18.11.2020

Women in bioprinting – Fiona Freeman

Can you tell us about yourself, your role at your current company/institution and what you do there?
My name is Fiona Freeman. I’m a postdoctoral researcher, and I’m currently undertaking a Marie Curie Global Fellowship that is conjoint between Trinity College in Dublin (Ireland) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston (United States).

How did you get started with 3D bioprinting?
Three years ago, when I was hired as a post-doc at Trinity College by Daniel Kelly. He had just won a European Research Council grant that was looking into using 3D bioprinting to generate anatomically accurate cell-laden constructs for osteochondral repair. In the meantime, I won my own fellowship which was looking into using 3D bioprinting to develop composite constructs functionalized with ECM components for osteochondral defect repair. Prior to that, I had no previous 3D bioprinting knowledge or background as my PhD focused mostly in bone tissue engineering. It was a steep learning curve, but I learned fast on the job.

What motivates you most about your work?
I find the human body fascinating. I love putting my engineer brain to good use and trying to discover new ways of understanding the complex nature of the body and investigating new approaches to treating debilitating diseases. 

What projects are you currently working on and how does bioprinting play a role in your research?
The current aim of my Marie Curie fellowship is to look at 3D bioprinting osteoinductive constructs that deliver chemotherapeutics within large bone defects that are surgically created when removing bone tumours. The usual clinical treatment for patients with osteosarcoma is systemic chemotherapy and tumour resection which can ultimately lead to amputation. As most of these patients are children and adolescents, I thought I could use what I knew from bioprinting and regenerating large bone defects and then incorporate it in with the oncology part. What we had done previously to regenerate large bone defects was to deliver growth factors. However, all growth factors that you would usually use to regenerate bone can also promote tumor growth. We’re now working to find that fine balance between inducing tissue regeneration and preventing tumor recurrence. One way we thought to do that was with the decellularised bone ECM as its osteoinductive without having any growth factors, and then we’re incorporating in bioinks that have chemotherapy delivered with nanoparticles.

How are 3D bioprinting/bioprinting technologies involved in your work?
Up to this point most of my work has been with thermo-polymer extrusion. We’ve developed different polymers, either PCL or PLGA, and we’ve incorporated them in different things like decellularised bone ECM. Alone, these are pretty inhert. They don’t really do much except provide mechanical stability so by incorporating oseoinductive factors we were able to use it to our advantage by both promoting osteogenesis and giving it the mechanical stability. We’ve also developed a few good bioinks looking at growth factor delivery and temporarily delivering slow or fast depending on the growth factors and looking at different compositions for that.

Where do you see bioprinting 5-10 years from now?
I have an optimistic view and a realistic view. The optimistic view is that we’ll be able to use bioprinters to 3D print patient-specific implants which is the overall aim. Realistically, I feel like we’re a long way away from that in the fact that even just the costs of the printers, materials for running the printers, and the expertise needed to run the printers is so high that it could be years before it actually gets to a patient. But I do think there are going to be much cooler technologies using 3D bioprinters.

What excites you about the evolution of this technology and where do you see it making an impact in the next 5-10 years?
The thing that I find most interesting about bioprinting is that for some of the issues that we had about three or four year ago, people have already developed new ways of overcoming them. One of the biggest challenges of printing anatomically accurate tissues is that tissues do not follow a regular shape, they have complex geometries . However, groups are now coming out with new and innovative ways of using current technologies in different ways like printing into a bath to get the anatomically correct shape or using sacrificial materials to solve these problems.  I think it’s going to be fascinating to see where that goes in the next couple years.

What are some of the challenges that you see in the field of bioprinting and day-to-day in your lab.
Bioprinters are very temperamental. I feel like they have their own personalities, and this has been the biggest issue that we deal with at the lab. They decide to work perfectly one day, then the next day decide to not do what they did the day before. Sometimes they even small changes in the temperature due to the weather can completely change the prints. Another challenge is printing anatomically accurate shapes. 

Would you say there is gender inequality in the sector? What would companies like us need to do to bridge the gap?
Obviously with anything in STEM there is always gender inequality, especially when it comes to engineering. Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with exposure so doing what you’re doing right now is a great start. It’s important to get out there, so that young girls see that there are female engineers and that there are female people working in STEM. When I was in school, there weren’t workshops or anything where I could learn more about STEM career paths. The only reason I knew about engineering was because my dad was an engineer, and he encouraged me to pursue that field of study. Making women in STEM visible is a great way to create exposure.

It would be wonderful to see younger generations embrace science and engineering as a career option, how do you think we can encourage more engagement from girls and young women in these sectors?
Times are starting to change. School kids are now learning how to code, and there are definitely more females going into engineering than when I graduated. I think a good way to keep this trend going is by raising awareness of STEM. Personally, I go to schools and I tell them about engineering and what it entails because a lot of the time they don’t really know what is about. They usually tell me an engineer is someone who fixes a car. To me, exposure is crucial in order to make girls and young more aware that these fields exist, and that they can build their career in STEM if they choose to so.

What advice would you give young women who want to develop their career in this rapidly evolving sector?
You got to have a bit of tough skin, especially when it comes to research. Rejection is a huge part of the job, from paper rejections to grant rejections, but that’s completely normal. From every rejection you’ll grow and gain more knowledge. Another piece of advice is to enjoy what you do. I love my job. I love going into work every day and working with scientists, going to conferences, and seeing where science is going. There are obviously bad days but overall I do love it. If you love your job, it’ll make it all worth it.