David Dean, Ph.D, Plastic Surgery

I am a scientist in the Department of Plastic Surgery at The Ohio State University. I direct the Osteo Engineering Laboratory. I spent two years as a Postdoctoral Researcher in Plastic Surgery at New York University before I began my faculty career at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in July 1994. While I had taught undergraduate, graduate, and professional courses before 1994, that is when I began mentoring students as their advisor. My primary appointment shifted from the Department of Neurological Surgery at CWRU to the Department of Plastic Surgery at Ohio State in August 2013.

What research is your lab team currently working on?

Our lab is primarily focused on three areas at present. Our longest running effort is in bone tissue engineering. Our current approach to bone tissue engineering is to 3D print a porous, resorbable, polymer scaffold and seed it with bone progenitor cells. While these cells are capable of becoming fat, cartilage, blood vessel, muscle, and other tissues, we force them to differentiate to the bone lineage. This is done by culturing these cells with well-studied growth factors. Our second and third areas of emphasis both take a “stiffness-matched” approach to bone fixation hardware and other forms of skeletal instrumentation. We try to reduce the stiffness of 3D printed nickel-titanium (NiTi) devices to match that of the bone they are attached to by designing and printing porosity (air space) into the device. Alternatively, coming from the other side of this problem, we try to increase the stiffness of a resorbable magnesium (Mg) alloy that we and our colleagues have invented. The increase in stiffness is due to both the alloyed elements and heat treatments. In regards to skeletal fixation hardware, our primary goal with either NiTi or Mg alloys is to have both reliable fixation during bone healing and thereafter not interrupt the normal strengthening of the bone. The latter is currently well known problem with hip implants. They may steal the load that the femur used to have before the joint was replaced with metal. If a hip implant shields the bone that is holding it in place from the load needed to maintain that bone, the shielded bone may resorb. That can lead to loosening of the implant and failure of the joint in the future. Our working hypothesis is that stiffness-matched skeletal instrumentation with improved design will dramatically reduce these failures.

How did your research journey begin?

I took a vertebrate anatomy course as a pre-med student in my Junior year of college. During that course I began wondering about the nature and causes of anatomical variation. I was initially struck by the notion of “homology”, that the structures in the great diversity of living animals, especially vertebrates, were derived from shared common ancestors. At first we may take evolution as obvious. It often takes careful study of different looking structures, perhaps with extremely divergent functions in different species, to fully understand how they could derive from the same structure in a common ancestor. However, I was even more surprised that there were so few sources of this variation other than evolution, the others being sexual dimorphism, growth and development, and pathology. I became very curious as to whether one could both verbally and mathematically describe the variation within a species, or that is consistent with normal function. Can one clearly locate the morphological and concomitant functional edges between good health, mere survival, and incompatibility with life?

Why did you decide to become a faculty mentor for undergraduate students interested in research?

Undergraduate students have always been eager to participate in our research. While working in a lab is not like taking a class, it can be very educational. Moreover, Undergraduate Students, Graduate Students, and Postdoctoral Researchers, working as teams, in my experience, have been quick to determine effective and time-efficient ways to reach the goals of our funded projects!

What resources have been helpful to you in becoming a better mentor for students?

I tell the students that I work with that there have been three major changes that have dramatically improved my research activities. I hope that showing students how to use these resources has helped make me a better mentor. The first major change was the development of *.PDF files. I spent much of my graduate school and early faculty career at Xerox machines in the library. Next was the advent of inexpensive hard disks. Given that a lot of my work has been with medical imaging, especially 3D medical imaging, there was a time, not so long ago, when it was very difficult to store these data or retrieve and use them. That all changed with the advent of inexpensive hard disks. Cloud computing has also helped in this regard! Finally, the advent of companies that obtain human and animal cells for use in research. We used to have to obtain these cells, as researchers, ourselves. The development of this industry has allowed me to use time previously dedicated to acquiring cells for research.

How independent is the student researcher and what is your role in their research? How many hours a week do you expect from a student researcher? How often do you meet together?

We consider the summer the “golden time”, when Undergraduate Research Assistants can meet with their Project Leader as needed, but also often work in teams and/or alone. If they have been well-trained for their work and have a good understanding of their project’s aims, the protocols they are using, a good experimental design, and the materials they need for their research that they can often be extremely independent and productive! I meet with Undergraduate Research Assistants and their Project Leaders, usually a Graduate Student or Postdoctoral Researcher, as often as needed. However, the full lab meets at least once a week to review and consider new data as well as to discuss, and put all our heads together, about anything that wasn’t expected in how an ongoing experiment is proceeding.

How can undergraduates make connections with faculty? What is the best way to approach a faculty member about his or her research?

I am always open to discussing our research with undergraduate students. I hope that all research faculty share this attitude. In terms of a student approaching a faculty member, it is now very easy to check on any faculty member’s publications, for example via Google Scholar. I recommend doing so and approaching a faculty member whose work interests you with reference to what it was in their published work that interests you.

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for undergraduates just getting started with research?

Nothing can replace basic safety and specific protocol training. However, I very much like the new learning module that students take on Biomedical Responsible Conduct of Research. Responsible conduct of research is important to all science. Very important topics here include the importance of keeping data in a lab notebook, where and when confidentiality is needed, authorship in a published paper, inventorship in a patent, conflicts-of-interest, what is expected of a faculty mentor, the process of peer review, learning to recognize research misconduct, the use of animal subjects in research, and the involvement of human subjects in research. It important to understand all of the elements of research to make informed decisions. I also think it is important for anyone who decides to do research to ask themselves if they enjoy solving problems and to understand that researchers see problems as opportunities. Or, as Thomas Edison once said, “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.”

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