Kay C. Dee

Biomedical Engineer

Kay C Dee Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Tulane University Hi! I'm an assistant professor and the director of the cell and tissue engineering laboratory in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tulane University, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Some people may not be familiar with biomedical engineering, so let me tell you first of all that biomedical engineers use math, science, and engineering to understand and help treat medical problems. Cell and tissue engineering is a new field of biomedical engineering, so I'd like to explain it a little bit. Cell and tissue engineers combine knowledge from sciences (like biology and chemistry) with principles from traditional engineering fields (like electrical, mechanical, or chemical engineering). The scientific knowledge helps us understand how cells and tissues work; then we use our engineering skills to develop methods to control how the cells and tissues function. For example, if I understood exactly how bones heal when they are broken or injured, then I could figure out which chemicals in the body "tell" bone cells to make new bone tissue. I could then put similar chemicals on the surface of a biomaterial, and I could make a dental or orthopedic implant out of that biomaterial. The resulting implant would "tell" surrounding bone cells to make bone at the tissue-implant interface, and the implant would heal quickly and strongly. Actually, this is one of the projects I'm working on in my laboratory! Other examples of cell and tissue engineering research are: understanding how mechanical or electrical stimuli can affect the functions of cells and tissues, figuring out how to grow tissues or organs in a laboratory for patients who need transplants, and discovering ways to get cells in a patient's body to function a certain way (say, to make a tumor stop growing, or even shrink). Did I always want to be a biomedical engineer? No. When I was in high school (a very small, public high school, in a very small farming town in Michigan) I wanted to be a musician. I decided to study engineering instead, because I liked science as well as music, and I wanted to eventually have a steady job! I earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, where I confirmed that I wanted to use my chemical engineering skills for medically-related applications. After learning more about biomedical engineering, I went to graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I earned M.Eng. and Ph.D. degrees in biomedical engineering. While I was at Rensselaer, I worked in the laboratory of another woman engineer, Dr. Rena Bizios. Dr. Bizios introduced me to cell and tissue engineering research, and taught me about many different aspects of being an engineering professor. She still gives me lots of good advice! Sometimes high school students tell me they're not going to apply to certain colleges or engineering schools because tuition is so expensive. Well, I was in college from 1988 to 1996, and it was admittedly a challenge to pay for all that school! But if you are determined and motivated, you can find ways to pay for college. I worked at a number of different jobs and saved money while I was in school and during summers and holidays, I applied for every scholarship I qualified for, and I took out student loans (My mom was nice enough to help me get some of those loans. Thanks, Mom!). It was worth it. I love my job, and I'm slowly paying off those loans. Getting an education in a field that really interests you is an important and worthwhile investment. Don't be afraid to invest in yourself. My short-term and long-term goals include doing productive research and teaching great classes! I teach courses about cells and biomaterials, cell/tissue mechanics, and bioethics and tissue engineering; I also teach a course for graduate students about how to teach engineering classes. I'm proud to be a professor of engineering. Teaching gives me an important opportunity to be a positive influence in peoples' lives. As a matter of fact, if I had to name my greatest professional accomplishment, it would be that I often find myself telling my classes "I'm sorry, but it's five minutes past the time class was supposed to end. We have to stop for today." and my students say (without sarcasm) things like "Class is over already?" and "Oh, come on. Just five more minutes!" This really happens to me. I'm very proud of it. I have a confession to make: I don't fit many people's ideas of what an engineer is supposed to be like. For example, I don't like math all that much. Of course, I can do math (if I really have to), and I understand how useful it is. It's just not my favorite thing. People always say that they became engineers because they like math and science - well, I like science, but I also like writing, and reading, and music, and art. I think the things I've learned about communicating with people (writing, talking, listening, drawing, demonstrating) make me a more effective engineer and a more effective teacher. The engineering classes that I teach always incorporate opportunities for students to write, to give oral presentations, even to teach portions of the class to the other students. I believe strongly that to be a good engineer, you must be able to explain things to other people. If I could give one piece of advice to young women, it would be this: DON'T EVER APOLOGIZE FOR BEING WHO YOU ARE. Don't apologize for being smart, being strong, for looking like you look, thinking what you think, feeling how you feel. Don't waste your time worrying about what other people say or do. Just be strong, and be the woman you're meant to be. If you have questions or would like more information, please feel free to send me email at kcdee@tulane.edu. My home page is at http://www.bmen.tulane.edu/~kcd.