As a professor in the bioengineering department at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, Tracie Payne Ferreira ’90 has her dream job. Not only does her work help to advance healing medical technology, but she also engages students with her passion for hands-on teaching.
Ferreira’s lab researches tissue engineering. “Basically, we want to be able to take cells and grow new organs to help people, since transplants are hard to come by,” she says. “Skin is also a tissue we can grow using cell therapies that can help people heal faster and recover from chronic wounds that won’t heal. We already can synthesize cartilage, so once we get it figured out in the lab we can get it into trials for patient use.”
She adds, “A big challenge in tissue engineering is this: while you are creating a specific tissue, what do you grow stem cells on? You need something called a scaffold to hold them in place, but at the same time as the cells grow into tissue, the scaffold should dissolve so you don’t have a strange material left in the middle of the new tissue.”
Recently, the professor traveled to Northern Ireland with an undergraduate student to develop these scaffolds as a collaborative project with the Nanotechnology and Integrated BioEngineering Centre at the University of Ulster. The team is testing these scaffolds in zebrafish, which is an efficient new approach because the fish are less expensive and have transparent bodies, “so you can see what is happening in real time.”
Ferreira, who majored in biology at Wheaton, received her Ph.D. in microbiology at Georgetown University. Originally intending to go to medical school, she found that she has a passion for teaching as well as biological research. After completing her degree, she spent a year at a postdoctoral internship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and then came back to Massachusetts to work as a research scientist at the Forsyth Institute, a biomedical research institute in Boston dedicated to oral health.
Set on teaching, she supplemented her laboratory work by teaching at Northeastern University’s Dental Hygiene Program. From there, she was able to get a visiting lecturer position at Tufts University teaching molecular biology, and joined the biology department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth in the fall of 2005. In 2011, she transitioned to the school’s new bioengineering program.
Although her field is vitally important for medical advancement, Ferreira feels that her role as a teacher has just as great an impact. “I love helping a student to feel that they are important and that they matter, and that I will do everything I can to get them to where they want to be in the future. I always tell my students that I do my research not to win a Nobel Prize, but to give them a chance to learn from my research lab. And who knows, maybe they will win a Nobel Prize someday.”
The professor has advice for students interested in biological research: “Get into a real lab and get relevant experience. Understand that you need to be trained to think critically and problem solve. Those skills will be applicable to any field of research. After all, I earned a Ph.D. in microbiology by studying the fungi yeast, and now I use zebrafish and look at wound healing and tissue regeneration.”
“Wheaton gave me this strong foundation,” she says. “You want to be sure you go to an undergraduate school that has quality faculty, a rigorous curriculum, and—if you want to go into science—a place with faculty that are researching actively, so you can get real hands-on experience.”