Q&A: Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic

The Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Professor of Medical Sciences

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic’s research is making it possible to engineer human bone and build parts of the heart and lung. An innovative researcher, Vunjak-Novakovic also has launched two start-ups in the course of two years: EpiBone, a bone reconstruction company that allows patients to “grow their own bone,” and TARA Biosystems, which is developing a platform to provide physiologically relevant human heart tissue models for drug testing.

For more than 20 years, Vunjak-Novakovic has made tremendous headway in the emerging field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, earning numerous honors along the way. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and a founding fellow of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Society; most recently, she was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Inventors.

Over winter break, fresh from a trip to Miami to visit her son, Vunjak-Novakovic gave Columbia Engineering magazine access to her lab and discussed the start of her tissue engineering career, her love of music, and works of art that she returns to time and again.

Q: You’re a chemical engineer turned biomedical engineer. What attracted you to the field of tissue engineering?
A: It was serendipity. I was a Fulbright fellow at MIT, and I was there when tissue engineering just started to develop. At that time there was this idea that if you combine cells and biomaterials and you put them into the body, they will find a way to regenerate tissues. And, what I had done for my PhD coincidentally was actually a basis of culture systems, putting in one more step. I use cells and biomaterials, but I direct them in the lab to start becoming the tissues that you would like them to be—intervening with the shape, with the structure, maturing the tissue—and then you put this tissue into the body. The moment I learned about this field, I realized this is what I always, always wanted to do.

Q: You’re often referred to as a pioneer in this field.
A: I am, in fact, one of the people who were in the field relatively early, but the problems that we are solving are bigger than one person or one lab. It is really a collective effort. There are many different approaches being pursued, and, collectively, we are making more and more progress every year, so the field is now maturing and it is helping us better understand the physiological functions of the body—how the regeneration helps us model diseases and how it helps us also to grow some quality tissues that can be implanted in patients.

Go behind the scenes at the interview with Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic. (Video by Jane Nisselson)

Q: Why is this such an exciting field for you?
A: Growing tissues and organs is really exciting not only for me but also for the whole lab and for many young people who are now starting to pursue careers in biomedical engineering. We’re trying to help people live longer and happier lives. The most interesting things in science are happening at the boundaries of disciplines—so to grow a piece of tissue, this really makes you step out of your zone of comfort and work with people who are not bioengineers. We are collectively pursuing this dream that we’ll be able to one day have a “body shop” for our tissues and organs.

Q: Who inspires you?
A: I’m very much inspired by humanists and free thinkers. When I was a little girl I was really fascinated with Nikola Tesla, who is my compatriot, and, coincidentally, his family and my father’s family come from the same area. I was always fascinated not only by him being a pure genius, but also by his humanitarian side. He showed that you could be an entrepreneur without being self-centered and without caring for money. He was like a patron saint of electricity. Someone once said that if we were to take away his discoveries we would slump into darkness. I’m inspired by people who strive to make a difference in the lives of others.

Q: You’re busy in the lab, you teach, you are a founder of two start-ups. What do you do on your down time?
A: Lots of things! [Laughs.] My husband and I are big music lovers. We go to the opera all the time and to concerts. We cook dinners for friends and travel a lot. This does go at the expense of sleep, but actually there is life. There is life. And, I read a lot.

Q: What are you reading now?
A: The last significant new book was When Nietzsche Wept, a fiction about how Josef Breuer, one of the founding fathers of psychoanalysis, met Nietzsche, the most important philosopher of his time. This is a phenomenal book. It’s about the fear of aging and the huge questions we all ask ourselves, and it’s really about the redemption of a friendship. There’s also a book that has been very important for me all my life—The Alexandria Quartet. It’s about the city of Alexandria and its inhabitants and the things that matter the most. What’s unique about the book is that it’s almost mathematically constructed in four pieces—one of which giving length, the other depth, the other breadth, and the final one, time. You have this impression that this is a book that’s not moving, but it’s sort of spinning around its own axis showing different facets of life. This is the book that I have read many times and always go back to for more.

Q: Where are you in your life now?
A: It’s a very exciting stage, because professionally we are trying to move some of the discovery into applications. This is not easy but we are hopeful. Personally, I’m in a stable stage. We have a son who is a doctor who just started working. He has been a shining star in our lives. This is a really great stage—seeing him begin his own professional career.

Q: What would your colleagues be surprised to know about you?
A: I have fantastic intuition. I am a good cook. I dream in color.

Q: Very important question—What is an engineer?
A: An engineer is a person who’s trying to mobilize the resources of this planet to the benefit of people.

Q: Is this your dream job?
A: Absolutely. No question about it. This is the best job in the world.

—by Melanie A. Farmer