An American Heart Association fellowship will allow a Binghamton graduate student to further her research in developing 3D heart models. Natalie Weiss is interested in the pharmaceutical implications for treating cardiac fibrosis, an abnormal thickening and scarring of heart tissue that is common with many types of heart diseases and conditions.
“The AHA is such a big and well-respected organization, so it is a nice validation to see that they value my research and ideas,” says Weiss, a biomedical engineering doctoral student who received a competitive two-year pre-doctoral fellowship.
Weiss conducts her work in the lab of Tracy Hookway, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. The team uses cell culture, 3D modeling of stem cells and live imaging of tissue for regenerative medicine therapy.
“Natalie has been a huge asset to my lab,” Hookway says. “She’s incredibly intelligent and very ambitious, and she’s not afraid to ask questions.”
Weiss’ research involves creating working models of human hearts and then testing various drugs and therapies with the goal of resolving or improving cardiac fibrosis. She uses stem cells derived from human skin to make heart muscle cells and then combines them with proteins, sugars and a gel polymer, which is then piped into a 3mm donut ring mold (of sorts). The process takes about a week and a half, but once the cells are added to the mold, the ring forms overnight into a simplified, beating human heart model.
“By testing on these models, it saves time, money and testing on animals,” Weiss says, adding that she often has 40 rings going at a time. “What I’m hoping to do, once the models are a little more advanced, is replicate the stiffness of cardiac fibrosis in the model and then test a couple of drugs and see if it responds in a positive way.”
As a high school student in East Meadow, Long Island, Weiss knew she was interested in the medical field. She volunteered in an emergency room and got her EMT certification.
“I’ve also always loved problem solving — taking things apart and figuring out how they worked,” she says. “I wasn’t aware I could put those two interests together until a biomedical engineering major kept popping up again and again as I was researching college programs.”
She received her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering at Stony Brook University in 2019, and then started her graduate career at Binghamton that fall. She selected the program because she was impressed with Hookway, who would become her advisor.
“I wanted someone who I can connect with,” Weiss says. “Dr. Hookway really seemed like someone who would advocate for her students, so I knew she was going to care about my progress and help me out.”
Once Weiss completes her doctorate, she hopes to complete a post-doctoral fellowship and then become a professor and run her own research lab.