Accelerated master’s program student, Taylor Hendrick, leverages lifetime love for science and math into a career in biomedical engineering research

Taylor Hendrick

A love for science fiction and natural aptitude for math and science inspired Taylor Hendrick from a young age, eventually leading her to the VCU College of Engineering. Hendrick is an accelerated master’s program student with a concentration in cellular tissue engineering. Her thesis involves developing biomaterials researchers can use to better understand conditions within the human body.

“In high school, I was on track to study biology and participated in a VCU Health career exploration,” said Hendrick. “Then, one day in class, I saw a picture of an artificial ear. That’s when I discovered biomedical engineering was a career, and something I wanted to pursue. It springboarded off my deep-seated love of science fiction,I love the James Cameron Avatar series, where the idea of tissue regrowth made a significant impression on me”

Stimulating fibrosis within hybrid gels composed of decellularized human lung tissue is Hendrick’s thesis research. Creating a biomaterial like this provides researchers with an advanced tool to study fibrosis, a condition where connective tissue scars and thickens. In the lungs, it can be especially debilitating because it has no cure, ultimately requiring intense therapy or a lung transplant. Hendrick uses a technique that involves taking whole human lung samples, obtained from the VCU School of Medicine, and stripping them of native DNA and other cellular components. Only the basic components of the lung remain, like proteins and similar material that keep the organ together, turning its color from a rosy red to gray. This decellularized product is then run through lyophilization, similar to freeze drying, and made into a fine powder suitable for making gels.

Once the biomaterial is created, Hendrick employs a variety of assays to analyze her experiments, verifying the produced sample is within specifications. One assay is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that amplifies the DNA expression of different genes. 

“I look at alpha smooth muscle actin, which is a protein that presents itself when you have more collagen buildup,” said Hendrick. “Excess collagen is an indicator for fibrosis. Another protein I observe is EGR1. What I’m looking to confirm is the tissue going from healthy to a more diseased state.”

Two main anti-inflammatory drugs are used to treat fibrosis. Hendrick’s research would enable easy testing of additional medications prior to early small animal trials.

“It feels surreal,” Hendrick said. “I joined Dr. Heise’s lab in the summer of 2022 hoping to acquire some experience and get my foot in the door. Going from being so full of hope to getting third author on a few publications and now, being able to work on my own research, being first author, it’s incredible. My love of science has grown in a way I didn’t think would be possible.”

Rebecca L. Heise, Ph.D., Inez A. Caudill Professor and Undergraduate Program Director in the Department of Biomedical Engineering is the primary investigator (PI) of the VCU College of Engineering’s Pulmonary Mechanobiology Lab. The lab’s mission of understanding how cells sense and respond to mechanical forces in healthy and diseased lungs fits well with Hendrick’s biomaterial research.

“Dr. Heise always inspires me,” Hendrick said. “In a few classes, she’s been my professor, and then she gave me the opportunity to work in her lab. In the best of times and the worst of times, she is a pillar of strength who always provides infinite amounts of patience and advice. Dr. Heise is always willing to help me work through potential solutions to a problem. I couldn’t ask for a better PI.”

Above all, the aspect of the accelerated master’s program Hendrick liked most is the Capstone Design Expo, where students immerse themselves in the hands-on processes of solving practical “real-world” problems. “Capstone was the ultimate test of all of the knowledge we had accumulated throughout the years. It’s one final symphony using all the instruments we learned to play,” said Hendrick. In addition to the opportunity of applying classroom knowledge to practical problems, Hendrick enjoyed the team building aspect of her Capstone Design Expo project. “Our last Capstone Design Expo project meeting before graduation was a celebratory drink at Chili’s, across the street from the Engineering Research Building,” Hendrick said. “It was bittersweet. Our team’s project concluded successfully, and we even received the Capstone Design Expo’s Sternheimer Award along with filing a patent for our project. But it was a little sad knowing everyone was going in a different direction after graduation.”

Hendrick‘s favorite class is a biomaterials course taught by Jennifer Puetzer, Ph.D., biomedical engineering assistant professor. The course explores types of materials compatible with the human body and how to incorporate them into medical devices and treatments. “I liked how the course focused on material properties and the degradation timeline once exposed to the immune system post implantation,” Hendrick said. “Which is how long it takes for the body to break apart a foreign biomaterial. When you put a new biomaterial into the body, like a replacement hip for example, you get an inflammatory response. Limiting that inflammatory response to mitigate fibrosis, or at least making sure it’s healing normally and without infection, is the ideal state. You want to ensure the body and biomaterial mesh together.”

Expanding upon her biomaterials experience, Hendrick is interested in broadening her research projects using new knowledge gained from her accelerated master’s program. “Thanks to the experience I gained in Dr. Heise’s lab, it’s easier for me to branch off an existing project,” Hendrick said. “I want to apply my biomaterial model to the realm of microfluidic devices in order to mimic the lungs' natural, biomechanical forces to make a more accurate disease model for researchers to work with. It’s my hope to continue this research at VCU as a Ph.D. candidate.”

Outside her work at the College of Engineering, Hendrick enjoys the Biotech and Beer events organized by VirginiaBio, an organization that promotes the Virginia biotechnology industry. And, having grown up in Richmond, she continues to explore the city to find new and interesting things. “Sometimes it’s a new restaurant, other times it’s a cool place to hang out,” Hendrick said. “Even though I’m from Richmond, there’s no end to the interesting things to do here. I love this city.”

Aside from its accelerated master’s program, which enables students to receive their master’s faster by starting graduate coursework during their undergraduate degree, the Department of Biomedical Engineering now offers master’s degrees with concentrations in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine as well as rehabilitation engineering.

The Biomedical Engineering department provides undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunity to perform real-world research as soon as they enroll. From delving into the intricacies of cell migration in cancer research to exploring tissue engineering in  menisci, tendons and ligaments, our students pursue a diverse range of cutting-edge research topics. Browse videos and recent news from the Department of Biomedical Engineering to discover how the College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University prepares the next generation of scientists and engineers for the challenges of the future.