For many biomedical engineering students, the pursuit of a graduate degree is an investment in the future—a valuable training ground for tomorrow’s employment opportunities.
But for one unique UAB student, opportunity called sooner than expected.
Lindsay Miller chose UAB because of the multi-faceted experience she could get through biomedical engineering graduate program and the Certificate in Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship program in the Collat School of Business. Unlike other students, however, Miller’s education isn’t preparation for some future payoff. She actually completed her education as part of a new career at Birmingham-based Southern Research, where she landed a full-time job that paid her to conduct thesis-related research, which she was able to continue at Southern Research after graduation.
“This is similar to a star athlete who has the potential to go pro after college, but in this case, there are no rules against the employer making the offer now and funding the student through college,” says Joel Berry, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering who helped recruit Miller to UAB. He brought her in to work in his lab on an existing collaborative project he had with researchers in the UAB School of Medicine and with Southern Research.
It wasn’t until after she had worked on the project a full year that Southern Research took the unprecedented step of extending a job offer to an existing BME student. “This is a story of collaboration,” says Berry. “We have a great example here of collaboration between disciplines, between schools within the university, and a pretty extraordinary example of how a industry partner can collaborate seamlessly with UAB.”
It may seem unusual for a company to make a long-term commitment to a student who hasn’t even finished graduate school, but the research Miller is conducting is not one that is focused on short-term results. Her research focuses on developing a three-dimensional perfusion bioreactor that will allow development of engineered tissues for pharmaceutical drug development. Currently, they are working with primary rat liver tissue to determine how long they can keep it viable and functioning in the bioreactor. While that may seem like a modest goal, their success could lead to revolutionary changes in how drugs are tested and developed.
“Our immediate goal is to maintain viable cells and tissue within our system; soon, we hope to be testing metabolic function of that tissue for existing compounds to understand how it compares to other liver models. There’s so much potential with this system, once it’s up and running,” Miller explains. “For example, my colleagues are developing other tissue models in the same system which we’d like to connect in series. This could be developed as an early look at the effect of a drug on a tumor with and without metabolism.”
The success of such experiments, Miller says, could conceivably lead to a system that helps make the drug development process more efficient . “Human liver enzymes are different from mouse and rat enzymes, so animal trials aren’t always indicative of how a human liver will react to a particular drug,” she says. “Long term, we’d like to maintain a human cell line or primary tissue in this system. If we can find a way to anticipate the kinetics of a compound in humans before all that time and money and effort are spent in development, it could create a much more efficient process.”
“There is a tangible benefit to this research that we strongly believe in,” says project leader Patrick Schexnailder, Ph.D., of Southern Research. “The potential benefit would be tremendous in terms of reducing time and cost compared to current methods of testing.”
Because of the potential long-term benefit, it makes sense to keep a research team as intact as possible. Still, officials at Southern Research say the arrangement they have made with Miller is due to the peculiar nature of the project and the perspective she brings to it. “This is not our normal method of operating,” says Andrew Penman, Ph.D., F.S.R.C., vice president, Southern Research Drug Development. “But the nature of the project as well as the personality and the goals of our organization are such that it made good business sense to do this. Lindsay understands the implications of what we’re trying to do and has a willingness to learn. She fits in with our culture, so it makes sense to invest in her as an employee, but it’s also an investment in fostering our collaborative relationship with UAB.”
Although she is already an employee of Southern Research, Miller says her duties right now are primarily that of a graduate student. She proposed her thesis last year with the goal of fully characterizing the bioreactor system to understand what’s going on and what factors are affecting the tissues and the cells. “I’ll be measuring the viability of the cells and a few functional outputs, including the albumin production, urea synthesis and the basic hepatic function within the system ,” she says. “If things go well, it’s possible that the system could be in use within a few years.”
Of course, Miller will have long since graduated by then. She plans to defend her thesis and graduate this summer—marking the end of a phase but still the early stages of the project. “Any time you’re developing technology, there is a resident knowledge that develops over time,” says Schexnailder. “When there is turnover in the personnel, that knowledge gets lost. Bringing Lindsay on board now gives us the chance for a seamless transition that ultimately will increase the chance for success.”
Blurring the line between student and scientist
|While technically still a student, Lindsay Miller was already embarking on a career with Southern Research. Above, she is pictured with fellow Southern Research employees Andrew Penman, left, and Patrick Schexnailder. At right, she is with faculty mentor Joel Berry and her undergraduate mentoree Maryrose Kammer.|