Not your father’s engineers – changing perceptions about engineering for a new generation

Dr. Rosa Canet-Aviles and Dr. Rahul Thakar talking about tissue engineering at the Exploratorium

The Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Mahal and the Empire State Building are all beautiful, elegant structures. In a way they are works of art. They are also engineering marvels, designs that pushed the limits and skills of those who designed and built them.

So what do they have to do with stem cells? Well, some of the most exciting and, in its own way, pioneering work in engineering these days is taking place on a much smaller scale than those buildings, inside the human body, using tissue engineering to create new body parts such as a nose or windpipe, and one day even create new organs such as a heart or liver.

On Sunday September 29th, the Exploratorium – a world class science museum in San Francisco – held its annual Engineering Day, where they opened their doors and invited people to come in, for free, and learn all about the different forms that engineering takes. The goal of the day is to change perceptions about engineering, to help young people appreciate the sheer variety of areas it covers, and to get them to consider it as a career option.

Two of the stem cell agency’s Science Officers, Dr. Rosa Canet-Aviles and Dr. Rahul Thakar, took on the challenge of getting people to think about engineering in a different way, to understand that creating new structures inside the body was just as exciting, and in it’s own way even more amazing than building magnificent temples or bridges.

Rosa gave a quick overview of what stem cells are, how they work and what they can do. Rahul followed up with a look at how we are using them to change the way we treat disease and to build entirely new body parts. Oh, and they did this in both English and Spanish (Rahul in English and Rosa in Spanish) as the event was designed to encourage more young Latinos to enter engineering.

It’s always fun to watch an audience as they realize that what they are looking at is a medical marvel, a man-made body part that looks and functions like the real thing. It awakens them to the potential of this work – and Rosa and Rahul were quick to point out that right now it’s still just potential, that we have a long way to go before we can create functioning organs.

Some of our CIRM funded researchers are working hard to make that day a reality. Dr. Mark Humayun at the University of Southern California is working on creating a kind of scaffold to make sheets of cells found in the eye that can then be used to treat macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in adults. You can read about his work here. Dr. Traci Grickscheit at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles is working on creating tissue-engineered intestines to replace those damaged by disease. Her work can be found here and here. Also, Dr. Grickscheit along with other CIRM grantees are featured in our video summary of a CIRM-sponsored Tissue Engineering Workshop held in 2012:

Kevin McCormack

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