September Student Spotlight - Cassady Rupert
1. When did you decide you wanted to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering?
I decided in the fall of my senior year as an undergraduate. I was a physics major as an undergraduate and I knew that I didn’t want to be a physicist. I wanted to have more practical and direct impacts on human health and so I focused on biology and chemistry outside of physics, and I worked in a biophysics lab. I spoke with my advisor and he suggested biomedical engineering, which I had considered before but I didn’t think BME was a path open to me, coming from a physics background. As soon as he assured me that that was a viable path to pursue, my decision was made.
2. What is the focus of your project?
The Coulombe Lab researches cardiovascular engineering and regeneration, and I specifically work on cardiac tissue engineering. The main problem we are working to address is that after a heart attack, heart muscle dies and cardiomyocytes (heart cells) are not able to regenerate naturally. The only way to rebuild the heart muscle after a heart attack is to regenerate exogenously. To do this our lab takes the tissue engineering approach. In my work, I make small engineered tissues from human induced pluripotent stem cell derived cardiomyocytes. I derive the cardiomyocytes from stem cells and can produce spontaneously beating tissues in a dish. Because the cells are only about two weeks old when I’m forming tissues from them, they are immature so they don’t behave like an adult human heart would, which makes them ineffective in rebuilding muscle in a human heart. My research focuses on how to mature the tissue in vitro before putting them on a human heart. One approach is to add other cellular components to the tissues to modulate their maturity and one approach is to add synthetic materials such as carbon nanotubes to increase both structural and electrical function of the engineered tissues.
3. What has been the proudest accomplishment of your time in graduate school, or a particular “high point”?
I’m lucky on a very small level because in the process of differentiation of the stem cells I get to see the sheets of cells start to beat spontaneously. Every few weeks I get to see this minor success which is a visual representation of things working, which helps to keep me motivated.
A larger milestone was the recent acceptance of an article for publication on work that I started at the very beginning of my graduate career and which has inspired many of my independent projects. That was the beginning of my work in BME and cardiac tissue engineering, so to have that work accepted for publication was pretty exciting.
4. What has been the biggest challenge or frustration during grad school?
This is probably universal, but a lot of rejection from applying for grants. It’s hard not to take these rejections personally when you’re first starting out, but the rejections have also shaped my science. Especially for graduate fellowships applications you tend to get very detailed feedback even if they don’t want to fund you, which is ultimately helpful.
5. Have you ever done an experiment that didn’t work?
All the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever done an experiment that worked one hundred percent. Especially with the biological variability that comes from working with cells and tissues there is always some part that doesn’t go as planned. As I’ve developed independent research using new cell lines, materials, and techniques that haven’t been used in our lab before, there have been a lot of experiments that didn’t work and it has been a learning experience for me and Prof. Coulombe. Brown is a great place to be doing that kind of research, though, because it’s such a collaborative scientific community so even if we aren’t familiar with something, there is someone else on campus that can help.
6. How did you choose your mentor?
It was very mutual. We didn’t meet in person until I agreed to join her lab because she was in Seattle still working in a post-doc position. Prof. Coulombe got an offer to join Brown about a week before my deadline to accept a graduate school offer and I had a few other places I was considering but they were all places where you do rotations and are not immediately paired with an advisor. She contacted me and told me she would be starting a new lab at Brown. She thought my physics background would be a good fit given the mechanical and electrical components of cardiac tissue engineering, so we had a few conversations and I spoke with other grad students she was mentoring as a post-doc. Everyone had amazing things to say about her, and her research was very exciting and had a very clear direct positive impact. I was fortunate to be able to do research with Prof. Coulombe at her post-doc lab in Seattle the summer before I started my PhD, so I had one-on-one mentoring for the whole summer and was able to really learn what she envisioned for her new lab. It’s a unique experience being your PI’s first graduate student, and I honestly can’t imagine a better mentor than Professor Coulombe.
7. How was your project(s) chosen for grad school research? Did you get to pick or was a project assigned to you?
Dr. Coulombe’s philosophy is to have an incoming graduate student do a starter project from some ideas she has, which is what the project I started in the summer I trained with her really was. Then I continued to develop and complete that work on my own over the next couple of years. As I was wrapped up that project, I used it as a stepping stone to very independently develop my thesis work. I used tissue engineering techniques and characterization methods that I learned in that initial project, but the new materials and different cell types were all things I came up with and pursued mostly independently with feedback from Prof. Coulombe.
8. What three qualities do you think are most important for someone entering graduate school?
9. Where do you hope for your career to be in 5-10 years?
I could see myself doing a lot of different things and I think biomedical engineering is nice because there are so many different directions you can go with it. Ideally, I would love to have my own lab someday. I’m in a unique position being Prof. Coulombe’s first graduate student and having helped her start her own lab. I think I have realistic expectations of what it takes to start a lab, and Prof. Coulombe has prepared me to be able to do it if that’s the path I decide to take.