Protégé It Forward

By Marcia Faye
Protege it forward
Merjem Mededovic (BME 3rd year) [left] is one member of a research team in the Polymeric Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Lab headed by Associate Professor Georgia Papavasiliou (CHE ’96, Ph.D. ’03) [right].
Photo: Elena Zhukova


come from a family of engineers, most of them electrical engineers—aunts, uncles, cousins. My mother was in computer science. They mentored me while I was in high school at New Trier and even while I was here in college,” says Georgia Papavasiliou (CHE ’96, Ph.D. ’03), associate professor and director of the Polymeric Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Lab at Illinois Tech. She is now continuing this tradition of mentored guidance within the academic and research communities she leads.

“We have a tiered mentoring system in my lab. I’ll mentor the graduate students, who will then serve as mentors to the undergrads. I like to work with students for a while, so they are usually with me for more than one semester. I’ve had more than 30 undergraduates in my lab, some who have gone on to do research, pursue Ph.D.s, or enter medical school. My team has come together nicely,” she says.

Papavasiliou, from Wilmette, Illinois, joined the Illinois Tech faculty as a senior lecturer in 2003, one year after completing both her Ph.D. at Illinois Tech and a postdoctoral internship at Johnson Polymer, and soon began to develop courses in biomedical engineering and to devote time to learning all of the laboratory techniques critical to successful tissue engineering projects. Johnson Polymer Professor Fouad Teymour, director of Illinois Tech’s Center for Complex Systems and Dynamics, and Papavasiliou’s doctoral thesis advisor, recalls her initiative and determination early on.

“What is impressive is that she would never need to perform these experiments herself in the future as an assistant professor, yet she understood instinctively that in order to mentor and supervise students who perform those tasks, she must have experienced them on her own first,” he says. “I admire this approach to mentorship, where the mentor subjects herself a priori to the same environment the student will have to perform in.”

"After being in Professor Papavasiliou's lab, I realize that there are a lot of health problems that are not so easily seen but are no less important."
—Merjem Mededovic (BME 3rd year)

The current graduate students who Papavasiliou mentors are working with her, Teymour, and University of Chicago professor and gastrointestinal surgeon John Alverdy on a National Institutes of Health-funded project that focuses on post-surgical intestinal healing following colorectal anastomosis, the point of connection where a surgeon reattaches two sections of an intestine that has been severed for, say, the removal of a tumor. In nearly a quarter of such surgeries the anastomoses break down, causing the contents of the intestine to leak out, resulting in infections, post-surgical complications, and in some cases, death. The Illinois Tech team is exploring ways to transport potentially life-saving drugs to the site of the leak via an innovative nanoparticle system that it has developed. Nanoparticle systems can offer the advantage of highly stable drug delivery at the molecular level through various routes of administration.

“An oral formulation would be rapidly cleared from the kidneys and rapidly absorbed, so we need an approach to localize these compounds and provide sustained release for prolonged periods of time,” says Papavasiliou.

Merjem Mededovic (BME 3rd year) has had opportunities to work in Papavasiliou’s lab on other projects both as a volunteer and through the Armour College of Engineering Program for Undergraduate Research Education (PURE). Now in her second semester as a PURE student, she is one member of a team working on a research project funded through the American Heart Association. The group is exploring novel ways, through the use of nanoparticles and hydrogel scaffolds, to deliver substances that will stimulate the formation of new blood vessels for the treatment of ischemic cardiovascular disease. Mededovic says that the lab’s tiered mentoring system and focus on innovative work to develop polymeric biomaterials for applications in tissue engineering and drug delivery have provided her with a whole new way of learning in addition to her coursework, as well as a new career direction.

A native of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mededovic considered becoming either a physician or prosthetic biomedical engineer after witnessing firsthand the many individuals whose lives had been impacted by civil war in her homeland. She is now considering a graduate program in biomedical engineering capped by an M.B.A. so that she can pursue leadership opportunities in the drug-delivery industry.

“After being in Professor Papavasiliou’s lab, I realize that there are a lot of health problems that are not so easily seen but are no less important,” Mededovic says, noting that the intimate “group mentoring” experience in the lab is helping her discover new skillsets and other ways she can contribute to making a difference in the world. She plans to stay in Papavasiliou’s lab until she graduates and is especially looking forward to this summer and an external internship that Papavasiliou is helping to arrange to further broaden her research scope.

Whether counseling students after hours or seeking tailored learning opportunities for them to expand upon their developing interests, Papavasiliou sees it all as part of her students-first mindset. Mededovic has become a mentor to local high school students through Illinois Tech’s Global Leaders Program. Papavasiliou has been recognized as an outstanding teacher two times, first as a teaching assistant during her doctoral studies, earning the W. M. Langdon Excellence in Chemical Engineering and the University Excellence in Teaching (assistant-level) awards, and later, as an assistant professor, with the University Excellence in Teaching Award in 2012 from Illinois Tech.

“I have chaired the Armour College teaching awards selection committee for many years, including the year [2012] Georgia was nominated for the top university honor. This is a very competitive level where the candidates are always outstanding, but the committee was unanimous in its decision to select Georgia. This was largely predicated on student feedback in the letters of support presented on her behalf,” says Teymour. “Georgia’s dedication and her untiring commitment to student success are the reasons that make her an outstanding teacher and mentor.”