Can you tell us about yourself, your role at your current company/institution and what you do there?
My name is Clara García Astrain. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Navarra and a PhD in Engineering of Renewable Materials from the University of the Basque Country. I’m currently working as a post-doc researcher at CIC bioMAGUNE’s Bionanoplasmonics lab. Day to day, you’ll find me in the lab creating 3D scaffolds and developing new cell models and bioinks.

How did you get started with 3D bioprinting?
I started working in 3D bioprinting about two years ago when I was hired at CIC bioMAGUNE. I was assigned to a European Research Council-funded project named “4D BIOSERS”, aimed at creating 3D cell models to study cancer and tumor and tissue growth with the aid of Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), an analytical and imaging technique.

What motivates you most about your work?
One of my main motivations for working in this field is the opportunity to continuously learn. You have to follow what other researchers are doing, learn bioprinting techniques, and stay-up to date on the latest research. I also love the multidisciplinarity that’s involved in my work. Every day, I get to work with people from different scientific backgrounds: chemists, physicists, biologists, etc. Getting to exchange different points of view and approaches to bioprinting with my team as well as coming together to combine our efforts is a very enriching experience.

What projects are you currently working on?
The biggest project I’m currently working on is 4D BIOSERS. Through this project we intend to find out more about cancer progression, metastasis, in a more realistic 3D microenvironment, monitoring not only cell fate but also studying the release of tumour metabolites and cancer biomarkers. At a later stage, we want to test drugs against these in more realistic conditions. We also recently received funding for a project aimed at creating a pulmonary artery. The bioprinter will be used to create different layers using bioinks that respond to different stimuli.

How are 3D bioprinting/bioprinting technologies involved in your work?
3D bioprinting has become a crucial part of my research. I use a bioprinter practically every week, whether it’s to prepare scaffolds and bioinks, build three-dimensional models and structures, or test different materials. One of our PhD students is using it to print decellularized matrices. The use of the bioprinter is not limited to print-related projects. We have also used it to print wells in a gold surface, create chips to perform sensing and imaging, and customize some our instruments. In the near future, we plan to print cells as well, which would require a combination of different printing techniques in order to successfully carry out our research.

Where do you see bioprinting 5-10 years from now?
Bioprinting is a technique that is rapidly evolving due to the fact that tissue engineering is still limited. Currently, we are only able to print simple tissues like skin or bone, and soon, I believe it could get closer to clinical. When it comes to creating completely functional tissues, we still need some time, maybe about ten years. I hope that these technologies will be encompassed to hospitals and doctors, and we could have on-demand and patient specific tissues and organ that can help patients. The technique, materials, hardware and software will also evolve in the near feature. We are developing more and more inks depending on the specific needs of the material and applications.

What excites you about the evolution of this technology and where do you see it making an impact in the next 5-10 years?
In my opinion, the most exciting part about bioprinting is its flexibility. You can use it on a wide variety of applications, from organ on a chip to drug discovery, and if you choose, you can customize the hardware and tailor it to fit your specific research needs. I believe that the versatility that this technique offers will improve drastically as bioprinting technologies continue to evolve. In this context, bioprinting will have a huge impact in meeting the increasing demand for organs and specific therapies in the near and distant future.

What are some of the challenges that you see in the field of bioprinting and day-to-day in your lab?
I think one of the main challenges is creating complex tissues. This implies combining different materials and cells which need to be turned into tissues or models that can be successfully used in vitro or in a clinic. Having analytical tools and software that evolve along with the complexity of the materials is also a challenge. You can create a super complex 3D material but you need to image it in 3D or characterize it in order to be successful in your research.

Would you say there is gender inequality in the sector? What would companies like us need to do to bridge the gap?
I think so. Unfortunately, engineering is still a male-dominated field where the presence of women isn’t as consolidated. In order to bridge the gap, we must find ways to increase the visibility of women in STEM. These kind of initiatives and interviews are helpful because they help visualize the women working on this sector. It has been demonstrated that it’s beneficial for young girls and women to have role models who they can identify themselves with. If they can see that there are other women working in these sectors, maybe they will think “I can do it too.” But if men are the only ones on the spotlight, they will doubt themselves and pursue other career paths. We also need to increase the visibility of women in conferences. Currently, most of the panelists are men, which doesn’t help. And while it’s true that an increasing number of companies are implementing more and more gender-diversity policies, I don’t think this is enough. More needs to be done to make women more visible in STEM.

It would be wonderful to see younger generations embrace science and engineering as a career option, how do you think we can encourage more involvement from girls and young women in these sectors?
We have to show them that STEM, as well as 3D printing and bioprinting, are fun and creative career paths. Through the power of bioprinting, you can bring your ideas to life. We also need to have a more established presence in schools showing girls how the bioprinters work and explaining to them how they can be used in real life applications. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to also be more active at universities through initiatives like workshops and seminars where they can learn more about their careers options and applications that exist in bioprinting. It’s important to give them options. Information is key in this regard.

What advice would you give young women who want to develop their career in this rapidly-evolving sector?
Don’t be afraid to go after what you want. If you want to pursue a career in STEM or bioprinting, you should do it. It’s a challenging but a very creative career option. What I find most rewarding is having an application or material in mind and being able to reproduce it through the bioprinting process. I believe there is plenty of space for women to develop in this sector.