3° with Ryan Gilbert

by Michael Mullaney on February 9, 2012

Ryan Gilbert is a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who recently received a prestigious NSF CAREER Award. We ask Ryan about his work:

Q: You’re endeavoring to create new biomaterials that can be used to treat spinal injuries. How did you get interested in this topic?

A: At Case Western Reserve University, my faculty advisor was developing biomaterials for peripheral nerve and spinal cord repair. I was fortunate enough to be involved in a project that related to spinal cord injury. I read every paper I could about spinal cord injury and took many neuroscience courses. I was really interested in the structure of the spinal cord and all of the different cell types that allow for us to move and feel.

So, what’s a biomaterial? And how can we make them?

Most commonly, we think of a biomaterial as being a hip implant or a dental filling. As our understanding of polymeric materials increases, we have the potential of employing polymers into tissues that are soft. The spinal cord is a very soft tissue, and the materials that we place into the spinal cord must also be soft. Spinal cord biomaterials are typically either hydrogels (polymers that have a high water content) or more rigid structures that mimic the structure of the native spinal cord. Hydrogels are made by taking polymers and dissolving them into an aqueous buffer. We can then potentially inject them into the spinal cord where they reside to deliver therapies locally or deliver therapeutic cells. Guidance conduits are made using various procedures and these structures could guide regenerating axons into and through the lesion site.

What do you love most about being a researcher and professor?

I love being able to think of new ways to potentially cure spinal cord injury. I also really like working with my group of dedicated young research scientists. They motivate me to work harder and be better, and I motivate them become the very best that they can be.

At Rensselaer, what’s your favorite course to teach?

I like teaching Drug and Gene Delivery the most because the students design a novel drug or gene delivery approach for their term project. I think the students really enjoyed that component of the course, and I enjoyed learning about their novel approaches.

When did you know that you wanted to be an engineer?

I was a good student in math and science in high school. My parents recommended I pursue engineering even though no one in my family was an engineer. Once I was accepted into the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

You grew up in Michigan, and were a faculty member for a while at MTU on the state’s Upper Peninsula. Tell me a little bit about the Great Lakes State.

The Michigan that I know the most is rural Michigan. Rural Michigan is defined by rolling hills that are covered with crops or trees or lakes. I was fortunate enough to grow up on a farm, and we enjoyed all aspects of Michigan—the swimming, fishing, hiking, camping, and gardening.

Outside of the laboratory and classroom, what do you do for fun?

I enjoy reading current events and following Michigan sports teams. I like to bike, hike, and exercise. I enjoy music. I play the violin and piano when the schedule permits. I’m also very interested in the green building and sustainable living movements.

To read more about Gilbert and his work, check out this story his cool research page here.