Body of work

Alum achieves unprecedented accolades for her breakthrough work in biomaterials and tissue engineering.

A lifelong athlete, Kristi Anseth (BSChE '92) likens her early career success in engineering and medicine to sinking a buzzer beater to win a basketball game. Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2009 and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in 2010 when she was only 40, Anseth is surely in the midst of a "hall of fame" career for an engineering scientist.

Anseth says she never met an engineer growing up in rural North Dakota, but the possibilities of math and science, with a particular focus on chemistry, put her on an engineering path. Purdue provided the open door to explore those possibilities as she learned more of its reputation.

"Purdue offered a world-class program in chemical engineering and I had a chance to meet and learn from numerous faculty and graduate students as an undergrad," says Anseth, who did her primary work with Nicholas Peppas. "I was surrounded by people who were exceptional examples of the best teachers and researchers."

Anseth would quickly join them as one of the best of the best in her chosen field. After Purdue, it took her just two years to earn her PhD at the University of Colorado, where she stayed and began rising in the faculty ranks and earning awards.

Her research specialty focuses on biomaterials and tissue engineering. "We are interested in using engineering principles to design biomaterials that can help the body heal itself when natural processes go awry from disease or injury," says Anseth, now the Tisone Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. "This often involves designing materials that present the right chemical and physical signals to cells at the right time and the right place."

Anseth points to initial applications in humans as a promising breakthrough. "We're trying to develop hydrogel materials to help promote tissue regeneration, such as cartilage," she says.

She must be onto something. In 2008, she was named a university professor, the youngest in Colorado history. Popular Science named her one of the "Brilliant Ten," and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers named her among the "One Hundred Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era."

The accolades, however, are the byproduct of the excitement Anseth feels every day as she goes to work. "The best part of my day is when I wander through the lab and talk with the members of my research group," she says. "It's inspiring to see their enthusiasm, perseverance in overcoming challenges and passion for discussing ideas. I really learn something new every day."

In February, Anseth received two awards from Purdue — named both an Outstanding Chemical Engineer and a Distinguished Engineering Alumna. In April, the Materials Research Society (MRS) selected her to receive the inaugural MRS Mid-Career Researcher Award "for exceptional achievement at the interface of materials and biology enabling new, functional biomaterials that answer fundamental questions in biology and yield advances in regenerative medicine, stem-cell differentiation and cancer treatment."

The consummate team player, Anseth takes the awards in stride, giving due credit to colleagues. "Professionally, I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by a wonderful team of past mentors, current colleagues, students and my research group," she says. "It's definitely a group effort."

On the personal front, she must occasionally recall those schooldays in North Dakota, when math equations and science projects seemed to offer something greater than solutions and confirmed hypotheses. "I have a 5-year-old daughter and I hope she grows up knowing that there are no boundaries to her dreams," Anseth says. "And that maybe I have been a good example for her."