Q&A: Wendy Brown, UCI Postdoc, Cartilage Pro and Professional Cheerleader

Tech Currents Spotlight
May 9, 2018 By Jackie Connor

UCI postdoc Wendy Brown’s, Ph.D., interests have led her down a path of engineering cartilage while also maintaining a career as a professional cheerleader.

Brown has frequented UCI Applied Innovation to discover more about the potential of building a company surrounding UCI’s Department of Biomedical Engineering’s Driving Engineering and Life Science Translational Advances @ Irvine (DELTAi) lab’s recent research on cartilage. Her STEM journey has also been intertwined with a professional cheerleading career for both the National Football League and National Basketball Association. Before retiring in 2016, Brown cheered for several household namesakes like the Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons.

Brown’s passion for athletics and STEM are also palatable through her work with Science Cheerleader, a non-profit organization that inspires young women to consider careers in STEM fields and playfully challenges stereotypes about cheerleaders, scientists and engineers.
Despite uncanny coincidences in her symbiotic career choices both on and off the field, her cartilage interest traces back pre-cheerleading to a curious seven-year-old girl who was fascinated with her chicken dinner.

How did you know you wanted to study cartilage?
For some reason I was always really fascinated by it. I think even as a child, you realize that cartilage makes up a lot of important parts of your body, like your nose, ears and parts of your joints. As a kid, I remember eating [chicken for] dinner and looking at the cartilage. I found it really interesting and very unique compared to all the squishy stuff around it. So, that’s just what I aimed for. I feel lucky that I knew what I wanted to study at an early age.

How does your background as an athlete inform your interest in your research?
I think that my careers in science and cheerleading are synergistic. Many people don’t understand how, since at face value, cheerleading and science seem so classically different. So many of the skills that I have learned from cheerleading directly contribute to my career in the sciences. I’ve seen friends nurse injuries throughout their cheer careers, some of which were ultimately career-ending and life-changing. That’s a daily reminder of the importance of the research I’m doing.

Cartilage injuries affect millions of people in their daily lives, not just athletes. I’ve learned the value of mentorship and being a supportive team player to accomplish common goals, and I’ve greatly improved my ability to communicate with people from a wide range of backgrounds. The most impactful thing I came to realize through cheering is that everything is a skill that can be learned with enough dedication and practice. We don’t walk into practice already knowing the dances and are able to perform them to game day standards. No one is born knowing calculus. But, in both cases, we pay attention to our instructors and coaches, practice on our own and with each other and, through hard work, we become “game day ready.” That knowledge has been a huge motivator for me when I approach intimidating classes or research questions, and it’s something I tell every person I meet when I do science outreach.

What is the focus of your research?
My Ph.D. focused on engineering articular cartilage, as well as the underlying bone, to repair knee injuries. Often, when cartilage is injured, bone can also be affected. If you want to fix the problem, you have to address that whole area of tissue that’s damaged, not just the cartilage.
Our lab in general focuses on cartilage tissue engineering, which includes articular cartilage, but we also study things like meniscus, or the mattress of fibrous cartilage in your knee. We also study the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disc, which is a little disc of fibrous cartilage in your jaw joint. Some people in the lab have also studied facet [joint] cartilage. It’s theorized that the degeneration of facet joint cartilage is where a lot of back pain comes from.

What were some “survival tactics” you used while juggling your career and getting your Ph.D.?
Honestly–coffee. There’s a chain of coffee drive-thru stands in the Pacific Northwest called Dutch Bros. Coffee, and the baristas are known for being ridiculously friendly. Sometimes I would get coffee at the same stand more than once a day, so they got to know me pretty well. Seeing them and absorbing their positive energy and enthusiasm was a high point in my day. If getting coffee from enthusiastic people can help me de-stress, imagine what a scientist’s enthusiasm for STEM can do when meeting a child.

Wendy Brown, Ph.D., biomedical engineering, working in the DELTAi Lab. Photo: Yuxin Cha

With cheering and science, one thing was often an escape from the other. After being in the lab for a day, I would have to take a break for cheer practice. The physical exercise made me devote my mind to something completely different, and being with friends helped me recharge.
My commute from UC Davis to practice in Oakland was two hours each way. During this drive, I often did a lot of thinking about my research. By the time I got back from practice, I was energized and excited to get back to work in the lab.

During your recent “Beyond the Microscope” podcast interview at UC Davis, you mentioned that more women are pioneering the biomedical engineering field. Why this particular field?
This is pure speculation, but I believe it’s because the field of biomedical engineering has always been very collaborative and forward-thinking. Biomedical engineering as a formalized field hasn’t been around as long as other engineering fields. However, the goals and research efforts biomedical engineering have existed for a very long time in other forms, like through collaborations across the fields of biology, medicine, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and electrical engineering. But the biomedical engineering field is very new.
I think that that mind set of collaboration and innovation attracts a lot of forward-thinking people. A lot of those forward-thinking people are women, and the inherent innovative and progressive nature of biomedical engineering may create a friendlier atmosphere for the acceptance of women.

How do you encourage young women to be interested in STEM fields through Science Cheerleader?
There are over 300 current and former professional and collegiate cheerleaders located across the country who are involved in the Science Cheerleaders. We try to leverage the interests kids already have [in cheerleading] to make STEM approachable and fun. I think that’s the key to overcoming their initial intimidation about STEM. There are three-to-four million youth cheerleaders in the United States. If we can get these cheerleaders interested in science by relating it to cheerleading, that could mean a lot more future scientists, most of whom would be women.
We participate in large events, like the biennial USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., where we perform a science-themed dance show and conduct science outreach activities. We also have smaller scale, more local events all the time, such as talking to Girl Scout troops or middle school science classes about science and our careers in STEM.

I try to participate in as many Science Cheerleader outreach events as I can because I notice the impact. As a science fair judge, I’ve literally watched shy sixth grade girls go from being nervous to excited when I tell them I’m a scientist and I think their project is “really cool.” You never know when something as small as a one-off meeting is going to change somebody’s life.

Why is publishing articles and research not enough? What about UCI brought you here to study translational research?
I’m actually still working in the same lab. I finished my Ph.D. almost a year ago and at the same time, my advisor, Professor Kyriacos Athanasiou, took a faculty position here at UCI and recommend I come here as a postdoc. He told me about Irvine and the amazing resources at UCI Applied Innovation.

UCI Applied Innovation was a big reason why Professor Athanasiou was very interested in coming here so, I decided to check it out, as well. I got into biomedical engineering because I want to help people. I like knowing how the body works, but I also want to engineer things to help people. A major way our technology can actually make it to clinics is through translation of our research into commercialized products. Applied Innovation has amazing resources to learn about that pathway.

I love the array of resources at Applied Innovation. I attend the lunch and learn seminars all the time. I like the seminars because there’s no pressure to attend. If you can make it, you learn something new, network and then you go back to work.

I also have learned a great deal from the longer-term courses and programs. Applied Innovation’s I-Corps program is amazing because it is very immersive. Another postdoc in my lab, Heenam Kwon, and I participated in the program with our cartilage technologies. It made us think about how to identify if potential products based on our technologies are viable and valuable to the market. It forced us to ask those tough questions and gave us an idea of how to build a solid foundation for a product before we write a business plan, raise money and try to make it work. For me it was really good to get in that entrepreneurial mindset because I’ve always been focused on the science.

Are there any tissue engineering products/ approaches that you are particularly excited about?
There are several tissue engineering-based cartilage repair products going through clinical trials right now. It’s an exciting time because the doors to getting FDA approval for biological products are opening more.
Our lab, DELTAi, is doing amazing things, too. We engineer cartilage, which is mechanically very robust and made of only cells, that is, without scaffolds. Our engineered cartilage has mechanical properties on par with healthy native cartilage. We are at a point where we are making really amazing tissue and are discovering that our technology has the potential to help a lot people. I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants because so much work has been done in our lab and in the field of cartilage engineering before I came along. It’s the collaborative nature of biomedical engineering that has allowed us or anyone in the field to make the advances we have.

Aiming to make a positive impact on young cheerleaders, Wendy Brown works with Science Cheerleader to consider careers in the STEM field. Photo and header photo courtesy of: Wendy Brown and Bob Carr.

Between your research, post-doc and your previous career, what do you hope to accomplish?
I want to make a positive impact on society, to make something — hopefully multiple somethings – that make a difference in people’s lives. Regarding women and science, I want to give young women the support, encouragement and mentorship they need to pursue their dreams and hopefully avoid the challenges I and other women have faced in our careers. I think if I can encourage even one girl to be interested in science or help her gain the confidence to pursue it, I have done my job.