Jenny Robinson was twelve when an injury to her anterior cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus derailed her soccer dreams. Although going pro was a long shot, the setback may have cost her a chance to someday join her heroes on the US Women’s National Team. However, it also helped turn a striker into a scientist.
Robinson recalls that what sidelined her seemed all-too-common in her circle of young female athletes. Her sister, her cousin, and multiple teammates suffered ACL injuries on the soccer field and basketball court. Why was this happening, she wondered, and why didn’t the body know how to heal itself naturally in these conditions?
Today, the soccer player from central Texas with the surgically-repaired knee is Jenny Robinson, PhD, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine and Mechanical Engineering, holder of the Endowed Chair in Women’s Sports Medicine and Lifetime Fitness, and the newest faculty member in the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM).
On her to path to the University of Washington, Robinson studied biomedical engineering and tissue engineering at Rice University, completed a one-year Whitaker Fellowship focused on iPSC culture conditions at the National University of Singapore, earned a PhD at Texas A&M University, completed a postdoc at Columbia University, and eventually launched her own lab at the University of Kansas.
While the journey took her far from home, the questions that drive her research now can be traced back to the soccer field.
“Essentially we are curious about the same things I wanted to know back then,” says Robinson. “How can we promote regeneration of soft tissues after injury? Tissues relatively far away from a vascular source including cartilage have traditionally been thought of as non-regenerative, but we are learning that’s not true – there are unique cues to promote regeneration.”
Injuries like the one Robinson suffered are a part of life for athletes of all ages, but they affect female athletes disproportionately – ACL tears are two to eight times more common among females than males, a reality that researchers attribute to a combination of anatomical and hormonal differences between the biological sexes. The Robinson lab is particularly interested in the relationship between hormones, most notably, estrogen, and the higher injury rates among females.
“We know there’s data to suggest a relationship between hormone levels and the mechanical properties of tendons and ligaments that connect bones to muscle and bone, respectively, which is one reason doctors advise pregnant patients to be careful with some activities. Our goal is to use biomaterials systems to better understand this relationship in the hopes of developing more effective preventions and treatments.”
Specifically, the Robinson Lab uses polymer-based biomaterials to engineer porous and tunable 3D models that allow them to explore how cells respond to changing chemical and mechanical properties in their tissue microenvironments. What, for example, is the impact on tissue regeneration of the interplay between fluctuations in hormones and tissue mechanical properties that drastically change after injury?
The answers to these questions have implications at multiples levels, explains Robinson. “One possible application is the use of this knowledge to prevent and repair injuries through optimized training and nutrition regimens. Another is the development of the biomaterials as tissue engineered grafts for orthopedic surgeons to use. More fundamentally, we have so much to learn about how cells respond to signals from the mechanics of the tissue environment, how they change their biology in that process, and how we can harness that.”
For Robinson, being part of an institute that sits at the intersection of biology and engineering is a natural fit – a place where a scientist and engineer who grew up building and fixing things with her father can pursue discoveries that help other people heal. “I’m very excited,” says Robinson. “This is what twelve-year-old me would have loved to do.”