From REU to award-winning doctoral candidate
As an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, Quinton Smith spent two summers in the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, where he worked with ChemBE faculty member Sharon Gerecht. The experience applying engineering principles to solving biological problems piqued his interest.
Now Smith, a PhD candidate working in Gerecht’s lab, is making a name for himself in vascular tissue engineering. Scientists have been increasingly interested in using a patient’s own cells to treat conditions such as cardiovascular disease, but current methods that use stem cells to create endothelial cells that line blood vessels are incomplete and tough to reproduce, Smith says. Plus, the cells are grown in plastic dishes —an environment unlike anything in the human body. In an effort to develop an efficient, uniform method of producing these cells, he has been investigating the roles of mechanical cues such as substrate stiffness and shear stress, as well as chemical stimuli, on the development of endothelial cells derived from human pluripotent stem cells.
“One of the big questions I’m interested in is why the current techniques we have to mature these cells are inefficient,” Smith says. “That’s one of the biggest limitations of stem cell technology.” Scientists have been able to differentiate heart cells for more than a decade, he notes, but they’re still not functional. “We can differentiate them to a certain extent, but we can never recapitulate the cells that are actually in your body. I’m looking into ways we can differentiate them so they can actually mimic the mature cells found in our body that can heal wounds.”
Smith has earned several awards for his work, including a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Just this year, he not only landed a Kirschstein-NRSA predoctoral fellowship from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which allows funding for three years to continue his studies of endothelial cell differentiation, but he also was named a Siebel Scholar by the foundation that awards $35,000 to the most talented students in the world’s leading graduate schools of bioengineering and other disciplines.
In his spare time out of the lab, Smith enjoys running and exercising. He also enjoys being a mentor for other students, serving as an advisor for high school students in the local Women in Science and Engineering Program, as well as guiding REU students from universities across the country working in Johns Hopkins’ INBT laboratories for the summer. He also has served as the chair for the department’s graduate student liaison committee, working with a team to organize social and professional development events.
Smith is creative, charismatic and dedicated to research, Gerecht says: “The project we were thinking about for his thesis turned out to be very challenging. Yet he managed to find ways to turn everything around and make it very successful in ways that I didn’t anticipate at all. He has a great career in front of him.”