On the second floor of Lehigh’s Whitaker Lab, a team of researchers creates materials with different characteristics, carefully embeds them with living cells, and then observes as those cells grow and transform. But according to their faculty advisor, assistant professor of materials science and engineering Sabrina Jedlicka, it’s the students themselves who do most of the growing.
The seven students in Jedlicka’s lab (four graduate, three undergraduate) come from a variety of academic stages and backgrounds -- mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, bioengineering, biology, and molecular biology -- which makes the team a septuple threat. “Our different backgrounds help us critically analyze, with each one of us picking up on different things,” Jedlicka says.
For some students, this growth takes place over years, from their early undergraduate days on campus through to the graduate level. “Two of my graduate students were also undergraduate researchers in my lab,” Jedlicka says. “In fact, we have published research papers with undergrads as first authors.”
A Million Possible Truths
Jedlicka and her students may have different backgrounds, but they all share a similar drive to understand the unknown. “Research never gets boring because you are constantly trying to challenge yourself to think differently from what you originally perceived to be true,” Jedlicka says. And with stem cells, there are a million possible truths.
“Stem cells are the darndest things—they never really do what you want them to do. They are living things with fascinating behaviors,” Jedlicka says. “Every day you can find a new study where someone has learned something about stem cells, and putting all those things together is mind boggling—it keeps me up at night.”
Jedlicka says her ultimate goal is to develop mass-producible, affordable “smart petri dishes” for biological and medical researchers to use to guide stem cells to mature into cells with specific characteristics. “
In guiding her students maturation process, Jedlicka takes a decidedly different approach – providing the autonomy necessary to do great things. “My students have independent, self-led projects. They know what they are supposed to do, and they are trained to do it,” she says. “They are welcome to ask questions at any point, but when it comes down to the knitty gritty, day-to-day details, the projects are theirs.”
In the process of trying to understand the unknown, Jedlicka’s students hone in on their own research topics of interest. “As I watch the students progress, they are getting to the point where there are things they know just as much as I do,” she says. “My PhD student will surpass me in the next six months if all goes according to plan…and that’s the way it should be.”