Everyone has a favorite organ, says Jenna Balestrini ’09, PhD BME. Her mother, a nurse practitioner who treated burn patients, had a special interest in the skin. Her WPI mentor, Professor Kristen Billiar, is partial to the heart.
“I am definitely a lung person,” Balestrini declares. Despite her preference, she doesn’t play favorites in her work at Draper, where she heads the Cell Bioprocessing program, working on tools to create an amazing array of cures for all parts of the body.
As an undergraduate in chemical engineering at Iowa State University, she worked on platforms and polymers for skin substitutes. Early on, she came to understand that research scientists and engineers think differently. “The engineer will apply knowledge and build the thing; the scientist will ask why,” she says. She resolved to pursue both in equal measure.
On a graduate admission visit to WPI, she found Billiar (who now heads the biomedical engineering department) using classical mechanical engineering principles to design heart valves. “He was young and hungry to learn,” she says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.” Billiar recalls their first encounter vividly: “She talked and talked and talked about different scientists in the field. She knew their work as well as I did.”
Together the two segued into skin and connective tissue—a bit of a stretch for the heart man—investigating how mechanical variables, such as stretch, load, stiffness, and scaffolding affect cell function. Many joint publications later, Balestrini’s pull toward the lung could no longer be denied.
“Look, I don’t really do lung,” Billiar told his mentee. Balestrini began connecting with key researchers in the field—and connecting him. “She’s one of the most passionate scientists I know,” he says, “and she’s definitely a people person. At conferences, she would introduce me to scientists in our field.”