NIAMS Scientists Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

April 19, 2011 (historical)

Photo of Dr. Helen Lu
Dr. Helen Lu

A Conversation with NIAMS Grantee Dr. Helen Lu

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. To celebrate Asian and Pacific-American contributions to science, we are highlighting the accomplishments of Dr. Helen H. Lu, a NIAMS grantee. Dr. Lu is an associate professor of biomedical engineering and associate professor of dental and craniofacial bioengineering at Columbia University in New York. She was chosen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to be among the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) winners for 2008. Dr. Lu was one of 11 NIH grantees out of 100 gifted biomedical researchers to receive the honor. This Presidential award is the nation's highest honor for scientists at the beginning of their professional careers. In her interview, Dr. Lu discusses the people and events that influenced her becoming a scientist, offers helpful advice for aspiring scientists, and describes the most rewarding and challenging aspects of her career.

What led you to become involved in scientific research and academia?

There were several factors, including previous research experiences in science and engineering, a joy of learning and teaching, role models who are outstanding researchers and educators in biomedical engineering (BME), and a broad impact of scientific discovery, especially BME, in improving the health and quality of life of the population.

What influenced you?

Many people and many events influenced me. For example, I saw a video in high school about the human body as an incredible machine, which provided a whole new perspective on the body, and likely first got me interested in bioengineering. After that, I was fortunate to have enrolled in one of the top undergraduate bioengineering programs in the country, and later in graduate/postdoctoral training I had the honor of working with world leaders in biomaterials/tissue engineering research. Not to mention all of the wonderful students, colleagues and academic mentors with whom I have been associated or working since I started my academic career almost a decade ago. These experiences collectively compelled me and sustained my desire to pursue a research/education career in BME.

Was there a defining moment that led you to a career in science?

There was no single moment, but rather a culmination of influences and experiences, and lots of luck in terms of the people that I have worked with, individuals who, by example or through our discussions, have inspired me to pursue a research career in science/engineering.

What is the focus of your research?

I engineer limbs (arms and legs) and tissues (bone and cartilage) that connect to these limbs.

What is your area of expertise?

In the past, scientists were able to make one type of tissue. Now, using stem cells, scientists are trying to engineer different types of tissues and connect them together. If we are able to create a non-metallic tissue (rather than having to use metal and plastic, which replace cartilage and bone in total knee replacement, for example), it could potentially have a broad impact on joint replacement and limb engineering.

What do you enjoy about your career?

Research (the process of identifying problems, proposing a solution and implementing that solution); mentoring the next generation of tissue engineers or biomaterials scientists for careers in academia and the biomedical industry; and teaching.

What have been the most rewarding or fulfilling aspects of your career?

The potential of our work to improve the lives of many, the joy of scientific discovery, and mentoring. To see my students and fellows reach their own "a-ha" moment is priceless. I enjoy learning from them and helping them fulfill their potential.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

Getting started was hard, as we were focusing on a relatively understudied area. Although, these unexpected challenges did open up unplanned research venues, and, in some ways, forced us to think outside of the box, and to be creative and systematic without excessively relying on existing knowledge. Getting our ideas funded initially was challenging, but I was lucky to have great mentors, colleagues, and NIH/NIAMS officials and reviewers who understood where we were headed, helped to improve my understanding of the funding and review system, and, in many cases, provided invaluable feedback. They championed the research and allowed our program to blossom and thrive.

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I enjoy travel and community service, especially fostering an interest in science and engineering in young women (grades K-12) and minority students through workshops and one-on-one mentoring activities.

Can you offer any advice for women or people from communities of color who wish to pursue a career in science?

I would urge them to be:

  • Professional be the consummate professional in your field, as a team player and as a leader
  • Persistent keep your goals in sight and don't stop until you reach them, and then go for the next set of goals. Always strive for excellence and don't give up, as change does not happen overnight!
  • Positive be positive about your experience and set examples for others
  • Proactive increase awareness through your own actions and serve as a mentor for others

Why is it important for people from communities of color to participate in research-- both as investigators and as patients?

As investigators, you can pursue research of the highest caliber and impact, and serve as role models for others interested in science and engineering research. You are also uniquely positioned to conduct community-specific types of research. As patients, you help to generate medical information and research data relevant to the community of color, and to help other patients with similar backgrounds or the same condition.