Bio-med profs go two-for-two

March 28, 2001

Nick Marinello

Last month, when Glen Livesay received an interoffice memorandum, he had to look twice before he understood the significance of it. "It was almost anticlimactic," remembers Livesay, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering. But the humble communication was from the grants and contracts office, informing him that he was the recipient of the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development Award, the NSF's most prestigious honor for junior faculty members.

It's the kind of thing that can brighten a young faculty member's day. In this case, however, it also brightened the day of Livesay's colleague and friend, Kay C. Dee, also an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and fellow recipient of a career award.

"One of the things that makes this so exciting," says Dee, "is that we have two people in the same small department in the same small school who have won this award: it shows we are doing some great stuff here."

Dee arrived at Tulane in 1997; Livesay joined the faculty in 1998. Dee, who won the award last year, considers the award the highest of honors. "It is seen as a mark that you are worth investing in, even at this early stage. You're marked as someone who is really going places." NSF director Rita Colwell would agree.

"We recognize these faculty members, new in their careers, as most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century," she said in a statement released during the announcement of last year's awards. According to Colwell, the career awards are especially important because they support "exceptionally promising college and university junior faculty who are committed to the integration of research and education." It's that combination that excites both Dee and Livesay.

"Most of the other awards we apply for are pure research," says Livesay. "One of the things this grant does," says Dee, "is support me when I say that I am not spending an inordinate amount of time on classes. I can teach well and still do productive research. Better yet, this award lets me work on preparing students to be independent researchers themselves."

Both Livesay, who says he was academically reared in a graduate program where only research was emphasized, and Dee, who admits to having had "less-than-effective professors," are committed to finding ways of bringing new ideas to their students.

"I can't think of another job where you will make more of an impact directly on someone's future," says Dee.

Livesay, who teaches a junior-level course in biomechanics, says he is trying to help students understand how the body works at various scales:from the cellular level to the large-scale actions of muscles and joints. For the purposes of the grant, Livesay has proposed to have students develop demonstration modules for these changes of scale.

"I want them to develop experiments or some other means that they can take to another class and demonstrate the multiscale nature of biologic tissue," he says. This hands-on approach should connect Livesay's students more directly with his own research. "I am doing experiments and modeling to understand what sort of mechanical environment cells are experiencing."

That knowledge, says Livesay, can be transferred to researchers who are developing tissue replacements "from the cells up" and eventually translate into appropriate materials for replacing damaged ligaments and bones. During the past year, Dee has used the money from her award to fund research in developing biomaterials that control how bone cells function.

"We are working on chemically modifying the surfaces of biomaterials to attract bone-forming cells to the interface between the implant and the tissue and getting them to make bone very quickly." In her class, Cell and Tissue Engineering, Dee has students focusing on this interface initially by examining how the body heals a wound.

"One of the things I am working on for the career award is to make the class a much more active place where students are working with each other and me," she says. "I am not standing up on the stage in front of the class lecturing all the time."

Beyond being members of an elite club of young scientists to receive career-award recognition, Dee and Livesay have formed an even more exclusive club. Next semester they will reprise their roles as co-teachers of Cell and Tissue Mechanics, which they initially taught in 1999.

Rather than alternating turns at teaching the class, as is the traditional way of co-teaching, the two enjoy being present in the class at the same time.

"The real excitement, however," says Livesay, "is having students from this course get turned on to research and come to work with us or other faculty in the laboratory."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000