As a curious kid, recent QED awardee Treena Arinzeh created imaginary experiments in the kitchen with her mom, a home economics teacher. That curiosity sparked a lifelong interest in science, and led to a career in engineering. When Treena’s high school physics teacher encouraged her to pursue a career in STEM, she was game – even though she had never met an African American engineer.
Her work in engineering has received national recognition. In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Treena the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest national honor a young researcher can receive. Treena is also one of three researchers to receive the latest round of QED awards.
Flying Slippers spoke with Treena about her passion for science, her current research, and the people who’ve inspired her along the way.
Flying Slippers: What initially sparked your interest in science and led you to pursue it as a career?
Treena Arinzeh: As a child, I always had an affinity for mathematics and the sciences. My physics teacher in high school suggested that I major in engineering in college. I chose mechanical engineering as my undergraduate major. I had several summer internships that allowed me to learn about the various areas of mechanical engineering which led me to pursue biomedical engineering in my graduate work. I found, as a career choice, that applying engineering skills/principles to solving medical problems as the most rewarding/fulfilling.
Flying Slippers: You’re working to commercialize technology that reduces the recovery time and cost associated with bone grafts. How did you come to focus on this particular area of research?
TA: My training for my PhD work was in bone tissue engineering, which is developing tissue engineering strategies to promote bone regeneration. So I understood this significant limitation in the use of current bone grafts (autografts and allografts): they either result in poor bone healing or secondary problems that can also prolong recovery time. I wanted to develop a simple, safe and effective approach that could replace the current bone grafts on the market.
Flying Slippers: In addition to the financial benefit, the QED program offers mentoring, business and scientific advice to researchers. How has this support aided your research?
TA: The business mentoring has been very helpful so that I could better understand the market and help develop appropriate next steps towards commercialization
Flying Slippers: This was your first QED award, but the third time you were a QED finalist. How did your experience with business advisors in the first two rounds impact your approach to commercialization?
TA: I was fortunate to have the same business advisor from my previous rounds (Ron Rothman). My first two attempts were for a different project. So this understanding of the target market, developing a strategy towards commercialization, and being able to identify and convey the need for the proposed technology were important aspects of what I learned in those first two attempts. So, I thought I had a more compelling technology and plan to propose to the QED program in this third round. And in general, the QED process has helped me with other technologies that we develop in the laboratory, whether or not we consider moving towards commercialization.
Flying Slippers: You mentor under-represented teens in your lab each summer as part of the Project Seeds program. Can you tell us about a mentor you had?
TA: I had a summer internship at UC Berkeley when I was an undergraduate majoring in mechanical engineering. I interned in Professor Alice Agogino's laboratory where I learned about applying mechanical engineering to solving medical problems. The specific area of research was in rehabilitation where we were designing assistive devices. She had a great impact on me because I didn't know any female faculty in mechanical engineering and it introduced me to another side of mechanical engineering, which I found to be very rewarding.