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Interdisciplinary experience leads to academic position

By Sophie Bolick
December 2010

Rebecca Heise, Ph.D.
With planning, solid mentoring, utilization of resources, and networking, Heise took control of her fellowship experience at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Stavros Garantziotis, M.D.
With his dual role as a principal investigator in the LRB and as medical director of the Institute's Clinical Research Unit, Garantziotis was an ideal mentor for Heise. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., a former trainee at NIEHS, is taking the next step in her scientific career this semester as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. As a freshly minted Ph.D. in bioengineering, she joined the Matrix Biology Group in the NIEHS Laboratory of Respiratory Biology (LRB) in August 2008, where she took an interdisciplinary approach to lung injury research during her two years as a postdoctoral fellow.

Building upon her past research experience studying mechanical stress in the bladder, her work on ventilator-induced lung injury (VILI) sought to understand the mechanisms by which lung cells sense and respond to mechanical strain. According to Heise, this is an important area of research because mechanical ventilation can cause or worsen lung injury, although respirator support can be crucial for a patient's survival. In some cases, VILI can even lead to respiratory failure and death.

Combining engineering and molecular biology

Working with NIEHS Principal Investigator Stavros Garantziotis, M.D.(, Heise showed that mechanical stress of alveolar epithelial cells causes epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) via production of hyaluronan, an extracellular matrix protein, and activation of the innate immune response. This work was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. She plans to continue this area of research at VCU.

Heise was drawn to working with Garantziotis because it was an opportunity to build upon her engineering expertise and learn a new skill set. She acknowledged that she "will have more of a background in molecular biology than most engineers." Garantziotis credits her hard work for her successful job search. "She was able to build on skills she had developed as a Ph.D. student, while applying them in a different model," he said. "This [skill set] enabled her to have a running start, but also allowed her to claim novelty in her approach."

"Stavros has been very helpful in giving me opportunities to collaborate with others and pursue my own research interests, but also keeps the focus on the big picture," Heise said of Garantziotis' support and mentoring. In comparing her graduate experience in a much larger lab to her experience at NIEHS, she commented, "There is an advantage to being in a smaller lab."

Capitalizing on fellowship resources

In preparing for an academic career, Heise took advantage of the numerous resources afforded fellows at NIH. She was a regular attendee at career development workshops offered by the Office of Fellows' Career Development (OFCD)( at NIEHS, as well as those made available by the Bethesda-based NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education. She relied on both NIEHS OFCD Director Diane Klotz, Ph.D., and NIEHS Deputy Scientific Director Bill Schrader, Ph.D., for helpful advice during her job search, from preparing for her interview to negotiating her start-up package.

Heise was active in the NIEHS fellows' community, serving as a member of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly( steering committee and NIEHS Annual Career Fair planning committee. She also represented NIEHS at the monthly meetings of the NIH Fellows Committee.

Heise holds dual undergraduate degrees in biomedical and chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. She earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Pittsburgh. She said she was drawn to VCU because of the strong collaborations the engineering department has with the medical school. "It's all about the fit with the department you're applying to," she added.

(Sophie Bolick, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow with the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group in the Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis.)

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