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Professor Takes Engineering Approach to Stem Cell Research

June 9, 2006

Professor Takes Engineering Approach to Stem Cell Research

As a college freshman, Kara McCloskey knew her planned career in dance would be a short one and planned to become a scientist later in life. After a year studying dance, she decided she’d rather not wait. She became interested in the emerging field of bioengineering while an undergraduate in chemical engineering.

Today, McCloskey is searching for ways to cause stem cells to mature into the endothelial cells that make up the heart and blood vessels. She experiments with biochemical cues and mechanical forces that cause cell differentiation, searching for ways to “make it happen.”

“I take an engineering approach,” McCloskey said. “Where a biologist might study the details of stem cell differentiation, I look for ways to apply the potential power of stem cells to problems in human health. If we run into problems, we go back and use biological tools to solve them.”

McCloskey’s work on endothelial cells may have broad applications, she explained. As the field of tissue engineering grows, all types of tissue will require blood-vessel support. So her research may someday be used to help patients with disorders of the heart, liver, pancreas, kidney and skin.

She also looks at different ways to repair damaged and scarred heart tissue, using a physical framework that cells can build on to fill in and repair the scarred tissue after a heart attack, for example.

Several factors drew McCloskey to UC Merced.

“Funding from Proposition 71 should provide a new potential funding source for my work,” she said. “It’s exciting to see public belief in stem cell research and a willingness to put the money where our mouth is.”

She also loved the idea of working at a startup university, where she could contribute in exciting ways according to her priorities. A relatively high proportion of female faculty members in our technical disciplines was another positive factor.

“When I was an undergraduate, I can recall only one woman among our departmental engineering faculty,” she said. “We didn’t have the role models that young women in technical fields have today. At UC Merced, this fall, four out of fourteen engineering professors are women.”