Author: Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D.

Prominent African-Americans “Poised to Make a Big Difference in the United States and the World”

In honor of Black History Month, MSNBC compiled a list of black leaders in the arts, science, technology, politics, and other areas. I was honored to be included in this group of men and women, particularly since the article included words from Dr. Cedric Bright, an outstanding leader and President of the National Medical Association.

I have always taken pride in my desire to promote excellence in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine. My sincerest hope is that, throughout my career, I will continue to inspire all those who wish to follow my philosophy of “big vision, big life.”

Featured M.D./Ph.D. Student at the Institute for Regenerative Engineering: Shaun W. McLaughlin

Shaun W. McLaughlinShaun is a third-year M.D./Ph.D. student doing his Ph.D. thesis in my laboratory at the Institute for Regenerative Engineering. Prior to coming to UConn, Shaun worked with me at the University of Virginia where his main research focus was using hydrogels to delivery bioactive molecules that aid in bone regeneration. He also has worked in the private sector conducting novel bio-implant and tissue engineering research. Specifically his research focused on the development of an artificial ACL ligament using three-dimensional braided microfibers as well as osteo-differentiation using a laser-guided surface-etching technique on titanium implants.

Since entering his Ph.D. phase at UConn, he has been shifting his research focus to skeletal muscle regenerative engineering. “I’m very interested in using a progenitor cell located in skeletal muscle known as the satellite stem cell to aid in regeneration of skeletal muscle. I hope that, by providing a scaffold that can aid in cellular alignment and differentiation of skeletal muscle stem cells, I’ll accomplish this goal.” The scaffold he uses in his research will be fabricated using a technique known as electrospinning. I was one of the pioneers of implementing electrospinning for tissue engineering. By modifying this technique, he will generate highly aligned (parallel) nanofibers which provide cues for satellite cells to undergo alignment and subsequent fusion into more mature myotubes which is necessary for adult skeletal muscle formation.

I am very proud to have Shaun as a student. He is an ambitious young man who wants to enter the fields of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, much as I have. His ultimate goal is to become a physician-scientist, setting up his own research laboratory. He hopes to develop state-of-the-art biomaterials and implant them into patients. Outside of the laboratory and classroom, Shaun enjoys triathlons, playing ice hockey, mountain climbing, and anything outdoors.

Distinguished Speakers Series at the University of California Riverside

In mid-February, I had the opportunity to visit the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UC Riverside. During the visit, I gave a speech entitled “Musculoskeletal Regenerative Engineering: Taking on the Grand Challenges.” My talk highlighted the tremendous work being carried out here at the Institute for Regenerative Engineering. More specifically, I discussed the importance of stem cell technology and nanotechnology as we move forward with our bold idea: musculoskeletal limb regeneration.

I had a wonderful experience at UC Riverside. The scholars are exceptional and the students are enthusiastic, smart, and hardworking. I so appreciated the hospitality provided by UC Riverside and I’m grateful to all who hosted me.

NanoBio 2012

Second International Conference on NanotechnologyI was fortunate to be asked to provide a keynote speech for the Second International Conference on Nanotechnology held in Kochi, India. There I was reunited with some of my former students, all of whom are now professors. Swami Sethuranum (left) is the director of the Center for Nanotechnology at SASTRA University near Chennai, India; Dhiru Katti (center) is a leading researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur; and Lakshmi Nair (right) is an outstanding scientist who has been with me since our days at Drexel University in the 1990s. She is currently a core member of the Institute for Regenerative Engineering at the University of Connecticut. All are internationally known for their work in nanotechnology, and all were invited to speak at this conference.

As proud as I am of the research work we do here at UConn, I am even prouder of the people I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and training. Watching them succeed in their fields of endeavor is very gratifying. Seeing them together in India underscores how fortunate we are to have such an international family. All gave exceptionally strong presentations in their areas of nanobiomaterials and nanomedicine. Although we have not been together physically for seven years, we are in constant communication. It is extremely satisfying to know that, as a group, our spirits remain linked.

Black History Month

As many of you know, I am very proud of my African-American heritage, especially the successes and successful struggles of African-American people in America. On February 14th, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by Fox 61 as part of its series, “Black History is Everyone’s History”, celebrating African-American achievements in Connecticut. During the interview, I shared the story of the success and achievements of our Institute for Regenerative Engineering.

