Stephanie Seidlits

Q&A with Professor Stephanie Seidlits

Stephanie Seidlits is an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering. She conducts innovative research at the intersection of engineering, neuroscience and medicine — applying evidence-based teaching and collaborating on cross-campus research initiatives. Her work is just one example of groundbreaking research led by our faculty.

“Given that brain cancer is highly variant between patients, our long-term goal is to use these models for personalized medicine, where a patient’s own tumor cells can be used to identify effective therapies for their unique cancer.”

Q: What are some of the research projects that you are focusing on for this year?
My lab constructs artificial brain and spinal cord tissues. We are currently focused on developing these artificial tissues for two distinct purposes: 1) as implants that can promote regeneration of neurological functions after spinal cord injury and 2) as personalized models of brain cancer that can be used to identify effective treatments. For spinal cord injury, we are creating biomaterials that can mimic the native spinal cord tissue and actively promote recovery by modulating the immune response, delivering gene and cell therapies and providing electrical signals to rewire neural circuits. In addition, we have used biomaterials to create models of brain tumors that enable patient-derived tumor cells to behave how they do in the body. Typically, researchers must use intensive animal models to obtain clinically relevant data, as tumor cells do not retain key characteristics when cultured using standard methods. These models address a pressing need in cancer research for preclinical models that are faster, cheaper and amenable to high-throughput screening. Given that brain cancer is highly variant between patients, our long-term goal is to use these models for personalized medicine, where a patient’s own tumor cells can be used to identify effective therapies for their unique cancer.

Q: How do undergraduate and graduate students fit into these research projects?
My lab is a mix of post-doctoral, graduate and undergraduate student researchers, who do much of the hands-on work in the lab each day. Each post-doctoral and graduate student researcher heads their own project and directly supervise one or two undergraduate researchers. Across all of our projects, there is a lot of team work involved to develop new techniques and brainstorm new directions. Each lab member is essential to our success!

Q: You are involved with many cross-campus initiatives. How do these collaborative centers enhance your research activities?
I am very grateful to be a member of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, Broad Stem Cell Research Center and Brain Research Institute. First, they provide many opportunities to learn about the latest scientific advancements and to form collaborations with brilliant scientists and medical doctors whose expertise complements my own. Second, these collaborative centers provide seed grant funding for projects that are great ideas, but need some support to collect initial evidence for their feasibility and obtain larger, external grants. Third, they house an impressive breadth of core facilities, which provide access to the newest instrumentation and technologies, such as tools for genetic sequencing and imaging, which a single lab could not afford on its own.

Q: You received the Northrop Grumman Excellence in Teaching Award earlier this year. To what do you attribute your success as a teacher?
I approach teaching by working to foster mutual respect and trust between myself and the students. For a lot of students, this respect motivates them to take responsibility for their own education as it pertains to their individual goals. In addition, this approach facilitates open communication. If some aspect of my course is not effective or helpful, students feel comfortable providing honest feedback and working with me, sometimes through trial and error, to make adjustments and figure out a better way.

Q: How has discretionary funding through donor gifts enabled you to further your research at UCLA?
Discretionary funding through donor gifts has been essential to my lab’s success. These funds have often been the only way that we can replace and maintain basic lab equipment and computers — items that typically cannot be purchased with grants. Discretionary funds also provide a crucial bridge between the end of one grant and the start of another, often going towards stipend and tuition support for graduate student researchers. Finally, I have used discretionary funds to send graduate students to training workshops and conferences, where they can learn new techniques and ideas to bring back to our lab.