münster, Germany. There, she will be studying stem cell mechanobiology and chromatin mechanics using advanced microscopy and computational methods.
“This is mission-driven biomedical research,” Mccreery said. “I feel like the area I’m working in has the greatest need.”