North Island College alum Milena Restan is combining her love of medicine and engineering in ground-breaking stem cell and tissue engineering research to help patients.
Restan has completed a biomedical engineering degree at the University of Victoria and was recently the lead author of a research paper on 3D bioprinting stem cell-derived neural tissue.
“It was very special to be a lead author as an undergrad student,” said Restan.
Originally from the Comox Valley, Restan began her engineering journey at NIC but was always torn between medicine and engineering.
“I always wanted to be a doctor, but after taking a calculus course I was really torn between pursuing my love of mathematics and medicine,” she said. “When I learned about NIC’s engineering transfer with UVic, and about the option of biomedical engineering, I realized I didn’t have to choose – it was the perfect combination.”
Biomedical engineering focuses on mechanical and electrical engineering, combined with anatomy, physiology and biochemistry.
“Engineering is learning about why things work the way they do, and then using that knowledge to solve all kinds of real-world problems,” said Dennis Lightfoot, NIC engineering instructor. “Today’s engineering students are going to be preparing to solve the problems of the present and the future – including mitigating climate change, designing for sustainability, and developing new renewable energy sources for the future. Biomedical research and development like Milena is working on will also be a growth area for our future engineers.”
NIC students can seamlessly transfer directly to UVic thanks to a partnership agreement between the two institutions – one of many partnership and transfer agreements NIC has with institutions across B.C., Canada and internationally.
“Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for students to complete their first year at NIC and then move on to the institution of their choice to continue their studies,” said Neil Cruickshank, dean of arts, science, technology, business and applied studies.
It was after her transfer to UVic that Restan’s career path turned again. Her original focus was on medical device design and prosthetics when she was introduced to 3D tissue printing. She then got a job working with Willerth Lab, run by Dr. Stephanie Willerth at the University of Victoria, which specialized in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
“You can take a mature cell, reprogram it back to a pluripotent stem cell and 3D bioprint it along with various biomaterials,” she explained. “This allows us to engineer personalized tissue models which can be used to study disease progression. Right now, we’re focusing on neural tissues, but we’re hoping to expand to cardiac tissues. There’s a lot of potential with this approach.”
Restan is wrapping up her final year at UVic and looking forward to graduation in June. For now, Restan is looking forward to furthering her research work and is also considering pursuing her MD/PhD, which combines clinical medical training with research.
“What I’ve learned through all this is that you never know what opportunities may present themselves. My advice to students would be to take electives you’re interested in and to look for opportunities to volunteer outside the classroom. You never know what pathways will open up for you.”