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Tissue Microenvironment (TiMe) Training Program student spotlight: Ian Berg


Cancer Center at Illinois Communications Team

Meet Ian Berg, a Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate who is a part of the 2018 cohort of the Tissue Microenvironment (TiMe) Training Program, a university-wide training program for graduate students supported by a T32 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

How did your educational path lead you here?
I studied engineering mechanics as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. During that time, I discovered my interest in the applications of mechanical engineering concepts to biology and medicine; so, I chose biomechanics as my secondary field option and pursued a bioengineering minor.

After graduating, I went to work in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry for 3 years in a wide variety of roles. I realized that I wanted to be able to take part in more cutting edge, higher impact research and development, and I felt pursuing graduate studies would allow me to do that. That’s what brought me back to U of I as a bioengineering graduate student.

How has being in the time program helped you towards your goals?
I first applied for the Tissue Microenvironment (TiMe) program in my first year of graduate studies, as it was a great fit for my microenvironment focused research. Although I wasn’t selected to be part of the first cohort, I jumped at the chance to apply again with more experience.

The greatest part of being in the program is having a cohort of students, all interested in the microenvironment but with very different approaches and a huge variety of applications, to discuss and compare ideas with.

What research are you currently working on?
My research is around developing a platform to fabricate and analyze 3D tissues with controlled microenvironments. More specifically, I am interested in how mechanical properties such as tissue shape, curvature, and stress profile can drive cell fate and behavior. I am currently focusing on liver tissue and bile duct development.

What sort of impact will this research have on society?
My research will improve our understanding of liver development, leading to improved stem cell differentiation protocols and insight into the mechanisms of liver regeneration, biliary disorders, cancer, and other diseases linked to microenvironment abnormalities. I also believe the platforms and techniques I develop will aid in investigating other human systems.

What is your favorite part of working in your lab?
My work in the Underhill lab allows me to mix my experience with fabrication, design, and cell culture work with image analysis and computational simulation. I really appreciate having this balance.

What other projects have you worked on?
In the past, I've worked on developing a high throughput traction force microscopy platform. In the future, I would like to introduce other cell types to my 3D models as well as work with other lab members to use the techniques I've established on other applications, such as liver cancer.

What do you do outside of research?
Outside of the lab, I enjoy cooking and baking. It's like lab work – but you can eat the result! I also love to travel and spend time with my husband and dog.