Mone't Sawyer in the Stein Luminary showing her research

Meet a first-generation researcher advancing frontiers in tissue engineering

Biomedical engineering doctoral student Mone’t Sawyer didn’t always see herself as a scientist or engineer. At one time in her life, she thought scientists weren’t allowed to be creative, so her creative spirit wouldn’t be allowed to shine pursuing a career in STEM fields.

Boise State University and the College of Engineering have provided the space for Sawyer to bridge her creative passions with her background in materials science and engineering to her research in biomedical engineering.

“A STEM career can be rewarding if that is your passion,” Sawyer said. “I began this endeavor thinking I could make a lasting change, inspire other women of color to follow this passion and inspire others to delve into the difficulties of being a woman of color in STEM so that they could help build a welcoming environment for everyone.”

In September, the doctoral candidate’s creativity shone front and center in the American Chemical Society’s Applied Bio Materials journal as her first lead publication on tissue engineering applications landed her on the cover.

Building Blocks

When Sawyer started college, she enrolled as a dual major in psychology and criminal justice. Her goal was to become a profiler with the FBI. After two years, she realized the passion she once had for the things she was learning had fleeted.

“I wanted to go to NYU when I graduated high school but I am a first-generation college student and paying for school myself when scholarships weren’t enough limited where I could attend,” Sawyer said. “Looking back, I’d say that the universe was guiding me here because the impact Boise State has had on me, and me on it, has guided my life in a direction that I am so incredibly proud of.”

Sawyer then set her trajectory toward planes, specifically becoming a pilot. While a career as a pilot briefly lasted, she realized she was more interested in the intricacies of the plane, how it is made, what it is made of and how it can be optimized. Honing in on a new passion all that was left was an outlet to study it. It’s here in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering where faculty like Eric Jankowski changed her trajectory once again.

“I owe my own discovery of my passion for research to him,” Sawyer said. “Mentorship can make or break any research experience. I count myself incredibly fortunate to not have one, but two, advisors that have pushed me to be the best scientist I can be.”

With a place to study and a new passion, Sawyer was ready to begin a new journey, but it wouldn’t be that easy. Sawyer was still having to work her way through school. While completing four years of research at Boise State with an internship at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Sawyer was working three other jobs to pay for school.

Graduate school provided a new shift for Sawyer. A chance with a sole focus on something she was passionate about– research. Staying at Boise State she shifted her focus more toward her minor during undergrad and was accepted into the Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. program.

“When I entered the PhD program, I thought I wanted to be a research faculty at the end of it,” Sawyer said. “I think it’s only fitting with the trajectory of my life that halfway through I’d change my mind. I realized that I don’t have to pick one thing. I can be a writer, an artist, and a scientist all at once and that’s pretty powerful.”

Building Cells

In her doctoral studies, Sawyer is working in the Advanced Nanomaterials Manufacturing Laboratory (ANML) under the supervision of David Estrada where she could use her materials science background for healthcare problems.

Articular cartilage damage can lead to osteoarthritis, the most prevalent joint disease and the leading cause of disability in the United States. Over the last three years, Sawyer and her co-authors have been working tirelessly to contribute to the next generation of tissue engineering.

“No one does research alone and this work would not have been possible without the help of my cohort, the ANML group, and multiple others,” Sawyer said. “Although I’m doing tissue engineering, I am learning a lot from my electrical, chemical and materials science and engineering cohort that supports me in this endeavor.”

Tissue engineering, a prospective alternative treatment for this musculoskeletal disorder, aims to repair, maintain or regenerate these damaged tissues outside the human body. Imagine building tiny, intricate structures that resemble organs or tissues using a combination of cells, scaffolds and growth factors at a microscopic level.

“It took us nearly three years to perfect the cell culture method, gold labeling protocol and imaging of these microenvironments,” Sawyer said. “The adrenaline rush of looking into a microscope and seeing your hard work there in front of you with your own eyes is unmatched.”

This technology has the potential to revolutionize medicine by providing customized solutions for tissue repair or replacement. Over the past decade, tissue engineering has evolved from two-dimensional cell cultures grown on planar surfaces to culturing cells in complex three-dimensional architectures.

Sawyer and group’s research has addressed a key challenge of characterizing cell proliferation and migration within the 3D systems. The group developed a labeling technique using conjugated flourophore to study cellular spatial distribution on bioscaffolds using MicroCT techniques.

“This approach allowed us to visualize cells within the internal branch structures, providing insights into cell migration, attachment, and proliferation within the 3D environment,” Sawyer said. “Which would be unattainable through conventional optical methods of characterization.”

The findings in Sawyer’s recently published research opens up new possibilities for engineering bioscaffolds to utilize her labeling technique for specific cell types and tissue organization. By characterizing cell behavior throughout the entire bioscaffold, the technique can be applied to other bioscaffold materials leading to better mechanical integrity, mimicry of the complex human structure and provide better control over material properties.

-by Jamie Fink

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