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Faculty Spotlight: Tatiana Segura, PhD

Friday, December 7, 2018

Torn between engineering and biology as a high school student, Tatiana Segura decided to go with both, and designed her own degree in the brand-new field of bioengineering. Now as a professor in three departments at Duke, she’s applying these interests to the development of engineered materials to potentially regenerate tissue lost after stroke. In this week’s spotlight interview, Segura talks to us about this work, the enormous growth of immunoengineering that has occurred over the past decade, and how mentoring students and team building helps keep her fulfilled and engaged in her work.

What are your current responsibilities here at Duke?
I am a Professor in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering, Neurology, and Dermatology. Like all professors at Duke, I have responsibilities in education, service to my home departments and Duke as a whole, and creative work. In my particular case I teach undergraduate and graduate courses through in Biomedical Engineering, participate in departmental and University-wide initiatives, and run a state-of-the-art research program in the design of materials to augment endogenous repair processes in brain and skin.

What involvement do you have with the Neurology Department?
Neurology is one of my home departments. As such I participate in departmental initiatives and committee work. Since my research relates to improving functional outcomes after stroke using engineered materials, I am primarily involved with the stroke initiatives in our department.

Much of your research revolves around engineering biomaterials to regenerate damaged or diseased tissue within the body. What potential applications does this work have for patients with neurological conditions?

Our goal is to use engineered materials to augment endogenous repaired processes activated after stroke to reduce disability burden in stroke patients. Our materials are designed to be a synthetic extracellular matrix in which cells can grow. This synthetic extracellular matrix is injected in a necrotic region after stroke, which provides a support that allows cells to infiltrate this region. Because nutrients and oxygen are of paramount importance to growing tissue, we engineer our materials to promote angiogenesis, the formation of blood vessels from pre-existing vessels. This strategy has allowed for functional improvement after stroke in mice.

How did you first get interested in biomedical engineering? What do you enjoy most about your work?
I have been interested in combining biology and engineering since high school. I did not like the idea that I had to choose either biology or engineering for a degree, so I choose to join a program at UC Berkeley that allowed me to make my own major. This program in bioengineering allowed me to study chemical engineering and biochemistry simultaneously. I knew that I wanted to work in medical problems and tissue engineering was very exciting to me. My job as a professor has three aspects as I explained earlier, education, service and creative work.

I enjoy all these aspects of the job. In particular, I enjoy working with students and helping them learn how to ask important questions and seeing them graduate with skills that they did not have a few years before. I am also team builder, and I like working to build a community. This makes work-life balances easier to manage and a happier work environment overall. Just asking people to lunch or coffee is enough to take a break and connect with people in different ways. You could still talk about work, but doing so in a different space maybe just the thing you needed to come up with next brilliant idea.

What development in biomedical engineering in the past 10 years excites you the most? What exciting change(s) do you see coming over the next decade?
The last decade in biomedical engineering has seeing enormous growth in immunoengineering. Our understanding of the immune system has allowed for the engineering of sophisticated vaccines, cancer treatments, and immune therapies. In my field of endogenous repair, the role of inflammation and the immune system in general is just being appreciated. I believe that understanding how to modulate the immune system to promote regeneration of diseased tissues will bring us closer to bringing this therapies to their full potential.

What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
I have three children, a husband and a mother at home. They are my passion outside to the department. I like to listen to them play, laugh, discover, cook, and do everything one does to live a beautiful life. They keep me grounded.

Segura and family
Segura spends some quality time with two of her children.