Laura Elomaa started off studying bio-information technology at Otaniemi. The program had a strong multi-disciplinary focus, being a joint program of three different Aalto schools – the Schools of Science, Electrical Engineering and Chemical Engineering. In her studies, Laura became well acquainted with the mechanisms of living tissue. In addition to chemistry and bio-sciences, the studies included a good dose of physics and mathematics and also some coding.
In her third year, Laura wrote her bachelor's thesis on polymer technology, taking as her topic the use of intelligent biodegradable drug release systems. Polymers had interested her already back in primary school, and now their use for biological and medical purposes became a focus of interest.
3D-Printing in Holland
Just before the start of her diploma studies, in 2009, Laura considered applying for a student exchange in Holland, where it was then possible to print tissue scaffolds with a 3D printer. Her diploma topic was related to the use of biodegradable polymers in tissue engineering. This diploma work led to the publication of her first academic article, and Laura then returned to Finland, finished off her dissertation and graduated as a Master of Science in Technology. She worked in the School of Chemical Engineering as a research assistant, obtained a research position, and started work on her doctoral dissertation.
Skype interview with Stanford University
While working on her doctoral dissertation, Laura realised that she would also like to incorporate cells in the tissue support structures that she was modelling. This was not possible in Aalto University, so she made contact by email with a professor at the School of Medicine in Stanford University. She received a reply already the following day with an invitation to a Skype interview.
Laura left for California at the start of 2013 to continue her doctoral work in Stanford University. She worked there with a research group in the Orthopaedic Surgery Department of the university's School of Medicine until the end of March 2015. Studying in top-level universities overseas is expensive, but funding can be sought from Finnish foundations. In Laura's opinion there was a good range of funding opportunities, but she had to be active in seeking them out and applying for them herself.
Working in the university's medical laboratories were researchers from a number of different fields, including biologists, chemists, mechanical engineers and surgeons. What united them all was their focus on tissue engineering. Laura's was mostly working very independently, but her supervising professor was very active and inquired regularly about her work.
In her research work, Laura synthesised new biodegradable polymers, printed 3D tissue engineering scaffolds from them and studied their compatibility with cells. She created computer models of the 3D tissue structures and studied, among other things, their vein networks. While designing a new tissue support structure for printing, she considered matters such as the shape and porousness of the target tissue and what kind of cell type it represented. For the 3D printing she synthesised both mechanically strongly polymers as well as water-soluble soft hydrogel polymers, which she combined with cells in the printing phase.
A passion for presentation!
In the laboratories the researchers, Laura included, presented their work in weekly meetings. Her experience was that research at Stanford was dynamic, with quick and bold brainstorming of new ideas unimpeded by the fear of failure. Side-tracks led here and there, along with all kinds of ideas, experiments and quick tests. Through these, however, new possibilities opened up, and there was always help on hand when needed, always someone who could give advice.
'Plans were practical. We thought about how to take better care of patients, what kind of application was needed and how the research could be utilised in real-life medical problem areas. In the US, emphasis is placed already in the doctoral stage on the importance of practical application.'
Ms Elomaa is already close to finishing her post-graduate studies. Her doctoral dissertation 'Synthesis of biodegradable photocrosslinkable polymers for stereolithography-based 3D fabrication of tissue engineering scaffolds and hydrogels' has been approved for publication in the Aalto University School of Chemical Technology. In the future, Laura intends to deepen her understanding of polymers and the interaction between tissues and broaden her skills in the commercialisation of research findings.
The articles published and number of citations can be viewed online: