(6b) Engineering the Future of Aging, Healthspan and Lymphoma Time | AIChE

(6b) Engineering the Future of Aging, Healthspan and Lymphoma Time


Phillip, J. - Presenter, Johns Hopkins University
Research Interests:

With an educational background rooted in chemical engineering and medicine, my research agenda focuses on applying fundamental engineering principles to answering key questions in aging and cancer biology. To this end, my long term goal is to translate the discoveries and disruptive technologies from my laboratory into the medical arena to improve the healthspan and wellbeing of individuals. I envision leading a diverse team of interdisciplinary researchers working collaboratively on the central theme of aging. In the early stages of my lab, I intend to study two key aspects of aging, mainly: 1) cellular biomarkers of aging in health and disease; and 2) the role of the aging tumor immune-microenvironment (TiME) in lymphoma, and its impact on disease progression and treatment responses. I believe that studying the aging process at this juncture is important, since the doubling of the aging population above the age of 60 (2 billion people) by the year 2050 is projected to have significant socio-economic implications.

The process of aging is inevitable, and although we gain one chronological year with the passing of each birthday, the phenotypic outlook among individuals is quite variable. These inter-individual differences stemming from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, influence our biological age. This concept of biological age, which is associated with chronological age but not necessarily equal, is now known to be a key risk factor for the onset of chronic disease states such as cancer and frailty. However, biological age, typically measured at the anatomical level is often difficult to interpret, and rely on prior manifestation of physiological dysfunction. Because of this, during my PhD, I postulated and demonstrated, that cells represent a robust window into the aging process, and provide a means to evaluate one’s biological age. Employing high throughput single-cell techniques to assess features such as cell morphology and motility, together with modern data science approaches and AI, I intend to improve and develop new cell-based predictors of biological age. I foresee this as being an important challenge, since by understanding these aging trajectories we can potentially intervene and course correct. As such, these discoveries could have significant implications for maintaining healthy aging trajectories, and extending human healthspan.

In the context of cancer, there is an intimate relationship between cancer incidences and age, however it is still ambiguous as to why. During my postdoctoral studies at Weill Cornell Medicine, I pioneered a study geared towards elucidating the understudied role of the tumor microenvironment in orchestrating a pro-lymphoma phenotype. Here, probing the phenotypic effects of the lymphoma microenvironment, regarding tumor mechanics, extracellular matrix content and organization, as well as stromal and immune compositions, I identified a critical molecular regulator that facilitates the cellular reprogramming. Building along these lines, I intend to characterize the cellular and non-cellular compartments of the lymphoma microenvironment with age, with the goal of identifying key vulnerabilities to prevent the co-opting and reprogramming of stromal, and immune cells by malignant B-cells. Further, the age-dependent increase of senescent cell populations, both senescent fibroblasts and senescent immune cells have been linked to the promotion of malignant transformations through the secretion of pro-survival signals and immune exhaustion. By studying the effect of senescent populations in lymphomas, we will seek to identify novel methods to mitigate these effects, and find way to reprogram the microenvironment into an immuno-permissive microenvironment. Leveraging my previous research experiences, together with my vision to innovate, I aim to become a leader and pioneer in the fields of mechanobiology of aging, and geriatric immuno-oncology.

Teaching Interests:

I am filled with excitement by the possibility of training the next generation of engineers that will solve the pressing problems facing our world today. I was fortunate to have creative and dedicated teachers whose encouragement and adaptive teaching strategies enabled me to succeed. From them I have learned the importance of advocating for the success of my students, while promoting an inclusive environment where diversity can shine, and where the strengths of each student is highlighted.

I believe that collaborative learning is essential to the field of engineering and is an area of great interest as I reflect on my teaching plan. To foster this collaborative environment both in my lab and in the classroom, I intend to use modern pedagogical techniques, which would include peer-based team learning and application-based projects. Within the classroom, I appreciate that student learns differently, and to address this I would utilize various education forms to appeal to different students, such as using real life examples that tangibly demonstrate engineering concepts to students, and the use of visual aids for visual learners. Investing the time to help students realize their learning styles will be key. For the graduate students and trainees in my lab I intend to organize seminars that will expose them to resources that will prepare them for this changing engineering climate, such as entrepreneurial training and startup models, as well as developing business models. I would also encourage them to engage in some type out teaching outreach with neighboring schools to help them cement their own knowledge and develop their own teaching styles, as this was a key aspect of my own development.

As I prepare to transition to faculty positions in chemical engineering, I took some time to think about the course that had the most impact on me as an undergraduate student, which is the course I would love to teach. I believe that Introduction to chemical engineering principles and practices present students with the breadth of chemical engineering possibilities, and inspires them to push the envelope to go beyond the norm, which is a key aspect of my philosophy. In addition to the introductory class, I am interested in designing courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels on the implementation of engineering principles for real life applications in healthcare, with a focus on cell-based approaches to combat disease. In this course, we will not only address the scientific aspects, but also the epidemiological and societal implications.

I believe that engineering provides limitless potential to address the various “problems” of society but the field is only as good as those who commit to it. During my time as an undergraduate I recall meeting eager and passionate students who had the potential to make a meaningful impact on the field but were deterred by difficulty with introductory courses. In order to support students with the desire to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) a pipeline program must exist to foster this desire as early as possible. One of my goals as a professor would be to collaborate afterschool programs to foster and promote success in STEM for disadvantaged and underperforming high school and middle school students.

Teaching is more than a passion to me, I believe it is a calling. My goal is to reach learners at different level and not only provide them with information but enable them to be the critical and creative thinkers that will boast the field of engineering reach its full potential.