Biomedical Engineering Professor Discusses His Award-Winning Research: How Do Nerves Grow?

NJIT Professor Wins Coveted National Science Foundation Award

The Department of Biomedical Engineering is quickly becoming one of the best young departments in the nation. Over the past five years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has given coveted Early Career awards to three biomedical engineering professors.  

Professor Treena Arinzeh won the award first for her pioneering stem cell research.  Professor Tara Alvarez later won for researching human vision and the brain. And this month, Professor Bryan Pfister won the award for researching how nervous systems grow.

Pfister studies how nerves grow in response to the stimuli of stretching. His research is so significant and so advanced that it could soon help tissue engineering experts learn how to repair damaged nerves. A breakthrough of that magnitude would of course be of immense solace to the millions of patients who have nerve or spinal cord damage. 

In this interview, Pfister discusses the thrill of working at the forefront of biomedical engineering.   

Can you talk about your research project?
At birth, an animal’s nervous system has already laid down its wiring; connecting the brain with each target throughout the body.  Shortly after birth, an animal’s quick skeletal growth induces a coordinated growth of nerves – a growth that occurs by mechanical stretching.  In large animals, this growth can be extremely fast. For example, the blue whale can grow an estimated 4cm a day; a giraffe’s neck by 2cm a day.  So when I was a post doc at the University of Pennsylvania, working in the laboratory of Dr. Douglas H. Smith, I built a device that stretches nerve fibers, also known as axons.  We discovered, for the first time, that when stretched by this device the nerve cells grew rapidly. And here in my lab at NJIT, I'm continuing to study axon stretch growth.  I'm using various microscopic and biochemical analyses to study the mechanism behind this unique form of nerve growth.

What might be the impact of your research?
From a scientific standpoint, my research has already launched a lifetime of new and important neuron-scientific questions. Furthermore, the research has raised questions about many aspects of current neuron-scientific knowledge – and those aspects will now need to be revisited. I’m excited about answering some of these scientific questions, but this discovery is also offering a fresh way of growing nerves and regenerating damaged nerves. The exciting part is that we may be able to exploit this process to engineer nerves outside the body, or learn how to enhance the regeneration of damaged nerves inside the body. 

Can you talk a bit about the excitement of doing research?
Scientific researchers are explorers, always searching for an answer or a discovery. It takes endless hours of lab work and a determined single-mindedness to make a discovery. But when you do, you feel a great sense of achievement. You feel like you created something.  I suspect the joy that we engineers and scientists feel is akin to the thrill that a songwriter feels after writing a great CD, or that a writer feels after completing a great novel. I especially love it when the students who help me in the lab make a discovery. They jump up and down, shouting, ‘I did it. I did it.’ For me, that’s the coolest part of research.  

How will the NSF grant help your research?
It will be an immeasurable help. The five-year grant gives me more than $400,000 to invest in this research. The equipment and supplies I need to do this research are so expensive. The microscopes alone cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But perhaps more importantly, this grant will allow me to train more students. I thus get to look forward to more student discoveries. I’ll hire undergraduate and graduate students, who will work together at the forefront of bioengineering and neuroscience. That will be invaluable experience for the students, who might one day be the ones to usher in scientific breakthroughs. They will learn from my experience, and I’ll learn and be thrilled by their findings. I hope their discoveries are bigger and better than mine.

How many NJIT students work with you in you labs?
I am training three doctoral students and four master’s students. In addition, a team of six biomedical engineering students -- all undergraduates -- have been working with me in the lab as part of their Capstone project. Some of them are scholars in the Honors College, and others are part of our McNair program. They are very bright students and they’ve helped me build a device that uses imaging techniques to study axon growth.  The Biomedical Engineering Department attracts terrific students and we want them to get research experience as early as possible. Some students do research as early as their freshman year. It’s an amazing opportunity for them.  

Can you talk a bit about your educational background?
I have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Johns Hopkins, and that training helps me to build the devices that stretch nerve cells.  I have a Ph.D. from Hopkins, too, in material science and engineering. I began studying the biomechanics of nervous system injuries, at the cellular level, when I was a graduate student. And the research I’m doing now is an outgrowth from the post-doctorate research I did at the University of Pennsylvania, in its Department of Neurosurgery. 

When did you first get interested in biomedical engineering?
This actually goes way back. Just to show you how things can change, my undergraduate degree was in Interdisciplinary Engineering and Management from Clarkson University.  After working in the real world for a few years, I decided to go back to get my master’s in mechanical engineering. This was at the time when biomedical engineering was just beginning to take off. I recall asking my professors at Hopkins about research that bridged engineering and medicine. I soon joined the lab of my Ph.D. mentor, who was also starting to do research in biomedical engineering. He encouraged me to do bio-neurological research. We both developed an interest in cellular biomechanics and the study of traumatic brain injury. Biomedical engineering is now the fastest growing of the engineering fields, and my specialty, neuron-science, is a big part of biomedical engineering.

What kind of high school students might consider studying biomedical engineering?
Since the field is flourishing so rapidly, any student who thinks engineering is for him or her should seriously consider majoring in biomedical engineering at NJIT. All sorts of engineers, and engineering disciplines, exist within biomedical engineering. Look at me, for example. I’m trained as mechanical engineer and a material scientist -- two disciplines now playing key roles in medicine. Mechanical engineers are needed to design and build bio-med devices such as orthopedic prosthetics; material scientists are needed to understand the types of materials that can be used in the body; and electrical engineers develop all sorts of medical instrumentation. The uniqueness of the biomedical engineering program here is that it combines the varied engineering specialties that surround biology today. It also allows the students to get involved in research and design solutions and devices that will help people.

You are the third young biomedical engineering professor here to win the NSF Early Career Award. How did you feel about that?
I’m humbled to be in the company of the two previous winners. Professor Treena Arinzeh, with whom I share lab space, was the first to win the NSF award for developing a way to use adult stem cells to help patients who have spinal cord injuries or bone and cartilage damage. Treena went on to win an even more prominent honor: the Presidential Award -- the nation’s highest award for young scientists. Professor Tara Alvarez next won the NSF grant for her research that shows how our brains learn and how that affects our vision. Tara, who was recently named the Outstanding Woman of Science by the New Jersey Association of Biomedical Research, is doing research that will help people who have vision, or eye convergence, problems. Both Treena and Tara are great professors and researchers, and they are indicative of the department we work in. The Biomedical Engineering Department is rife with vibrant professors who, I assure you, will make major contributions in the near future to the burgeoning field of biomedical engineering.