Passion Ignited by a Lifetime of Learning

By Marcia Faye
Passion Ignited by a Lifetime of Learning
Natacha DePaola new engineering dean
The Carol and Ed Kaplan
Armour College Dean of Engineering Chair

Natacha DePaola’s path to dean of IIT Armour College of Engineering was paved with inspiration, dedication, and—toothpaste. DePaola recalls that when she was 8 years old and growing up in Venezuela, she eagerly looked forward to weekly visits to her grandmother Rosa’s home along the shores of the Caribbean Sea. DePaola dearly loved her grandma and told her that she was preparing a remedy to help fade the age spots beginning to appear along Rosa’s hands and arms. On Sunday afternoons, DePaola retreated into her bedroom closet, where she had set up a tiny chemistry laboratory and mixed together dollops of various emulsions and ointments from her family’s medicine cabinet, which she thinned with rubbing alcohol. One special ingredient was toothpaste.

She would let the preparation settle, bottle the precipitate, and present her efforts to Rosa, who reported that the cream was indeed working. Of course, it was not. But Rosa knew that her granddaughter was a budding scientist and didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.

As DePaola grew up, her interest in science developed, moving from chemistry into physics and mathematics. A self-described “nerdy high school student,” she was glued to the television, watching Public Broadcasting System science shows, but was also popular with her peers, and even tutored many of them in math during her junior and senior years. DePaola continued to serve as a high school math and physics tutor during all her years at Simón Bolívar University, where she was a mechanical engineering major and physics teaching assistant. In college, her interests took her in the direction of biomedicine, and she spent countless hours in the college library reading about advances in the field.

DePaola left South America to enter the master’s program in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she focused on the flow of biofluids and its applications for intravenous therapies and injections. She was one of only 10 people yearly admitted into the doctoral program in medical engineering and medical physics jointly offered by MIT and Harvard Medical School, and graduated with her Ph.D. in 1991.

“I think that really was the best time of my life,” says DePaola. “I had superb research mentors who were not only wonderful scientists but also really extraordinary individuals who care about students?their education, career, and life success. I constantly try to live up to what I learned from my mentors and try to be for my students what my mentors were for me,” she says.

In her dually historic role as Armour’s first female dean and first Hispanic dean, which she began on August 1, DePaola looks forward to mentoring many students, though not primarily because of either her gender or her race.

“I’m fully committed to diversity, but I believe that you don’t need to be a minority to be fully committed,” she says. “It’s something that comes with the person; not with the gender. In fact, many of the main advances in support of making diversity happen were made by people who are not in minority groups. But they have a shared commitment and passion for diversity, which I think is a very important component in an academic institution, particularly at IIT, being a part of Chicago. The strategic plan of the university speaks to diversity very well.”

The new dean says that the structure of the Many Voices, One Vision plan—with its emphasis on IIT’s values and core principles—will make her job of crafting Armour’s strategic plan and aligning it with the university’s an easy one, and is at the top of her to-do list.

“I’ll be looking at the strength of the faculty and how we can go beyond where we are right now, exploring ways for the faculty to grow and how we can support that for higher achievement,” she says. “It’s crucial that we determine what those unique aspects of an IIT Armour College of engineering education are and get the word out.”

Thomas T. Andersen, associate dean for graduate studies and medical student research at Albany Medical College, worked with DePaola on the development of inter-institutional programs between the college and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), where DePaola served most recently as chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He says that DePaola has the ability to quickly see the opportunities and importance of innovation in education.

Passion Ignited by a Lifetime of Learning

“She eagerly did the ‘heavy lifting’ in developing our new combined-degree program (B.S./M.D.); she recognized the exciting opportunity that our two institutions could offer, and she prioritized the needs of the students in the development of the new program,” explains Andersen. “She made a lasting contribution, and I believe that our students will make an important impact on the health care needs of the country over the next several decades because of what Natacha did here.”

Considering IIT’s goal to increase the number of female undergraduate and graduate students over the next five years, DePaola is hoping to offer Armour outreach programs targeted to girls in grades five through eight. She also plans to support role models among female faculty members to open young minds to engineering and science as being career possibilities and disciplines that are eminently exciting.

The intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for knowledge and discovery that took root during DePaola’s own middle school years continue to define her personality today.

“The thrill is in discovering how we can use our knowledge of physics, engineering, and mathematics to understand disease better and to develop new therapies to treat disease,” she says. “If you can do something that will improve the quality of life and that will help patients—I think that’s what motivates a lot of biomedical engineers. The tools that we have now, we didn’t have 20 or even 10 years ago. The advances that have been made and the knowledge of biology we have now are fantastic.”

DePaola’s longtime research, which earned her a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award during her 15-year tenure at RPI, focuses on cellular mechanics, biofluid dynamics, and tissue engineering. In 1996, DePaola’s revelation that cumulative wear and tear on our arteries by the impact of flowing blood means that we all will face some degree of arteriosclerosis was picked up by Discover magazine. Her findings showed that the damage occurs where arteries bend sharply or branch with the impaired flow perhaps triggering the disease. She continues to devote the bulk of her research efforts to finding a solution for preventing arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.

While DePaola knows that her dean duties will leave her less time in the laboratory, she plans to continue her research collaborations with colleagues at RPI and Albany Medical College, and to form new collaborations with researchers at IIT and other institutions in the Chicago area. She and Deanna Thompson, assistant professor in RPI’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, are working on a neural tissue engineering project, trying to understand the process whereby stem cells give rise to neural tissue, which the researchers have found seems to greatly depend upon the influence of neighboring vasculature.

DePaola and surgeons from Albany are also pursuing new treatments for osteoporosis, looking at how the physical environment can serve as a tool for modulating the metabolism of the bone-forming cells so that therapies could potentially be developed. The team is investigating ways to affect the differentiation of stem cells into bone cells using a combination of biological and physical stimuli, and how to improve the odds of their integration within the body by isolating and pre-treating the cells outside of the body.

While DePaola admits to being “data-driven,” maintaining that the successful outcome of a project depends upon detailed information gathering, proper analysis, and careful consideration of all the parameters, she firmly believes in the human component.

“You always need to make sure that everybody who has a stake in the project is included,” says DePaola. “It’s important to get their input and try to see things from their perspective.”

DePaola has practiced this people approach since she put herself in her grandmother’s shoes as a little girl concerned about the appearance of age spots. And the influence of so many of her family members has reinforced this approach and the importance of DePaola’s role as an educator: her mother, a retired professor of physics and mathematics; her father, an economist; her grandfather, who founded a preparatory school; her aunt, another educator; and her husband, Aleksandar Ostrogorsky, who joins DePaola at IIT as a professor in the Department of Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering.

In fact, it was the human component that sold DePaola on IIT when she came to Main Campus for her interview.

“The level of excitement that people have about Armour College and the level of commitment that everyone has linked into the community gave me reason to believe that this would be a great opportunity,” she says. “I met with students and faculty, and with some of the trustees whose support and enthusiasm toward the institution and engineering is breathtaking. Everybody is ready to contribute and make it happen. I’m very excited. There are a lot of expectations of the dean of engineering, and I’m up to the task.”

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