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  • Writer's pictureClaire Benjamin

Amy Wagoner Johnson: Generating new connections

Interdisciplinary collaboration is a fundamental tenet of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), and also central to the work of Mechanical Science and Engineering Professor Amy Wagoner Johnson, a faculty member of IGB’s Regenerative Biology & Tissue Engineering (ReBTE) theme. The pursuit of new opportunities to work alongside world-class researchers will soon take her to Grenoble, France during a yearlong sabbatical.

The NanoSciences Foundation awarded Wagoner Johnson a Chair of Excellence, an award program that attracts talented researchers to collaborate with laboratories on progressive research projects in Grenoble.

“More and more, it’s important to have research collaborations not just outside the University of Illinois, but outside of the United States,” Wagoner Johnson said. “It will be exciting to be involved with work going on in Europe and I look forward to expanding my network of collaborators.”

From June 2014 to August of 2015, Wagoner Johnson will live and work in Grenoble, nicknamed the “Capital of the Alps,” before returning home to finish the three-year project on how 3D microenvironments in artificial bone implants influence bone regeneration.

“In the big picture, we want to help people who have large bone defects,” Wagoner Johnson said. “For example, if they were in a car accident and lost part of their jaw, our work could help those people get function and form back.

To do that, we need to come up with new materials that the body likes and that will help regenerate bone. And to do that, we need to understand how cells interact with those materials.” To date, her research team has discovered that multiscale porosity in the scaffold of an artificial implant significantly enhances bone regeneration. The scaffold, they found, generates capillary forces that are able to draw cells from larger pores into micropores, where the cells produce bone.

“We can describe the physics and show that the cells go into the micropores, but we haven’t done the study yet that makes that direct link between the cells being in the micropores and the bone growth,” Wagoner Johnson said. “We think having these cells in the micropores is important, but we don’t know why.”

Using a special 3D printer, Wagoner Johnson and her collaborators plan to print scaffolds with irregularly shaped pores to study how the cells react to different microenvironments inside the scaffolds.

These new scaffolds may eliminate or reduce the need for costly growth factors that have been known to cause adverse side effects in patients.

Wagoner Johnson will work closely with her program host Catherine Picart, a biomedical engineering professor at the Grenoble Institute of Technology. She will also work with three additional research groups, which all together include an expert in polyelectrolyte films, cell mechanics, and biology as well as a researcher whose work involves the 3D printer that will be used to modify the microstructures within the scaffold.

The award also supports a post-doctoral associate for two years and provides some funds for a sabbatical salary, travel, and materials and supplies. She is in the process of identifying a post-doc for this position.

This won’t be her first time living abroad. Wagoner Johnson also lived in France during her junior year in high school while her father, a material scientist at The Ohio State University, was on sabbatical.

“That’s when I decided that I wanted to be an engineer,” she said. “So I know that living abroad can be a completely life changing experience. It puts you out of your comfort zone. I think that is always a time that you can grow.”

It’s an experience that she is excited to share with her family who will join her on sabbatical, including her husband Harley Johnson, Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering at Illinois, and her two children ages 7 and 11.

The NanoSciences Foundation advances nanoscience research by supporting for collaborative and multidisciplinary projects throughout its network, which includes 32 laboratories, 1,000 researchers and 9 technological platforms.


This article originally appeared on the April 2014 Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology newsletter.

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