Alumni Highlight

Jason Chang

Jason Chang, BS’17 in Biomedical Engineering
PhD Candidate, Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering
Cornell University

How did your experience at The University of Texas at Dallas prepare you for your current position?

After graduating from UT Dallas in 2017, I began my doctoral studies at Cornell University where I am currently a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering and National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Fellow. Under the guidance of Dr. Nelly Andarawis-Puri, my dissertation research focuses on tendon regeneration. Specifically, I am utilizing novel mouse models, biomaterials and tissue engineering approaches, molecular biology techniques, and biomechanics to explain biological mechanisms leading to scarless tendon healing after injury.

My research career started at the beginning of my freshman year at UT Dallas. However, I was uncertain of what I wanted to do post-graduation until I joined the Biomaterials for Osseointegration and Novel Engineering (BONE) Lab led by Dr. Danieli Rodrigues at the beginning of my junior year. Under her mentorship, I was involved in two major projects: assessing the biocompatibility and antibacterial potency of two-solution bone cements for orthopedic applications; and evaluating the biocompatibility of various commercial dental cements used in implant fixation procedures.

These projects ultimately culminated in a peer-reviewed paper where I am the lead author, presentations at national conferences and a funded grant that I wrote with Dr. Rodrigues. I learned how to think and write critically, design and analyze experiments, manage a research budget, and effectively communicate my science with clinicians, industry professionals, and general audiences. All of these essential skills established a strong scientific foundation before I began graduate school. Moreover, Dr. Rodrigues’ unconditional support for me, even after leaving UT Dallas, has been instrumental in my growth and development as an independent researcher.

What is the broader impact of your current work?

Tendons connect muscle to bone to allow for weight bearing activities and locomotion. Tendon injuries result from acute trauma, overuse, such as repetitive movements and intense physical activity, as well as aging and account for over 30% of all musculoskeletal consultations in the U.S. Despite their clinical significance, current treatments are largely ineffective and have high post-operative re-injury rates. In addition, tendon injuries typically heal with the formation of mechanically inferior scar tissue, which leads to impairment of tissue function.

Interestingly, the Murphy Roth’s Large (MRL/MpJ) mouse strain exhibits a regenerative capacity of the tendon. At Cornell, our group has previously shown that the MRL/MpJ tendon extracellular matrix (ECM) is characterized by improved structural alignment and a unique biological composition during the early healing response. In addition, our recent findings provide compelling evidence that MRL/MpJ tendon regeneration is driven by the local tissue environment rather than systemic contributors, such as the inflammatory response. Accordingly, my dissertation research investigates how the MRL/MpJ tendon ECM modulates the behavior of resident tendon cells. This work will allow for screening of molecular targets to develop therapeutics that promote effective tendon healing.

Where do you see the biomedical engineering field, or your specific area, going?

The efficacy of tendon therapies has been hindered by an incomplete understanding of fundamental biology and mechanisms underlying tendon disease development and healing. For example, the specific cellular markers that distinguish different tendon cell populations are relatively unknown, whereas other musculoskeletal tissues such as bone and cartilage have several well-defined markers. However, the community of researchers focusing on tendons is rapidly growing and aims to address a spectrum of important basic science and clinical questions. It’s exciting to be part of this supportive research community at the forefront of answering very impactful human health questions.