By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2015, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
As an Enid high school student in the early 1990s, Heather Fahlenkamp took a career assessment test as she tried to figure out what she was going to be when she grew up. One of the options that came back was biomedical engineer.
Today, she is Dr. Heather Fahlenkamp, an Associate Professor in the School of Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Fahlenkamp recently was honored with the 2015 Researcher of the Year award from the Oklahoma Bioscience Association.
The line from high school career assessment to a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at OSU was not exactly straight, however.
“I wanted to stay in-state, unfortunately none of the major universities offered a biomedical engineering degree, but they did have good engineering schools,” Fahlenkamp said. “OSU had a biomedical option, and I thought it gave me the most opportunity. The people and the support also played a role in my choice.”
Fahlenkamp earned her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from OSU, then earned a master’s degree at the University of Utah in bioengineering. She returned to OSU to complete her Ph.D. in 2003 in chemical engineering.
Now, she is one of four project engineers at the statewide Center for Respiratory and Infectious Diseases, funded by an $11.3 million CoBRE – Centers for Biomedical Research Excellence — grant from the National Institutes of Health and headquartered at OSU.
Fahlenkamp is working to design a 3D tissue model of the lung that mimics the actual lung inside the body with reaction to allergies and disease. The goal of the project is to create a tissue-engineered lung model that can be used to investigate how the immune system responds to infectious agents.
“At Utah I worked with someone very well known in diabetes research and tissue engineering,” she said. “That’s what got me on this path of tissue engineering and how I can build these tissue models to study diseases and conditions in the body.”
Meanwhile, after earning her Ph.D. she continued her work in tissue engineering in private industry. Fahlenkamp was awarded eight patents during her three years at VaxDesign, now a subsidiary of Sanofi Pasteur.
She not only has taken on an ambitious job to create a 3D model of the lung, but to test and document that it actually works like it does in the body.
“No matter how good an engineer you are it is a challenge to build something as good as the original,” she said.
Fahlenkamp said her life work isn’t random or even inspired by a high school assessment test. She works to improve human health because of family experience.
“I was very close to my grandmother growing up, and she suffered from diabetes,” she said. “Eventually, she was on dialysis. I would go with her to the dialysis clinic and became interested in the dialysis process, and how it was able to sustain her and give her some quality of life. At the same time it wasn’t perfect — she had to go several times a week and it took a lot of time and a lot out of her.
“Even at that point I was thinking about what could I do to help people that suffer with diabetes and other life changing health problems.”
No career assessment needed.
Jim Stafford writes about the state’s life sciences industry on behalf of the Oklahoma Bioscience Association.