By Giorgina Paiella
The Connecticut Technology Council (CTC) has selected Dr. Zengmin Xia as one of eight “Women of Innovation.” The council honors Connecticut women who are leaders in the science, math, technology, and engineering disciplines, granting awards in eight innovation and leadership categories: academic, entrepreneurial, large business, small business, youth, collegian, and community. Xia is the 2014 top category winner for collegian innovation and leadership.
Xia received her doctorate from the UConn Materials Science and Engineering Department in May 2014. She completed her research on biomaterials and tissue regeneration, specifically the preparation of novel tissue engineered scaffolds for bone repair and regeneration, in Dr. Mei Wei’s lab. The Wei Laboratory focuses on the development of novel biomaterials for tissue repair and regeneration. Biomaterials research is highly interdisciplinary, combining elements of materials science, engineering, biology, chemistry, and medicine. Through her lab experiences, Xia benefitted from this multidisciplinary and team-oriented environment, where she learned the fundamentals of materials science and engineering and the principles and applications of tissue engineering.
Bone loss due to trauma, disease, and aging creates a pressing need for bone grafts, an issue central to the focus of tissue regeneration research.
“Many currently existing bone grafting materials still suffer from poor osteoconductivity and poor mechanical properties,” Xia states. “Thus, there is a pressing need to produce a bone tissue engineered scaffold that can have good mechanical properties and excellent biocompatibility. We designed tissue engineered scaffolds for improved bone repair and regeneration. The fabrication process for the scaffold is simple, which makes the scale-up manufacturing step easy to achieve. The scaffolds have been found to have bone-like morphology, improved mechanical strength, and their pore size can be easily tailored to meet the needs in different applications. The scaffolds had been tested in vivo for both calvarial and long-bone defect repair and demonstrated promising outcomes.”
A patent was published in 2013 based on Xia’s research. Her invention helped the Wei Laboratory secure an NSF I-Corp grant to commercialize the tissue engineered scaffolds, with Xia serving as entrepreneur lead. The team’s novel scaffold was able to induce faster bone formation in vivo, suggesting that patient rehabilitation time may be reduced in the future.
On receiving the CTC distinction, Xia notes, “I really didn’t think I would win. The award is a great honor to me. My greatest appreciation goes to my advisor, Professor Mei Wei, who received the same award in 2007. With the help of Professor Wei, I developed a lasting intellectual curiosity and a desire to be a researcher in biomaterials. She is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic professor, a caring person, and a great mentor who empowers students. She is a role model to young women, particularly those in her lab group and female students in the School of Engineering. With her inspiration and guidance, I started to think highly and dream big- I learned to become a better me.”
Prior to joining UConn, Xia received her B.S in chemical engineering and minor in English from Zhejiang University and her M.S. in chemical engineering from the Beijing University of Chemical Technology. Over the span of her Ph.D study, Xia produced an impressive 14 referred journal publications, one patent, one book chapter, and 17 conference presentations. Now that she has graduated, she will take on a research assistant professor position in New York State.
Reflecting on her time in UConn MSE, Xia states:
“I want to especially thank Professor Harold Brody, Professor Yu Lei, Professor MT Shaw and Professor Anson Ma for their helpful suggestions on my research. I have improved my understanding of material properties through fruitful discussions with professors of the School of Engineering. I have also gained knowledge of cell culture and the interactions of materials with the biological environment from our collaborators at the UConn Health Center. In addition, I love working with other graduate students and mentoring undergraduate students in Professor Wei’s group. I have mentored 12 undergraduate students, one high school student, and one technician during my Ph.D. study. I discovered that learning how to supervise is just as important for my career in the long-term as independent research.”