By Allison McLellan
From mechanical to tissue engineering, bone regeneration, genomics, and microbiology, Dr. Max Villa has a wide range of engineering experience. The UConn MSE alumnus is now a postdoctoral associate at the Duke University Medical Center where he develops platform technology for high throughput microbiology.
Directed by Dr. David Lawrence, the laboratory is a multidisciplinary team of engineers, biologists, and computational scientists focusing on the human microbiome and how it impacts human health. His current work involves identifying new and crucially needed antibiotics, allowing Dr. Villa to learn new genomics and computational biology skills.
With an initial concentration in mechanical engineering, Dr. Villa had received his B.S. and M.S. from UConn by 2009, assisting in undergraduate and graduate research over the six years. One recommendation the Postdoctoral Associate stresses for current UConn engineering students is to get involved with their own projects as soon as possible—there are opportunities in research labs, clubs, internships, or even independent projects. With his experience garnered at the University, he was able to briefly enter the medical device industry with Covidien and generate new intellectual property with a novel electrospinning device.
Motivated by the training record of his role models at Covidien, Dr. Villa realized the need to undertake more advanced scientific training. During his Master’s studies, he had learned about the applications of tissue engineering and was impressed with the field’s potential impact, motivating him to pursue it.
As a doctoral student, he was made a GAANN Predoctoral Fellow, a program that supported him in the majority of his studies. He became involved with Dr. Mei Wei’s lab in tissue engineering through the Materials Science and Engineering Department, where he conducted research on biomaterials and tissue engineering for bone repair.
Professor Mei Wei, also Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education, played a critical role in Dr. Villa’s academic career. He says, “She is still an active supporter of my academic work; in fact she very recently wrote a letter of support for a grant proposal I submitted. Most importantly however, Dr. Wei provided me with the mentorship, resources, and support to do top-notch science in a highly multidisciplinary field.”
Recently, Dr. Villa collaborated as lead-author on an article with Professor Wei. In conjunction with Dr. Liping Wang (M.D.), Dr. Jianping Huang (M.S.), and Dr. David W. Rowe (M.D.), it was published in the biomedical journal Tissue Engineering in November 2013, entitled “Visualizing Osteogenesis In Vivo Within a Cell–Scaffold Construct for Bone Tissue Engineering Using Two-Photon Microscopy.” A research image from Dr. Villa’s work was featured on the cover of the issue.
On his transition to tissue engineering, he reflects, “The idea that science and engineering can dramatically improve medicine is not a new one, but is the major motivator behind my work. To work on bone was a privilege because of the feasibility that we can make a real impact on bone tissue engineering in its preclinical stages of development.”
With his dissertation on “In Vivo 2-Photon Microscopy and Collagen-Hydroxyapatite Scaffolds for Bone Tissue Engineering,” Dr. Villa graduated with his Ph.D. in 2014 having forged strong connections with his fellow scientists. “Research at the University of Connecticut was incredible for a variety of reasons: certainly because the physical resources such as instruments, lab space, research centers, and having learned a great deal. Personally, the most rewarding experience was the relationships that I developed working alongside other researchers and mentors that last to this day.”
Presently, Dr. Villa’s main goal is to make scientific contributions that ultimately improve the quality of life for patients. In the future, he would like to lead a small team working at the interface of engineering and cell biology on problems that impact human healthcare.
With regards to the future advancements of tissue engineering in general, he elaborated, “Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine still have tremendous promise to improve the standard of care for tissue transplantation. There are currently clinical trials nearing completion for badly needed vascular grafts. In addition, the production of human tissue-specific samples has also emerged as an important tool for drug discovery and personalized medicine. As for what will be next is anyone’s guess; scientists worldwide are actively working on cartilage, bone, tendon, hearts, and lungs. I am confident that Dr. Wei, Dr. Rowe, and the University of Connecticut will part of the progression of bone biomaterials and regeneration.”