Nicholas M. Greene Professor in Anesthesia and Biomedical Engineering Laura Niklason received a pleasant surprise on Feb. 7: news that she had been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
Niklason is one of 87 new inductees to join the organization this year, which is currently over 2,000 members strong. An induction into the Academy is among the highest professional distinctions that engineers can be awarded. In the press release announcing the inductees, NAE President Daniel Mote Jr. said that the honor was bestowed to engineers who have made major advancements in new or traditional fields or who have made strides as educators.
“I felt surprised and lucky,” Niklason said. “Being elected to one of the National Academies is obviously an exciting thing and it’s validating, but to be in that position requires a mentor and several colleagues … I’ve been fortunate enough to have colleagues who have supported me, and so I’ve been very lucky that way.”
Over the past 25 years, Niklason has made major contributions to cardiovascular tissue engineering, lung regeneration and biomedical imaging. Her work draws from the three fundamental sciences — biology, chemistry and physics — as well as computational and engineering principles.
“My goal is to use cells and use what we know in biology as tools, as wrenches, to help make things that might be useful one day for patients,” she said.
One of Niklason’s colleagues in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, professor Jay Humphrey, wrote in an email to the News that her induction was “very well-deserved.” He added that Niklason “is a true pioneer in the field of regenerative medicine and the translation of her discoveries and advances promise to improve the care of countless patients.”
Aside from her academic research, Niklason is also the founder of Humacyte — a biomedical company that engineers blood vessels for use in patients with vascular diseases. The company makes use of novel technology in an effort to democratize their vessels and make them “available off the shelf,” almost like “spare parts” for patients, Niklason said.
Involvement in the private sector has affected the way Niklason approaches research ventures. In academia, she said, researchers typically solve problems methodically, going from the molecular mechanisms towards the bigger application to disease. In the private sector, however, the process is reversed — identifying the link to disease often comes before examining the underlying mechanisms.
“You do the last experiment first,” Niklason added. “I call it ‘throwing a spear down the beach.’ We throw a spear down the beach, we see where it lands, and if it’s looking okay, then we’ll go in that direction.”
Niklason attended college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she majored in physics. When she started college, the number of women who pursued engineering was “vanishingly small,” she noted. “Frankly at that time, I had no interest in being an engineer.”
She entered the field of bioengineering only in her early 30s, after receiving a doctorate in biophysics. She emphasized the importance of taking a “muddle-through” period, a term that her father used to use.
“The muddle-through period is when you come upon a new problem, and you don’t even know the outlines of the problem, yet you’re feeling your way,” she said. “The tendency when you have a big fat problem is to jump for the quickest and easiest thing. But that … is often the wrong place … if you don’t force yourself to the wrong place, you’ll probably wind up in the right place.”
Niklason’s official induction to the Academy will occur at the body’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30 later this year.
Maya Geradi | firstname.lastname@example.org