Terri-Ann Kelly ’98

A Journey to Purpose

March 22, 2019
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Kelly came to WPI uncertain about how to differentiate among all the choices. But she found her way, within the school’s unique culture, to her passion. It’s not unlike what she does today as lead cartilage tissue engineer at biotech innovator EpiBone—growing stem cells in a special culture, from undifferentiated state to bone and cartilage, and finding their function as individualized replacement parts for the human body.

“I bounced around among different interests before settling on biotechnology,” she says. “My advice to all those young undergraduates who are just trying to find their way would be to recognize that life isn’t, and won’t be, linear. It’s OK to feel lost, or to have a dream and not know how to get there. The important thing is to persist, to know that time spent learning and experiencing new things is never lost or wasted. And that, more often than not, you’ll need to actively seek out the help you need or want.”

Kelly got much of that help from Jean King, now WPI’s Peterson Family Dean of Arts and Sciences. “Though her work was in neuroscience, I worked in her lab [at UMass Medical School’s Center for Comparative NeuroImaging] throughout my undergraduate years and beyond, benefiting from her mentorship,” she says. “Her support and encouragement remains one of the most pivotal influences in my career, for which I will always be in her debt.”

Kelly was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and spent the first 11 years of her life on a small farm in St. Catherine, an area now part of the city of Portmore, on the island’s southern coast. It was a hardscrabble life amid the sugarcane fields, with no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.

She sees the sunny side. “The two houses on the property were teeming with my family as well as my extended family, so I always had someone to play with,” she says. “From swimming in the irrigation canals that supplied our sugarcane fields to eating fresh fruits straight from the trees, my childhood was rather idyllic and fueled my curiosity to know more about the natural world.”

Good schooling nurtured that curiosity. She attended basic and primary schools modeled on the British school system, which prioritized math and science “at an accelerated pace compared to the U.S. school system,” she says. ”Luckily, these were the subjects in which I excelled.”

She moved to Springfield, Mass., in 5th grade; in high school she concentrated on honors courses in math and science, and developed a love for biology and physics. This led to her participating in Science Olympiad, and eventually to WPI, where she earned her BS in biology.

"My advice to all those young undergraduates who are just trying to find their way would be to recognize that life isn’t, and won’t be, linear...The important thing is to persist, to know that time spent learning and experiencing new things is never lost or wasted. And that, more often than not, you’ll need to actively seek out the help you need or want.”

Her academic strengths notwithstanding, the move from secondary education to college took some adjustment. As a woman and a minority, she participated in the inaugural cohort of the Excellence in Mathematics Science and Engineering Program (EMSEP), designed to help underrepresented students transition into the overall WPI community.

The Best Version of Yourself

"I have most definitely had to overcome barriers and challenges that have come my way simply be- cause of my race and/or gender, especially in the notoriously slow-to-change realms of science and academia. I faced these obstacles long before the current cultural awareness that has been brought about by movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. I’ve found that oftentimes the best solution is to find a place where you can be accepted for who you are, and if that’s not immediately possible, to be the best version of yourself you can be, and let your skill and talent speak for themselves."

“This was a defining experience for me, highlighting issues of race and gender in higher education, which are still very much a challenge in academia to this day,” she says. “I owe a great deal of thanks to Blanche Pringle, director of the program. She was a mentor who pushed me to seek leadership roles, in addition to being a source of emotional support.”

Kelly is a leader now. When she was first hired at Brooklyn, N.Y.– based EpiBone, she and her research technician did most of the cartilage research and product development themselves. Now, as lead engineer, she oversees research and development of the company’s cartilage tissue products.

“In the two years I’ve been at EpiBone my role has evolved,” she says, “and I now provide guidance to our team of technicians, research associates, and scientists who perform the day-to-day work.”

Being at a start-up means that role continues to be fluid, and she wears many hats. A typical day includes mentoring direct reports, meeting with members of other research teams to resolve cross-functional issues, and working with the chief scientific officer and assistant director of research to plan out upcoming projects and milestones. She also manages cartilage project workflow, negotiates with vendors and suppliers, interacts with thought leaders, presents research plans and results, and writes grants, regulatory documents, protocols, and reports.

Collaboration is central to her work. “It’s no secret that it takes a Herculean effort to bring any biotech product to market, and we are no exception,” she says. “At a minimum, collaboration begins and ends with effective communication, and that is something that must be a constant company-wide priority.”

While fostering that collaborative environment, Kelly and her company take a no-nonsense approach to talent recruitment and external networking. “To maximize our payroll dollars, we hand-select only those employees who bring a multitude of skills to the table,” she says. “Looking outward, we have crafted a diverse network of relationships with academic institutions, physicians, regulatory experts, hospital systems, and government agencies, strategically selected to further our corporate objectives.”

Kelly, who earned her PhD in biomedical engineering at Columbia University, was a visiting research scientist at Queen Mary University of London and has co-taught a module on cartilage tissue engineering at the MIT Media Lab. She relishes that mix of scientific pursuit and business engagement.

“I have found that I really enjoy working in a biotech start-up,” she says. “I can use my scientific expertise in a way that has a clear commercial goal, and that will also help an entire population of patients who are in desperate need of new, innovative solutions. In this arena you are forced to evaluate your work not just from a scientific perspective but from angles of scalability, regulatory challenges, and market adoption. This adds an entirely new element of risk and challenge.”

Toss in a strong dose of humanity and you get a clear picture of the kind of person the stem that sprouted on a Jamaican farm has matured and grown into.

“Ultimately, like everyone else at EpiBone, I hope to at least play a small part in something that might eventually have a meaningful and lasting impact on the lives of those who might one day use our products,” Kelly says.

She and her colleagues at EpiBone are part of a wave of personalization cresting over the healthcare industry. She explains that as we move away from the assembly line–era way of thinking, a consensus has emerged, especially in medicine, that “one size fits all” is a fallacy.

“I feel very comfortable stating definitively that bioengineered products and personalized solutions are the future of medicine,” she says. “Ushering in this new era will undoubtedly bring with it uncharted and unforeseen ethical and societal challenges, while in the same turn it will drastically change the quality and trajectory of the average human life.”

As an eager participant in this era, Kelly’s got her own rallying cry: “History is being made now, and I don’t plan to watch from the sidelines!”

On the Biotech Frontier

The human body is a hardy warrior, but sometimes traumatic injury, genetic defects, or illness can create conditions that exceed its natural capacity to repair bone. “EpiBone’s mission is to use groundbreaking research to transform skeletal repair,” Kelly says.