She describes the moment as if it occurred yesterday.
The then middle schooler was lying on her back on the rooftop of her family’s home in Ranaghat, West Bengal, India, gazing idly at the puffy white clouds drifting by overhead. She daydreamed about the future, wondering where life might lead her.
A plane poked through the clouds, gaining altitude as its wings glinted in the bright sunshine. She didn’t know its destination, only that it was en route to a faraway place. Susmita Bose suddenly felt a burst of inspiration. Like the plane, she would cross the seas and chase her destiny in the land of opportunity she’d heard so much about: the United States of America.
“The foundation for turning her ambition into reality already was in place.”
Little did it matter that none of Bose’s family had ever been to the United States. The foundation for turning her ambition into reality already was in place. Bose was a high-achieving, ambitious student who loved physics, chemistry, math, and biology, interests encouraged by her mother, a math and science teacher.
And Bose had taken to heart another of her mom’s life lessons that she now passes on to her WSU students: Perseverance, focus, and big dreams can deliver unimagined rewards.
So it was clear by the time she turned 13 that Bose was headed to college. After graduating from high school, she earned a chemistry degree, with honors, in 1990 at the University of Kalyani, located near the Ganges River in the Nadia district of West Bengal, next door to India’s eastern border with Bangladesh.
Two years later, in 1992, she added a master’s degree in chemistry, completed at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, one of the country’s top technology institutes. Not long afterward, the opportunity to fulfill her dream finally arrived in the form of admission and research assistantship offers from multiple doctoral programs at U.S. universities. In the end, she chose Rutgers, spending the next five years in New Jersey while completing a degree in physical-organic chemistry and adjusting to life in the U.S.
There she also met her husband, Amit Bandyopadhyay, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ceramic Research at Rutgers, in 1996. The couple moved from one coast to the other in 1997 when Bandyopadhyay was offered a tenure-track faculty position at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in Pullman. She started as a research scientist at the school after completing her doctoral work in 1998, then was offered an assistant professorship three years later, in 2001.
It was the next step in a bold journey that has exceeded her teenage dreams. Today, Bose is considered among the nation’s top scientists researching medical materials, including 3D printing of bone-like materials to make implants more biocompatible and longer lasting.
Everyone–from baby boomers to millennials–has a vested interest in Bose’s research as it moves closer to becoming available in the medical marketplace. Achieving that goal will mean increased mobility and longer-lasting joint replacements. And fractured or otherwise damaged bones requiring surgery will be repaired with new materials less likely to be rejected by the human body.
“Whether it’s due to longer life expectancy, sports injuries, or a desire for a more active lifestyle in today’s world, we will need more bone replacement materials,” she says. “And whether it is hip and knee replacements or fracture care, we will need replacement materials with a longer lifetime.”
In response to those needs, Bose and Bandyopadhyay have focused their efforts for more than a decade on two major initiatives. The first is using 3D printers to create bone replacement materials. The second is perfecting the recipe of minerals, biomolecules, and drugs for a future bone material and for coatings applied to traditional titanium implants, like hip joints, to extend their life. By controlling the chemistry of the 3D printed bone-like scaffolds and surfaces, the bone healing process is enhanced.
“Our research involves chemistry, biology, materials science, mechanical engineering, bioengineering, and expertise from WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine,” Bose notes. “Without that interdisciplinary approach, this type of biomedical engineering research cannot be addressed.”
“Without that interdisciplinary approach, this type of biomedical engineering research cannot be addressed.”
In a lab in the Engineering Teaching Research Laboratory (ETRL) building on the west edge of the Pullman campus, Bose and graduate students including Sahar Vahabzadeh and Tom Gualtieri use a 3D printer to produce bone scaffolds from a powder composed primarily of calcium phosphate. The re-purposed printer uses an inkjet to spray a plastic binder over a bed of powder in layers just 20 microns thick–about half the width of a human hair.
Once implanted, the scaffold provides support for a damaged bone or joint as its regrows tissue and blood vessels. The scaffold dissolves naturally as the bone grows back.
“We can create a patient-specific or defect-specific bone scaffold by starting with CT or MRI scans provided by a physician,” Bose points out. The scans, taken from several angles, then are converted to a CAD file that guides the printer in building the scaffold.
The research team, which includes William Dernell from WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, physicians from Stanford University and the University of Washington, and graduate and undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines, already has seen promising results in tests involving animals.
In the United States alone, nearly 1 million hip and knee replacement procedures are performed every year. State-of-the-art titanium replacements are connected to existing bone using acrylic bone cement during surgery.
