Fifth-year chemical and biological PhD candidate Leila Saleh works at the crossroads of immunology and engineering in the Bryant Research Group. During her time at CU Boulder, she has worked with professors Stephanie Bryant, Kristi Anseth and Jenifer Cha in various capacities – giving her a great chance to see how all three balance research and teaching, and shaping her post-graduation plans.
Question: How did you get to CU Boulder? What is it about the College of Engineering and Applied Science that brought you here?
Answer: I talked to my undergrad advisor about wanting to pursue biomaterials research and he recommended I apply to CU Boulder. It ended up being one of four schools that I visited and it felt like graduate students here had the best work/life balance. They seemed generally happier than the students at the other schools I visited. When you take that with the fact that I could see myself working for any one of four or five faculty here, that kind of sold it for me.
Question: How would you describe your research to a non-engineer? What excites you about the question?
Answer: In order for tissue engineering to be successful, stem cells need to be implanted into tissue defects or injuries in a biomaterial scaffold, which functions largely like a construction scaffold for a building. It provides support until the cells are ready to stand on their own and make tissue, then it degrades away so that the tissue can integrate with your body.
The problem is that, in many cases, this scaffold is synthetic, and your body has a very strong response to synthetic materials. I work on understanding the specifics of that response – termed the foreign body response or FBR – and try to design materials that will minimize it, so tissue engineering can have more successful outcomes. In the Bryant Lab – which is part of the Precision Biomaterials Interdisciplinary Research Theme – we work on this in the context of tissue engineering. But what's most exciting to me is that understanding the FBR is important to the success of all implantable biomaterials. So things like continuous glucose monitoring systems and deep brain stimulation implants, which are extremely important in improving patients' quality of life, are also impacted by the FBR.
Question: What is it like working in the Bryant Group? Is there a good sense of community?
Answer: I love working in the Bryant Group. It's such a supportive environment and we really feel like a family. We have group members from lots of disciplines: chemists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers and materials scientists. It's a really interdisciplinary and collaborative space.
Question: What are your plans when you earn your PhD? Is teaching a possibility for you? Research?
Answer: I went to a top engineering school for my undergrad degree, but felt like a lot of my professors were only teaching because they had to, not because they truly enjoyed it. Still, I did have some really wonderful professors scattered in there who reminded me what a difference it can make when your professor is engaged in the lessons. When I got to CU, I noticed that the department culture really put an emphasis on teaching. The professors I've worked with here seem to enjoy teaching and make it a priority. I had always been involved in tutoring undergrads, but working as an advanced teaching assistant with Professor Kristi Anseth solidified for me that I really enjoy putting full lessons together. The next year, I had the opportunity to co-teach a class with Professor Jennifer Cha and loved it. That experience pushed me to pursue career in academia focusing on both research and teaching.
Question: What would you tell a potential engineering student looking to come to our college?
Answer: The best advice I got when I was looking at grad schools was: "No matter how excited you are about your project at the beginning, five years working on the same thing will drive you crazy. So choose a school and an advisor where you'll be happy, with people and an environment that you'll be comfortable with, and the pressures of grad school will seem less insane." I followed that advice by coming to CU and joining the Bryant lab, and I can say that surrounding yourself with the right people makes all the difference!