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Materials engineer applies education to stem cell challenges

Crone, with her mentor, Professor of Medicine Tim Kamp.

The more Engineering Physics, Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering Professor Wendy Crone worked with biologists, chemical engineers, medical professionals and others, the more she realized she wanted to go back to school. Now Crone is studying polymeric hydrogels, a class of polymeric materials that incorporate 10 to 100 times more water than the polymer that holds them together. JELL-O and contact lenses are common hydrogels. Crone and an interdisciplinary team are looking at stem cell response to a surrounding three-dimensional hydrogel matrix. The goal is to test the influence of hydrogel material properties and mechanical stimulation on stem cell differentiation.

It is possible that researchers could use hydrogels as scaffolding on which to coax stem cells into producing engineered tissues.

Although Wisconsin is known for its interdisciplinary research, building the bridge between disciplines requires time and effort. With a Career Enhancement Award for Stem Cell Research from the National Institutes of Health, Crone is taking courses, participating in training workshops, and engaging in stem cell research over the next two years to become a better collaborator with her colleagues in other disciplines. 

Bridging the gap between disciplines requires Crone and colleagues to speak and listen in a perpetual state of translation. For example, “stress” has a very specific meaning to a mechanics professor but may mean something completely different to a biologist. “The way a person is trained in a discipline causes them to approach problems in a certain way,” Crone says. “An engineer may approach a problem quite differently than a biologist. In order to collaborate, both have to understand how they look at the world differently.”

As part of her retraining, and with the help of her colleague and mentor Professor of Medicine Tim Kamp, Crone has to develop her own lesson plan. “Being a student again is great. It’s so easy to sit in a class and have information delivered to you in an organized way,” she says. “Beyond the classroom, we have to figure out what we need to know. You have to dig out what you need and structure it yourself.”

In January 2012, Crone was named associate dean for graduate education of the UW-Madison Graduate School. Read more here.

James Beal