Unfortunately, the implants typically fail in 10 to 12 years, largely because the metallic materials used are foreign to the human body. Because of the difference in properties between the manmade materials and bone–including stiffness and biocompatibility–the implants don’t bond strongly to surrounding tissues. Cracking and degradation of the bone cement occurs, for example.
The short lifetime of the implant creates a problematic scenario for younger patients, who later require a second replacement surgery.
Bose and her colleagues have tackled the materials problem by developing a body-friendly calcium phosphate-based coating for the implant materials. Last year the National Institutes of Health awarded her a $1.8 million grant that will enable her team to continue refining the coating and improve the way in which implants integrate into the body. Once integrated, the coated implants are expected to last longer–possibly doubling the life of cemented implants.
Bone itself consists of nearly 70% calcium phosphate, along with collagen fibers and water. Working at the nanoscale, Bose and her team use calcium phosphate to construct powder particles that are 50 nanometers in diameter (for comparison, a sheet of paper is about 10,000 nanometers thick). The approach increases the surface-to-volume ratio of the material, creating a greater surface area to which particles or grains can bond with tissue efficiently.
Biomolecules to promote cell growth and an anti-osteoporosis drug to aid the body’s healing process are added to the mix in the lab. “So basically,” Bose explains, “as a bone scaffold dissolves, the drug and biomolecules are released, speeding up the healing of the surrounding bone tissue.”
The team’s research has attracted the attention of media worldwide, including BBC, NPR, and MSNBC. Bose currently holds three patents for medical devices and is a co-inventor on five active patent applications. She’s published more than 200 journal articles. Physicians from the Mayo Clinic and the Stanford Medical School are collaborating with her team.
“There are companies that are very interested in our technology,” Bose says. “We are hoping that in a few years it will come to market.”
Smiling, Bose greets each of the half dozen students working in her labs scattered throughout a wing of the ETRL building one summer afternoon. She asks one about a test under way; another about progress in relocating lab equipment to a new space. The students respond enthusiastically, returning their mentor’s smiles.
“when mentors guided her through some of the challenges she encountered.”
Despite her stature in the world of medical materials and the pressures associated with advancing her research, Bose’s number one focus on campus is her students and their success. That viewpoint springs in part from her own college experiences, when mentors guided her through some of the challenges she encountered. But her outlook is even more reflective of a deep desire to graduate students who are honorable human beings.
“I say this to my students,” she says. “When you graduate under my supervision, I not only want you to be proficient in science and engineering, I also want you to be hardworking, honest, and humble–a good human being. After all,” she adds, “education delivers knowledge, and gaining knowledge helps us realize how little we really know. So I try to breed that outlook in my students.”
Bose also strives to deepen global awareness and understanding among her charges. And with both undergraduate and graduate students from China, India, Bangladesh, Iran, and the U.S. working together in her labs, the opportunities are numerous.
“It’s a great opportunity not only to learn from each other in terms of research,” she notes, “but in learning about different cultures. I tell my graduate students to try to learn from each other. Your research will benefit, and you’ll gain a very rich cultural experience. And the friendships you make at a university often turn into lifelong friendships.”
Bose is particularly touched–and proud–when one of her students pursues a career in academia. She mentions one who is a research associate at Columbia University, another who is climbing the career ladder at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and a third who is teaching at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur, India.
“And I have a couple of current students who want to become professors and teach,” she says. “That means a lot to me, that they want to educate the next generation. This is a very noble profession, where we can pass along our knowledge and help shape the future of our country.”
Bose is passionate about inspiring young people of all ages to explore the sciences. When she speaks at elementary schools she encourages kids to soak up as much basic science and math as possible. Building a strong core knowledge of math, biology, chemistry, and physics and understanding the connections between them paves the wave for success later in fields requiring multidisciplinary knowledge, she emphasizes.
“There’s no better educational approach than that. It prepares students for life-long learning, and it makes them better prepared for the future.”
She describes the multidisciplinary knowledge her doctoral students in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and the materials science and engineering program receive during the process of creating bone materials. “They go from chemistry to materials processing to bone cell biology to veterinary medicine. I believe that will prepare them to be a more well-rounded professional, particularly for those who want to pursue a career in bioengineering, biomedical engineering, or a human health-related field.”
And, she’s quick to add, providing undergraduate students with hands-on research opportunities and plenty of interaction with graduate students is equally important. “It goes both ways,” she says. “It helps undergraduates to see the application of multidisciplinary knowledge and participate in research, and it’s a tremendous learning opportunity for graduate students, helping them develop mentorship and team-building skills.”
