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New Faculty Profile: Ramille Shah

When Ramille Shah came to the McCormick School of Engineering as an undergraduate in the late 1990s, the civil engineering major got a work study position under Hamlin Jennings, professor of civil and materials science and engineering.

Working in his lab on experiments involving cement, Shah had two thoughts that would shape the rest of her life: she loved research, and she loved working with materials.

"I loved trying to answer questions that no one knew the answers to," she says. So she switched her major to materials science and engineering and took a class with Samuel Stupp, Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science and Engineering, and Medicine. That set her on a decade-long trajectory — from McCormick to graduate school at MIT to a postdoctoral fellowship in Stupp's lab — that landed her back in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the fall of 2009 as an assistant professor.

"It's been a great transition to go from student to professor," she says. "I know the people here, I know the system — the facilities are state of the art, and the reputation of the MSE department at Northwestern is one of the best. It was an ideal situation for me to have the opportunity to be here."

Shah is now beginning to establish a lab at the Institute for BioNantechnology in Medicine at Northwestern (IBNAM) while soliciting teaching advice from other young faculty — "I'm trying to make a fun and effective learning experience for undergrad and grad students," she says.

Shah's work in materials science began as an undergraduate, when she worked in Stupp's lab in tissue engineering. "That was my first taste of biomaterials research," she says. "The potential to create materials and therapies that can improve the quality of life of patients really sparked an interest in me." After graduating from McCormick in 2000, Shah went on to graduate school at MIT, where her research in Myron Spector's laboratory involved cartilage tissue engineering and delivering genes through collagen scaffolds to stimulate cells into regenerating cartilage.

After earning her PhD in 2006, the Chicago native wanted to return to her hometown. Stupp's group was working with peptide systems that can self-assemble into nanostructures, and Shah wanted to get a taste of how nanotechnology could contribute to regenerative medicine, so she joined his group as a postdoctoral fellow.

"I was very fortunate to have such wonderful mentors that are now my colleagues," Shah says. "It's a cool transition and a real reward for me."

Now with her own lab, Shah is creating new biomaterials for tissue engineering that target orthopedic tissues like bone, cartilage, meniscus and ligaments. She's interested in examining plant-based biomaterials for tissue engineering implants because plants, particularly soy, are a sustainable and renewable resource with very interesting thermoplastic qualities.

Shah is also interested in creating hybrid systems that take self-assembling peptide-based materials — materials made up of natural amino acids — and combining them with polymers to create hybrid materials that have specific mechanical and bioactive properties. While working in Stupp's lab, Shah helped discover a system in which a highly ordered membrane formed at the interface of these two solutions.

"By combining these two different systems, you can change the chemistry and processing variables to alter the resulting hybrid properties," she says. "My goal is to strengthen the properties of the membrane to create more robust materials for its potential use in more load bearing applications."

Shah is also interested in mechanically stimulating tissue engineering scaffolds to promote cell and tissue growth. Low-intensity ultrasound has been used as a clinical therapy to accelerate healing (i.e. fractures, tendonitis, and damaged ligaments), and Shah is trying to determine if this treatment can also be used to stimulate the regenerative response of cells in biomaterial scaffolds.

With a joint appointment in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in the Feinberg School of Medicine, Shah has the opportunity to work with surgeons, clinicians, and medical students — a collaboration she says is a must in her field.

"In order to create biomaterials and therapies that will work in the clinic, it's important to have conversations with the surgeons who will implement the technology in surgery," she says. Her number one collaborator is her husband, Nirav A. Shah, MD, who graduated from McCormick with a biomedical engineering degree and is now a practicing orthopedic surgeon in Palos Heights.

"Through his clinical work and my research experience we continually learn from each other and discuss where new biomaterial technologies can have an impact on current clinical procedures," she says. "We talk about it over dinner. Not many people can have the type of dialogue we can have on a daily basis. It's an exciting dynamic that can hopefully lead to new innovations in orthopaedic surgery and tissue engineering."