Bone research particularly important ‘as our society ages’

25 Apr 2023

Dr Cynthia Coleman. Image: University of Galway

University of Galway’s Dr Cynthia Coleman is developing innovative methods to support bone repair and other treatments. At the same time, she aims to be ‘a source of support and encouragement’ for her students.

Seamus Heaney’s gentle love poem, Scaffolding, ends with the lines: “Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall / Confident that we have built our wall”. Heaney uses the builder’s support structure as a metaphor for building strong bonds in a relationship. Dr Cynthia Coleman is neither a scaffolder nor a poet (not publicly anyway) though her work deals with an especially important kind of scaffolding.

Coleman leads of team of researchers who have developed an innovative method for testing the use of coral scaffolds to aid in the treatment of bone damage and other injuries. Coral, more commonly associated with reefs, is similar to human bone and has great therapeutic potential.

Coleman received a PhD in developmental biology and teratology from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, US. She then undertook a postdoctoral fellowship at the US National Institutes of Health, before transitioning into industry to take up a role as a senior scientist at Johnson & Johnson.

Since 2007, Coleman has worked at the University of Galway. She is a lecturer in cellular manufacturing and therapy and directs the MSc in this discipline. She spoke to about her research.

‘At each step of my career, I was lucky enough to have a role model, a mentor and a cheerleader’

Tell us about your current research.

Currently, I am leading a collaborative team designing a novel way to track and measure the formation of bone in a lab. Our team aims to use these methods to test the potential of coral scaffolds, combined with progenitor cells, to treat people with bone injuries or other damage, for example from tumour removal.

Coral has a similar architecture, chemistry and strength as bone, making it an attractive material to use in repairing or reconstructing bone. Through this project, we will develop high throughput rapid assessment methods for biocompatibility and bone-forming potential, which will shorten the time to clinical trials for new orthopaedics scaffolds. Such new methods are also important in the phasing out of animal testing for new medical devices.

Our team at the university consists of experts in 3D bioprinting, cell culture, molecular biology, bone biology and imaging.  We collaborate with Zoan BioMed, who sustainably grow tropical coral in their cutting-edge facility in Galway. The project is funded by Zoan BioMed and Enterprise Ireland through the Innovation Partnership scheme.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Engaging in translational science in orthopaedics (bone biology) is of particular importance now, as our society ages and there is a rise in pathologies that affect bone health (eg diabetes). It is my aim that our laboratory findings will result in technologies that stimulate the repair of difficult-to-heal fractures, thereby reducing an individual’s pain, increasing their mobility and restoring their quality of life.

I also prioritise the development of highly skilled, multidisciplinary, inspired, creative young scientists in our research programme. I view our research team, and laboratory infrastructure, as an incubation hub for early-career scientists ranging from transition year students to postdoctoral fellows.

When hosting young STEM-interested students within our team, the elusive ‘scientist’ becomes a real person with a tangible career path, enabling students to envision their own path forward.  When postgraduate and postdoctoral fellows join the lab, our team collectively supports them, both in their scientific investigations and in career development.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Undoubtedly, my interest in research came from a series of enthusiastic and supportive teachers starting in secondary school and continuing through my PhD.

My secondary school biology teacher, George Mehler, nurtured my interest (and that of my friends) in the natural sciences with his creativity, time and energy. My undergraduate professors, Donna Bozzone and Arthur Hessler, sparked my curiosity in developmental biology lectures and taught me critical-thinking skills.

It was during my BSc that I had my first experience with Prof Hessler in conducting independent research and my first opportunity to publish.

Prof Rocky Tuan, my PhD supervisor, gave me an environment to develop as a scientist and launch a career. He was a constant source of encouragement while also focusing my attention on scientific ethics and integrity.

At each step of my career, I was lucky enough to have a role model, a mentor and a cheerleader. I hope to be the same source of support and encouragement to the students that pass through my own research team.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

My greatest challenge was transitioning from industry to academic. My peers who remained consistently in academia had a head start on generating preliminary data, resulting in a greater number of publications and were able to take advantage of grant funding that was targeted at early-career scientists immediately out of their PhDs.

My career path included an intermediate stage in industry, which leaves me playing catch-up with regard to scientific metrics. However, that time in industry has been fundamental in developing my skills in project management, budgeting, collaboration and networking.

These transferrable skills have been instrumental in establishing successful long-term collaborations with multinational companies, small to medium enterprises, interdisciplinary academics and in launching an industry-focused MSc course. This unique combination of experiences has been instrumental in establishing and developing my teaching and research career.

How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

My favourite way to engage future scientists is through Reel Life Science. Reel Life Science invites primary and secondary school students or youth organisations to submit a three-minute video describing a scientific concept.

I have the great pleasure of supporting this amazing outreach initiative by reviewing the videos. This programme gives students the opportunity to use their creativity, to collaborate with their friends and to explore a scientific concept in more depth.

Their videos let them have fun, express their personality and use their creativity while stepping into the world of scientific communication. It is so much fun watching them shine.

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