Faculty Profile: Sherry Voytik-Harbin

Sherry Harbin In Action
Family is important to Sherry Voytik-Harbin (on right in photo), and two different but complementary families share this dynamic researcher. The first is her nuclear family, which is the most important part of her life. The second is the larger family of faculty, staff, and students at the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering who are helping her advance understanding of the complex multi-dimensional interactions of cells with the surrounding extracellular matrix (ECM). From that understanding comes the possibility of engineering ECM-based biomaterials that better interface with cells for improved repair and regeneration of damaged tissues.

Purdue was not originally a part of Voytik-Harbin's plans. After graduating in 1987 with a biochemistry degree, with honors, from Indiana University, she had been slated to go to Harvard and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for graduate work in experimental pathology. Something told her, however, that this was not the right path for her, so she "began a very late search and called Purdue, which put me in initial contact with Dr. Pete Konrad, and I talked with him about opportunities in biomedical engineering at Purdue." The opportunities for research and the willingness of the traditional academic units to work with her to "tailor" a plan of study sold her on attending Purdue.

"The team that came from Baylor [Geddes, Tacker, Bourland, and Babbs] to found what became the Hillenbrand Biomedical Engineering Center had a lot of foresight, and I was very fortunate to have worked with them," she notes. "They provided a very unique and team-oriented environment, and I think that was something most people were not used to."

Another difference was the strong emphasis on translating research out into products to better the lives of individuals. That struck a chord with Voytik-Harbin, who sees this as one of the two ways her work is changing the world for the better.

"I take a lot of pride in contributing to that process. Being able to improve the quality of life and extend the life of individuals is important," she says. The research being performed by her and her team is doing just that by revolutionizing how people approach tissue engineering and other therapeutic possibilities.

People often have the impression that the individual cells that make up our tissues and organs are lined up next to each other, possibly because that is how it can appear on a two-dimensional slide under a microscope. Yet, the reality is that each cell is surrounded by a three-dimensional microenvironment of fluids, fibrils, and other components. By understanding how individual cells interact with this environment, researchers hope to develop an new strategies by which cell activities, such as growth, differentiation, and even cell death, are controlled. This new understanding will in turn contribute to the development of the next generation of medical devices and treatments.

"The two-dimensional response of cells to surfaces is well studied," states Voytik-Harbin. "What we are doing is looking at cell-substrate (material) interactions from a multi-dimensional standpoint. It is apparent from recent research that the findings on two dimensional cell behavior are dramatically different from three-dimensional behavior. Understanding this is important, but it is not easy to study. We [she and her team] are fairly advanced in quantifying reactions such as morphology, proliferation, and mechanical properties, which is fairly unique." Her team is an important part of this research. Like BME, it is a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students, and staff, who come from different backgrounds including chemical, mechanical, electrical, and biomedical engineering, along with life sciences. She notes, "It is important for biomedical engineers to understand how to manipulate and study cells and molecules from a variety of perspectives." This synthesis, along with high-quality students and staff, is key to the success of her research.

In addition to this team, she notes that they are also working with participants from industry to translate the research findings into useable products. Having this partnership with industry is not only helping accelerate this translation, it is providing other important benefits as well. It also ties into the second way she sees her work changing the world for the better: educating the next generation of researchers.

"That's the fun part," she says. "We are giving opportunities to students, graduate and undergraduate, by bringing them into our environment and allowing them to work in a team with people from other disciplines and backgrounds, and exposing them to how their knowledge can be applied. When this happens, you see the light bulbs go on. It is an important part of the education process, and it allows them to gain perspective not just on research, but on how companies think and work. They get to see all the aspects of taking an idea and going through the various steps to make it a medical product, and how much effort is required to do that. They also learn that it is a team process, and not something you can do by yourself."

Being a part of Weldon is key to this. "In BME, there is a wonderful mix of individuals, on a faculty and staff level. It is the hub by which many departments interface, and it facilitates interactions. The opportunities that come out of Weldon are just amazing. The resources you have at your fingertips because of the relationships there are great. They also have experience: This is all based on what the [Hillenbrand] Center was built upon, that philosophy from [Les] Geddes and company, and it is now being carried forward by the next generation of individuals."

Which brings it all back to family, and what she enjoys most about being a part of Weldon and Purdue: "It's one great family! Weird to say, but it is."