At WSU, a multidisciplinary approach to research that combines the expertise of faculty from several colleges is common–an approach that ultimately strengthens the outcomes of the research and increases its value to society at large. Bose cites her own life as an example.
“Having a Ph.D. in chemistry helped me a lot when I started working in materials science and engineering,” she says. “But I realized that my knowledge of chemistry and biology could be better utilized if I could combine it with expertise in materials or biomaterials. It happened in such a way that I also got to work with my husband and colleague Amit, who has the engineering background. Although I must say this, it is not easy to have 24 hour togetherness being in the same department. It can be challenging sometime when you put two intellectual people together, it is a continuous learning process for both of us. However, if it works, two brains together, it’s not one plus one equals two. It’s one plus one equals four as we look at the same research problem from both a scientific and an engineering perspective.”
Bose is excited about the added expertise a WSU medical school will bring to her research. “Having a WSU medical school in Spokane (the school will admit its inaugural class in fall, 2017),” she says, “will be even more important for our research–and for any health-related research at WSU and in the region–because getting a physician’s expertise and perspective is critical to success.”
For Bose, family–especially her husband and two sons, Shohom, 13, and Aditya, 9–serve as her raison d’etre and the bedrock for her sunny outlook on life. She puts it in simple terms.
“Family life is so important to me, and without the support of my family, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Being happy means a lot to me because I believe for every human being, we all have to be happy and healthy first before we can be productive in the rest of our life.”
Living and working in Pullman makes balancing professional and family life realistic and achievable, she says. “It’s so much easier here to raise kids, manage all of their extracurricular activities, and teach, do our research, keep up with publications, and write grants and proposals. It’s only possible because we live in a smaller town.”
Bose admits she experienced culture shock when she initially relocated from Piscataway, New Jersey–about 35 miles from New York City–to Pullman in 1997. But she quickly grew to appreciate the area’s quality of life once she became a mother. “I tell junior faculty who join WSU,” she says, “that the beneficial aspects of a smaller community become very clear once motherhood becomes part of the equation.”
“The best part of my day is to watch them falling asleep at night as I sing to them.”
Asked to describe her approach to child rearing, Bose says her philosophy is grounded in concepts that create and support a healthy, disciplined lifestyle. It’s a philosophy she applies to nurturing her sons and shares with her students.
“Embrace a healthy food habit and regular exercise,” she says. “And find a hobby that helps relieve some of the stresses we experience in today’s society.” For Bose, singing, accompanied by accordion and synthesizer, and listening to Indian classical music help her stay well balanced. She teaches her sons vocal music, and they are also developing their chess-playing skills.
“The kids love to hear me sing Indian music, and the best part of my day,” she says, “is to watch them falling asleep at night as I sing to them.”
And, she adds with a chuckle, adopt a healthy lifestyle early in life and you just might avoid the need for a joint replacement or bone implant down the road.
In July, when she was honored with a Woman to Watch in Life Science Award from the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association at a downtown Seattle luncheon, it marked just the latest accolade singling out Bose for her accomplishments.
“She’s too focused on her current endeavors to dwell long on past honors.”
Just two years ago, she was named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, joining the top 2 percent of researchers nationwide honored for their contributions to research, industrial practice, and education in the field.
That followed the prestigious Karl Schwartzwalder-Professional Achievement in Ceramic Engineering award in 2009 from the American Ceramic Society’s National Institute of Ceramic Engineers. The annual award recognizes the nation’s outstanding, young ceramic engineer whose work may have a significant impact on the profession and on American lives.
More than a decade earlier, in 2004, the first hints of Bose’s research prowess surfaced. That’s when she was honored at a White House ceremony with 19 National Science Foundation-sponsored researchers from across the country who were presented the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
All the honors are well deserved, says Michael Kessler, director of WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. “Many technologies she developed are poised to make significant advances to the standard of care for patients needing orthopedic device implants or other surgical intervention to correct skeletal disorders,” he says. “Her research is always patient-focused and in tune with the upcoming needs of the medical device industry.”
Bose is modest about the recognition. She’s too focused on her current endeavors to dwell long on past honors.
“We’re always pursuing the quest for innovation,” she offers. “Although I believe it is difficult to mimic Mother Nature, we’re striving to apply science and engineering to tackle health-related issues that will help us progress as a society.”
After a brief pause, she adds, “I’ll be happy if one day our research and innovation has been delivered to the patient’s bedside and advances human health. There would be no bigger satisfaction than that.”
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