Two McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty members recently received the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor's faculty awards. The honorees include:
- William Wagner, PhD, professor in the departments of surgery, bioengineering and chemical and petroleum engineering, and interim director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Dr. Wagner received the distinguished research award in the senior scholar category. The senior scholar category recognizes "an outstanding and continuing record of research and scholarly activity."
- Steven Little, PhD, assistant professor and Bicentennial Alumni Faculty Fellow in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Swanson School of Engineering. Dr. Little received the distinguished research award in the junior scholar category. The junior scholar research category recognizes those "whose exceptional early contributions have demonstrated great potential and have already produced a measure of international standing."
The nomination passages for Drs. Wagner and Little from the University Times follow.
Dr. Wagner's research interests involve the application of engineering and materials science principles to develop technologies that aid in the treatment and diagnosis of cardiovascular disease. The primary research focus of Dr. Wagner's laboratory in the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine is in the area of cardiovascular engineering with projects that address medical device biocompatibility and design, tissue engineering, and targeted imaging. The laboratory's mission is to apply engineering principles to develop technologies that will improve the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Nordenberg recognized the work of Dr. Wagner and his research team.
"You are known for your clinically oriented biomaterials research and development and, in particular, for defining disease-specific needs that drive the design of new materials and techniques," the chancellor wrote.
"Your research group has made substantial and continuing contributions to the field of biomaterials, particularly in the development of biodegradable, elastic polymers that are essential for soft tissue engineering. The processing and application of these materials as temporary technical supports to intervene in cardiovascular disease has the potential to substantially alter how patients are treated following a heart attack and during surgery when artherosclerosed vessels are bypassed," he wrote.
"In the area of medical device biocompatibility, your group has defined how blood biocompatibility can be quantified by interrogating circulating blood cells from animals implanted with cardiovascular devices. The characterization and application of these methods [have] helped to optimize cardiovascular device design prior to the progression of these devices into clinical trials. The most widely utilized ventricular assist device today — the Heartmate II — was evaluated and developed at the University with your research group using these techniques."
Dr. Wagner told the University Times, "I was certainly delighted, but also honored. I have had the pleasure of knowing and, in some cases, working with previous winners of this award. To join their company is quite meaningful to me."
Performing research can be its own reward, Dr. Wagner said. "There are a number of [pleasing] aspects. First, there is the pleasure that comes in the creative process of design. Also, working with a team to develop new approaches, seeing whether a new material or device prototype performs as expected, and evolving the approach to incorporate the findings, as well as translating new knowledge in science as part of a solution to a clinical problem" all are rewarding, Dr. Wagner maintained. "Probably most satisfying is having been a small part of a process that successfully translates a solution to a patient, and then getting to see and meet specific individuals who benefit from that technology."
He said that virtually all the research he works on is team-based.
"My research group has members with a variety of backgrounds: bioengineering, chemical engineering, polymer chemistry, as well as surgeons with clinical experience," Dr. Wagner explained. "We also collaborate extensively with other faculty on most of our projects. One of the great characteristics of the University of Pittsburgh that is well appreciated among my peers at other institutions is the ease with which collaborations can be built and sustained here. This general attitude, combined with the excellence of our faculty, makes it relatively easy to build teams to attack complex problems."
Dr. Wagner's love of science started at an early age. "One of my earliest interests was in astronomy. Growing up in Arizona, I had great access to regularly clear, dark skies and I was able to combine a love of hiking with the exploration of the skies. I found in middle and high school that astronomy served as a perfect introduction to the scientific method, and when learning the history of the field, it became clear to me how scientific discovery hinged upon technological innovation," Dr. Wagner said.
He also credits a number of people for supporting his research successes. "I have certainly been the beneficiary of a supportive and tolerant family, both in my youth and today with my own wife and children. I have also been fortunate to have excellent mentoring over the years at the University from several generous medical and engineering school faculty members."
"As a youth, a key influence was becoming involved in a service organization that had my friends and I engaged in a variety of community projects each weekend. In addition to forming lifelong friendships, this group allowed us to recognize our responsibility to help those in need, and the pleasure that comes with such a pursuit," Dr. Wagner added.
Dr. Little's lab team focuses on therapies that are biomimetic, that is, they replicate the biological function and interactions of living entities using synthetic systems. The research team collaborates heavily with faculty from the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Starzl Institute of Transplantation, and the Center for Craniofacial Regeneration.
Dr. Nordenberg noted that Dr. Little's research "has impacted the controlled release of drugs, creating more effective treatment regimes. Specifically, your work on a 'tool box' for designing controlled-release polymers that will give desired release profiles is truly groundbreaking. You have developed fundamentally new ways to incorporate 'cell-like communications' into artificial particles and thereby achieve results that cannot be produced by the previous state-of-the-art release vehicles. Your very recent work on synthesizing chemically patterned, or 'patchy,' particles is also pioneering in its implications for developing a new paradigm for controlled release."
Dr. Little told the University Times, "I was really honored to win this award. I've won awards before, but this one is really prestigious partly because it requires four letters of support from essentially national figures. I do science all the time, which also means going to conferences, and there people are always hard on you, which you need. But to read the praise I got in these letters, especially at a young age, was very gratifying."
Dr. Little said he got the science bug early on. "With doing research, I don't think I could not do it," he said. "First of all, it's fun. I love the discovery process. But the most fun is setting things up for students and watching their faces when they make the discovery. In that sense, my research and teaching are inseparable, one and the same thing."
Regarding his research team's development of the tool box, Dr. Little said, "In the past, everybody was trying to do something based on their own system. What we tried to do, and this is the tool analogy, is to design a delivery system that was accessible to everybody, no matter the drug or the polymer or the shape and size. A tool that everybody can use."
Dr. Little credited his colleagues with performing research that goes beyond an individual's input.
"The reason the sum is greater than its parts on a research team is that with multiple people you get innovation. I also believe diversity is crucial — gender, race, everything — because people bring different perspectives to a problem," he explained.