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

FDA Commissioner Health Disparities Lectureship

FDA Commissioner Health Disparities LectureshipAs many of you know, one of my missions is to help reduce or even eliminate the health disparities of underserved populations in the United States. Health disparities represent a major public health emergency in our country and eliminating them is a major challenge.

During my term on the National Science Board of the FDA, I advocated for the establishment of an Office of Minority Health for the FDA. I am proud that Congress moved forward with this initiative and established the Office of Minority Health. On its first anniversary, the FDA invited me back to provide an address on ways in which race, culture and ethnicitiy should be considered in adopting regulatory policies and actions. I gave my talk last month as part of the first “FDA Commissioner Health Disparities Lectureship,” and I was grateful to share the podium with Professor George King from Harvard. I applaud the leadership of the FDA, especially Dr. Michelle Yeboah (Director of the Office) , and the leadership of HHS, especially Dr. Nadine Gracia (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health) for their work in the elimination of Health Disparities.

10th Annual Alvin H. Crawford Mentoring Award

In late February, I was truly honored and delighted to receive the Alvin Crawford Mentoring Award presented by the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society (JRGOS). The Mentoring Award recognizes excellence in promoting diversity and mentoring in orthopaedic surgery. Over the years, I have been fortunate to receive recognition for my mentorship including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring Award presented by President Obama at the White House in 2010 and the 2011 Biomedical Engineering Society’s Diversity Award.

I would like to personally thank my current and former students, postdoctoral fellows, and residents. Their curiosity and enthusiasm keep me vibrant.

Professor Kevin Lo Joins the Faculty of the Institute for Regenerative Engineering

I am very pleased to announce that Dr. Kevin Wai Hong Lo, a postdoctoral fellow in our lab, has been appointed as Assistant Professor in the Institute for Regenerative Engineering. Dr. Lo will also have a faculty appointment in the Department of Medicine. After earning his B.S., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Dr. Lo joined Laurencin Labs. Over time, he has become an extremely accomplished researcher with interests which include drug delivery, tissue engineering, and bone cell signaling. Speaking for all the Institute faculty, we are excited to have him join us, and we look forward to working with our newest faculty colleague.

The Urban Education Institute Speech

The Woolworths in Greensboro, site of the first sit in.
The Woolworths in Greensboro, site of the first sit in.

The Urban Education Institute invited me to join them in late March at North Carolina State A&T State University in Greensboro, NC. For those who may not know, the Institute is a meeting space for individuals and groups to examine critical issues that impact learners in urban contexts, share methods and approaches they utilize to address these issues, and brainstorm concrete steps to move forward as a critical mass of colleagues and collaborators. This year’s theme was “African American Males in the STEM Professions: Strategies, Practices, Exemplars.”

I led a session entitled “Preparing for Surgery.” It focused on challenges and barriers encountered by minority males, particularly African Americans, when they pursue careers in medicine. During the discussion, I shared my own experience as an African American physician in America, emphasizing the importance of mentoring, the prerequisite knowledge and skills, and academic programming that are important in the medical profession. In addition, I offered recommendations for concrete strategies and practices that I have used at public schools, universities, and in the community to encourage more minority males to pursue careers in medicine.

I saw an awesome group of African American scientists including one of my mentors, Dr. Louis Sullivan, and the legendary Dr. John Slaughter. I also had the opportunity to interact with Dr. James Stith, a physicist who has played an important role in increasing the role of African Americans in the physical sciences. He gave an incredible talk to the group, and I connected with everything he said. I look forward to collaborating with him in the future.

The Woolworth counter in Greensboro, that was the site of the origin of the sit in movement.
The Woolworth counter in Greensboro, that was the site of the origin of the sit in movement.

During my time in Greensboro, I visited the Woolworth’s where, in 1960, four male students sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter and ordered coffee. When they were refused service, they stayed until closing in nonviolent protest. The next day, another 20 students joined them, and by the fourth day, the number rose to 300, and organizers agreed to spread their nonviolent sit-in to the lunch counter at Greensboro’s Kress store. Within a week, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins, and the movement spread throughout the South. On July 25, local store owners abandoned their segregation policies and a day later, the entire Woolworth’s chain was desegregated, serving blacks and whites alike.

I came away from my visit thankful for all those in the past whose actions have allowed me to be here, as well as those present-day mentors who sustain me now. Moreover, I reaffirm my pledge to give back by influencing the generations to come.

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.