Engineering at Nebraska Fall09
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Coming Home, Reaching Out

by Carole Wilbeck

Many faculty members feel right at home with their UNL careers, but not many can say they grew up here.

Angie Pannier

Angie Pannier, '01, assistant professor of Biological Systems Engineering (BSEN), has come full circle in many ways. As an undergrad BSEN major, she was president of the UNL student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers; she is now the group’s faculty adviser. Pannier was an honors student who gave engineering tours for the Dean’s Office, and now her lab is a tour destination.

An early research experience helped chart her course. "In my sophomore year I worked at UNMC in the department of pharmacology, researching a gene postulated to play a role in artherosclerosis, Pannier said. "I loved the work and couldn’t believe I could get paid to learn!

She used that research for her honors thesis. After earning a Goldwater Scholarship and an NSF fellowship, she continued for her master’s degree studies in BSEN at UNL, and then pursued her Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Biological Sciences.

"I was invited back to UNL in 2006 to give an alumni lecture and in spring of 2007 as I completed my Ph.D., I interviewed for an assistant professor position here, Pannier recalled. "I was offered the position just days after my daughter was born. My husband, daughter and I moved back to Nebraska that summer of 2007, and I began building the lab.

Pannier LabThe Pannier Lab includes--from left to right--seated: junior Cady Sargus, senior Heidi Gengenbach, Angela Pannier, graduate student Mary Reiger, junior Quentin Dudley; and standing: graduate student Dipika Singh, research technologist Sarah Plautz, senior Andie Gilkey, graduate student Beth Duensing, junior Stephanie Berger, and freshman Skylar Falter.

"I’ve been working with nucleic acids for a long time now, Pannier summarized. Her current projects are focused on nonviral gene delivery with applications to gene therapy, biotechnology and tissue engineering. Specifically, Pannier and her team are investigating the role of the cellular microenvironment on DNA transfer into cells, and also conduct projects to better understand the role of endogenous signaling pathways in nonviral gene transfer. In addition to her work in DNA delivery, Pannier’s group works on tissue engineering projects, designing better scaffolds that help to shape new tissues.

"Tissue engineering applies the principles of engineering and biology to the development of functional substitutes for damaged tissue that restore, maintain or improve tissue function in the medical therapy of diseases. For Pannier, an immediate call to action is the waiting list for organ donations that exceeded 100,000 potential recipients in 2006, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Center with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Much as she works to optimize conditions for nonviral gene delivery and tissue engineering in her research, Pannier has configured a lab environment that is positive and productive. She currently has a lab manager, three graduate students and six undergraduates,and there is currently a waiting list for undergraduates seeking to work with her. Pannier said she feels strongly that undergraduates should gain lab experience—with "projects as well as washing glassware.

"It’s important to me to help (students) grow in their engineering, critical thinking and scientific skills, Pannier said. "I love seeing them succeed. Yet she also recognizes the "mini-business of running a lab, which requires substantial results to continue. Pannier‘s philosophy has become: "do good science and the rest will follow—at a brisk pace.

The classes she teaches have an accelerated approach. In her Introduction to Biomaterials class, a senior elective, Pannier teaches students about designing materials for use with the human body. But since the field is moving so fast, Pannier supplements the textbook with primary literature; the students must immerse themselves in the research articles, participating in weekly "journal clubs. In Pannier’s Tissue Engineering course, a major assignment involves writing an NIH grant proposal, sometimes involving Pannier in five rounds of edits. She also takes time to advise a share of students, and throughout she walks her talk on teaching engineers to communicate.

Collaboration is another strength cultivated in Pannier’s lab. She is part of the promising UNL cross-disciplinary effort on Nutrigenomics. In exploring what shapes nonviral gene delivery, at UNL she accesses multifaceted input, from biomaterial properties to signaling, by collaborating throughout the college and the university.

Ideas and possibilities excite her; at an East Campus luncheon last spring, she sat next to a representative from the USDA’s Meat Animal Research Facility in Clay Center. When Jeremy Miles learned of Pannier’s specialization, he asked her thoughts on a lab challenge with pig embryos. Miles described how embryos were not elongating as they would in natural gestation, which hampered the ability to study embryo development. Pannier suggested the embryos needed to regain a 3-D structure, and has aligned a student researcher in her lab to pursue the premise using expertise in tissue engineering.

"UNL did a great job preparing me, Pannier said. "I’m thrilled to be back.