Student Corner: Questions with Dr. Kristen O’Halloran Cardinal

CCS Intern, Syama Patel, and Fellow, Mikalah Singer had a virtual “sit-down” with Dr. Kristen O’Halloran Cardinal from California Polytechnic State University. Dr. O’Halloran Cardinal holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Arizona where her research focused on tissue engineered blood vessels and intravascular device evaluation.

Kristen’s research lab at Cal Poly works primarily with undergraduate and master’s students. The lab typically includes around 10-15 students, providing great hands-on experience to those early in their scientific careers.

During the Q and A, CCS was able to take a deep dive into the new emerging research at Cal Poly for alternatives to animal testing and learning how students can get involved in the innovative research.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue tissue engineering research? How did you get to where you are now?

A: I was able to explore many labs and schools as I went on recruiting trips to find the right fit for grad school. All the labs were very different and ranged from computational research to biomaterials work. I decided on the University of Arizona because they were researching lab grown tissues and I loved the uniqueness of the project. I felt lucky when I found this work since I was interested in working with the cardiovascular system. It matched with my overall vision.

I initially envisioned myself going into industry research and wanted to pursue a Ph.D. As the end of my Ph.D. program approached, I found out that Cal Poly started a new biomedical engineering program. I decided to apply and found my current job. In addition to being able to do the teaching that I love, Cal Poly allowed me to have my own research lab, plus the university itself has a good relationship with the industry side of biomedical research. It was the best of both worlds.

Q: What are the differences between testing on engineered tissue versus testing on animals?

A: I started my work approximately 20 years ago when I started grad school, and the lab I joined did a variety of industry-based lab testing that is more applied and focused on consistent models and very controlled experiments.  Plus collaborating with industry allowed me to understand their perspective on product development and the different pathways taken, so I was exposed to this type of testing alongside working on tissue engineering in the lab. My advisor had the idea that perhaps we could grow tissues for testing devices and treatments rather than just using them for clinical applications.  In other words, in addition to the potential future goal of using engineered tissues for skin grafting and implantation, these tissues could also serve as model systems on the preclinical side of things. I was able to have my own project focused on tissue engineering research, trying to translate the tissue engineering approaches to uses for device testing. When you tissue engineer a model for testing, you can be very controlled and consistent in what you create – although it’s difficult to capture all the complexity of a physiologic system.  The tissue engineered models are also easier in terms of infrastructure– no animal facilities or complex imaging equipment is needed.  All you need is a cell culture facility.

Q: Will engineered models replace animal models?

A: These newer models will not completely replace animal models for a long time due to regulatory agencies, the comfort levels of scientists, and our underlying understanding and simplicity of the models. However, there is a slow-moving progression towards using less animals for research and starting to develop and use more engineered models.

Q; What career opportunities are available for students interested in pursuing this type of research?

A: There are a variety of routes students interested in this research can take. One is to create or work with pre-clinical models in industry —such as working for medical device companies.

Another route is a little more broad. Once you start to do this type of research you have a greater understanding of diseases, physiology and treatments, which can increase the different directions you can take. You can possibly go into Research and Development work or a clinical job because you are able to understand how these devices function and their effects on the human body.

Q: What do you find to be most impactful about your research?

A: I think the most impactful part of my research has been seeing people in industry start to talk about using my models for getting information on their devices, before their animal studies.  That is the direction we want this work to go.  I also think my research is impactful on the students that I work with – I love teaching students these techniques, working collaboratively on the research, and seeing the impact it has on students’ careers and trajectories.

Q: What should interested students study if they want to work in a lab like yours?

A: Tissue engineering is a multidisciplinary field. Different backgrounds can include mechanical engineering, materials engineering, biology, chemistry, or other core engineering or life science disciplines. There are so many things a student can study that would allow them to do this type of work.

Q: What is the most significant change needed to make research and models more human-centered?

A: We need more data in order to convince others and ourselves that these models are effective. There has to be more comparisons between human-centered models and the “gold standard” animal models. Currently, the comfort levels lean towards animal models. Devices or therapies that have been tested in animals could be repeated in these new tissue models to determine if there are predictive outcomes. The main point is we need to show that these methods are actually useful.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Cal Poly and the opportunities available to you and the students at the school?

A: I love my job and the multitude of opportunities working at Cal Poly. The university is really good at prioritizing undergraduate and masters’ students and providing a hands-on education. This allows me to work with younger students and provide the initial training and projects before sending them off to the real world. This is distinct from working with a larger Ph.D. program since those students are already more advanced in their career. The younger students at Cal Poly also have the advantage of becoming leaders in the lab, as there are no Ph.D. students at Cal Poly.

Additionally, Cal Poly’s industry connections are strong, which allows students to have practical hands-on education including conversations about intellectual property and confidentiality. They can have a glimpse of what it is like working in the real world, which is valuable for students who are directly entering the job market after college.

Q: What do you think is the best way to convince students to work on alternative research methods to animal testing?

A: In my experience, there is not much convincing needed for students. Many students would love to make a difference in this way. The goal is to let the students know what you are working on and offer opportunities where they can choose how they can be impactful. Students can also be educated on the options and the scientific efficiency of the alternative technologies.

Q: Any overall advice for high school students who want to go to college for this type of research?

A: High school students can try doing literature searches for research they are interested in as well as focusing on selecting undergrad/master’s programs that allow them the best chance to participate in this research. Each new generation gets savvier and is prepared to take on these new opportunities.

Thank you, Dr. Kristen O’Halloran Cardinal, for taking to time to speak with us and for helping to foster the new generation of biomedical students who can make a difference in human-centered research!

Click here for more information about Kristen and here for more information about Cal Poly’s biomedical department.


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