Faculty Spotlight: Regenerative Bioengineer, Ngan Huang

February 6, 2024

Ngan Huang, PhD is Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery and, by courtesy, of Chemical Engineering. Her research investigates the interactions between stem cells and extracellular matrix microenvironment for engineering cardiovascular tissues to treat cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases. Dr. Huang’s career has been dedicated to empowering young researchers to gain footing within academic spaces, as her career was deeply influenced by one of her high school mentors who inspired her to lead a life of mentorship and positive influence. Dr. Huang seeks to offer the same support to others and continue to create those opportunities in her own lab, CVI, and Stanford as a whole. Dr. Huang is a dedicated faculty member, mentor, and researcher who is making large strides in the field of biomedical research while continuing to explore the unknown – like she first started as a young high school researcher. To learn a little more about Dr. Huang, please continue reading.

What led you to pursuing a PhD in bioengineering and obtaining a faculty position here at Stanford?

I was very fortunate to have incredibly supportive mentors during my training and throughout my entire career – from as young as high school through graduate training. My mentors have always influenced me in terms of getting very excited about the field of Bioengineering and its potential applications in improving human health. Their support also encouraged my enthusiasm to return the favor for the next generation. I knew that I needed a PhD in order to have the opportunity to mentor young researchers in the field and to make a difference in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases.

When I first started my postdoctoral work at Stanford, my goal was to gain more insight into the clinical and translational aspects of bioengineering, which was why I pursued a postdoctoral fellowship in cardiovascular medicine as opposed to an engineering discipline. At the end of my postdoctoral training, I realized that there were incredible opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations. Stanford provided an optimal place to do multi-disciplinary research. For example, the engineering school and medical school are within walkable distance, which was a really unique feature that stood out to me.

What has been the most remarkable experience in your career and how did it inform your current perspective in your work?

One thing that I think everyone in the field of regenerative medicine research will agree on is that iPSCs inherently changed everything in the field of regenerative medicine. Up until the ability to create iPSCs, it was nearly impossible to try to engineer tissues other than through using primary-isolated cardiovascular cells, or using cell lines that are immortalized. In the field of tissue engineering, this concept of cell source was a very big problem until iPSCs were developed. Suddenly we no longer have a limit in sourcing cells  to create cell-based therapies or engineer tissues. Although iPSCs are not quite perfect yet for translational applications, it has allowed us to be able to generate numerous cardiovascular lineages that are patient specific in large quantities. Also, now we're able to tackle the other remaining bottlenecks - which really have to do with technology from a materials standpoint, as well as big data - to really understand how cells are responding to their environments at a very high throughput and molecular level.

Is there any advice you would give to young researchers – particularly young women – reading this article?

Back when I was in college at MIT as an undergraduate researcher, I was really influenced by working under a postdoctoral researcher named Shulamit Levenberg who was a mother of several kids. One of the most significant things she told me was not to let my career get into the way of having a family. Being that she was a living example of that, it affirmed that things will eventually work out even if it may not be easy in the beginning. Being able to see her successfully juggle her life as a postdoctoral fellow as well as a mother was inspiring and, ultimately, influenced me to continue pursuing the career I wanted without giving up other elements of my life. I took that advice to heart: I have four kids of my own and now juggle those responsibilities of having a family as well as a career simultaneously.

Who do you consider your most important professional role models and why?

There are so many different names that come to mind. Of course, my mentors Drs. Joe Wu and Joseph Woo played a very big role in my time here – as well as many others here at Stanford. If I had to bring one to mind, it would be my very first research mentor when I was in high school while participating in a summer research internship program. Dr. Sunny Luke was a research pathologist at a hospital in Brooklyn called Maimonides Medical Center. Participating in this research experience with Dr. Luke taught me that even as a young high school student, I was completely capable of doing research, to explore the unknown, and to hopefully make a difference in the biomedical research community. Dr. Luke taught me everything from the very basics of how to hold a pipette and how to count cells, to continuing in the field of research. In some ways, if I had not had that experience, I may not have entered this field of medicine or science at all. To him, I imagine it was just another summer research experience, but to me it was life-changing, and it really defined the entirety of my career trajectory in research.

Dr. Ngan Huang