While excited about our success, clearly the story would not be possible except for the sacrifices of many, many African-Americans who toiled for generations to bring me and others “to the place where our fathers sighed” (to quote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem). We must always be mindful of that, and be mindful of our obligations to reach back and move forward the generations that follow us.

Honored with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award

Dr. Martin Luther King gives his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Dr. Martin Luther King gives his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

I was proud to be one of five who received the 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, which recognizes achievement and service that reflects the great civil rights leader’s ideals. The awards dinner and breakfast, held on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week, was uplifting. Each year, candidates for the leadership awards are nominated by their colleagues. Simply to have been nominated was an honor, but to have been nominated by Robert Langer, an internationally renowned engineer and my mentor, was doubly so. I am grateful to Dr. Langer, the MLK Jr. Planning Committee, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for this award.

Distinguished Lecturer at University of California, Davis

Biomedical Engineering Distinguished Seminar SeriesIn late January, I had the opportunity to participate in the Biomedical Engineering Distinguished Seminar Series at UC Davis. It was an honor to give a lecture at an institution with such outstanding faculty and staff, as well as interesting students. My lecture was entitled “Regenerative Engineering of Hard and Soft Musculoskeletal Tissues.” I thank UC Davis and Professor Kyriacos Athanasiou, Chairman of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, in particular, for inviting me to visit this great institution. I look forward to working with my colleagues at UC Davis in the future.

Biomedical Engineering Distinguished Seminar Series

The 11th U.S.-Japan Symposium on Drug Delivery Systems Conference

I recently had the privilege of being an invited speaker at the 11th U.S.-Japan Symposium on Drug Delivery Systems Conference in Maui. The symposium was co-sponsored by the Japanese Society of Drug Delivery Systems, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kyoto University and offered a unique opportunity for interaction among attendees from academia and industry between Japan and the United States My talk was entitled “Regenerative engineering: Drug delivery of effector molecules” and highlighted the work at the Institute for Regenerative Engineering including research by Dr. Lakshmi Nair and Dr. Kevin Wai Hong Lo.

I so appreciated the hospitality provided by the organizers. I want to thank Professor Robert Langer, my mentor, for co-organizing such a fine meeting.

Honored to Serve as the Chair, Board of Directors for the W. Montague Cobb/National Medical Association (COBB) Health Institute

The Cobb Institute, founded by the National Medical Association (NMA) is focused on the elimination of disparities in health and healthcare that disproportionately affect African Americans. Disparities in health among, racial and ethnic groups in the US are significant and, by many measures, continue to increase.

The institute is named for William Montague Cobb, who dedicated his life to turning prejudice into pluralism. The first black physical anthropologist to earn a Ph.D. and the only one until the Korean War, Dr. Cobb’s work focused on the consequences of segregation and racism, and he used his work to confront these issues. Dr. Cobb served as president of the National Medical Association from 1964-65. In 1976, he became president of the NAACP, a post he held until 1982.

As a physician-scientist involved in research on health disparities and its affect on health status in this country, I am acutely aware of the need for community education and outreach. Bringing effective health care to the underrepresented populations of this country is my mission inf serving as the Chair of the Board for the W. Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute.

Thanks to the leadership of the W. Montague Cobb/National Medical Association (COBB) Health Institute, especially Dr. Randall Morgan our Executive Direcotr, and thanks to the leadership of the National Medical Association for helping to make Dr. Cobb’s dream a reality.

Reflecting on the Past and Looking to the Future: The Constancy and Commonality of Challenges

On Monday, we will commemorate the 83rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth. Reflecting on his legacy, I recall 2 speeches I gave in 2011. On 2 vastly different subjects, they shared the commonality of challenge. At the National Institutes of Health, I was fortunate to be asked to provide last year’s NIH National Day of Remembrance Speech in honor of Dr. King. In the 1960s, he challenged the status quo, fighting for racial justice and an end to racially based disparities. Even now, 43 years after his death, Martin Luther King continues challenging us to carry on that battle.

Last June, I spoke at the 25th anniversary celebration of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). The theme was “Meeting the Grand Challenges.” I talked about the scientific work the Institute for Regenerative Engineering is doing here at UConn, work with the potential to revolutionize the field. Mainly, though, I talked about the people doing that work. We have been very, very blessed here at the Institute. We have brought together a wonderful group of scientists of diverse backgrounds—all good people—with protean interests that work together.

I constantly think of Dr. King’s challenge: “What are you doing for others?” It is my hope that all of us keep that in mind as we face the challenges ahead in science, in medicine, and, most importantly, in our lives as members of our local and global communities.