Feini (Sylvia) Qu was packed and ready for a trip to China with her youth orchestra when a SARS outbreak derailed an opportunity to tour the country where she was born. Unsure how to spend her summer, Qu, who grew up on Long Island, New York, followed her best friend to a high school science research program at Stony Brook University.
“At first, we had no idea what research, or even engineering, meant,” Qu recalls. “We just enjoyed asking scientific questions and answering them in the lab. Looking back, the experience helped me to establish an identity as a scientist and a sense of belonging in a community.”
The program also introduced Qu to biomedical engineering, the field she is now contributing to as an Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington. Qu, who is also a new member of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM), returned to the program for several years, even continuing as an undergraduate student when home from Duke University.
According to Qu, two other experiences at Duke had a particular influence on her career path. First, she learned to grow cells on biomaterial scaffolds, a skill that propelled her into her graduate work. Second, the lifelong animal lover discovered that it was possible to pursue a veterinary degree and a PhD at the same time.
As a VMD/PhD student the University of Pennsylvania, Qu divided her time between the lab of Dr. Robert Mauck in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, where she practiced using biomaterials to deliver regenerative growth factors to connective tissues, and the veterinary classes that exposed her more directly to clinical care for small and large animals.
Along the way, Qu reached a fork in the road that compelled her to choose between what she calls her basic research identity and her veterinary identity. “Going back to high school, I had formed such a strong researcher identity. I felt more comfortable in the scientific community, so I chose that direction, although I would always have veterinary medicine in my heart.”
Attending the Gordon Research Conference on Tissue Repair and Regeneration as a graduate student opened Qu’s eyes to current questions and possibilities in the realm of appendage regeneration and to a menagerie of animal models as diverse as zebrafish, drosophila, and octopus. It was a cross-over into a new arena for Qu, who this summer chaired a research seminar at the conference.
Qu’s next stop was Washington University in St. Louis. There, under the mentorship of Dr. Farshid Guilak, she turned her attention to a model for studying digit tip regeneration in mice. It was an opportunity to further apply her training in bioengineering to the field of regenerative biology and to the world of stem cell editing, signaling pathways, and the molecular mechanisms of musculoskeletal regeneration. The postdoc was also perfect preparation to begin her own lab focused on complex tissue regeneration, in her words, a synchronized orchestration of different cells and tissues growing together.
At UW, Qu explains that her team will explore the cellular and molecular pathways of composite musculoskeletal tissue regeneration, especially the bones and connective tissues that link our limbs and joints. “Our goal is to study the regeneration of multiple tissues, to understand why these tissues don’t regenerate in humans, and to stimulate regeneration with a potential long-term aim of contributing to commercially-available therapeutics that will help humans.”
Naturally Qu, who trained as a veterinarian-scientist at Penn and graduated with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (V.M.D.), also has animals in mind as a researcher. “I got into orthopedics because of experiences in the veterinary field,” she says. “And I’ve always hoped that any knowledge or therapeutics coming from my lab’s work will help animals directly, instead of it having to go through humans and then get adopted for animal care down the road.”
An early investment from ISCRM – an Innovation Pilot Award – will support a partnership between Qu and Dr. Woojin Han at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The researchers will develop and test an injectable hydrogel platform to instruct the sequential and spatial formation of bone followed by articular cartilage. In hopes of advancing the potential of limb regeneration, Qu aims to sequentially deliver the proteins BMP2 and BMP9 in a single injection and assess their ability to induce bone regrowth followed by joint regeneration after digit amputation.
Qu is also excited about the opportunities to collaborate within ISCRM. “It’s so awesome to be part of this interdisciplinary institute and to share the floor with people who are asking very different but complementary questions. It can be hard to branch into other fields when you are establishing yourself. Having that proximity to collaborators will allow me to expand my horizons much more quickly.”
Through it all, Qu is eager to help other young researchers, just like the mentors who helped her. “We’ve all been influenced by role models who got us to where we are now. Continuing that pipeline and paying it forward for the next generation is something I care deeply about. Whether it’s in the lab or in schools, it’s important to me to be involved in increasing access to academic science, especially for underrepresented minority students.”