From developing organs-on-a-chip, to developing film: meet Lian Leng, bioengineer and fashion photographer

February 27, 2018 – When Lian Leng (MIE MASc 1T0, PhD 1T4) was a graduate student at MIE, her research garnered headlines and awards.  Under the supervision of Professor Axel Guenther (MIE), she developed a 3D skin-tissue printer, a technology that could help burn victims and revolutionize burn care.

After Lian graduated from U of T Engineering, she knew she wanted to continue specializing in microfluidics and continue to make an impact with her research. As a lead investigator at Emulate, a biotech company spun out of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, she is working on various organs-on-a-chip platforms, including skin, with the goal of recreating key features of the human body.

Lian is also a published fashion photographer who’s worked for various top modeling agencies, including Elite and Next. She recently spoke to MIE about her research career, and explains how her passion for photography actually has ties to engineering.

Why did you choose to pursue your Master’s and PhD at U of T Engineering?

U of T has an excellent reputation for their graduate program in engineering. At the time I had also heard from my aunt Keryn Lian, who happens to be a professor in Materials Science & Engineering at U of T, of Professor Axel Guenther who was doing some exciting work with microfluidics. I was particularly interested in fluid mechanics and microfluidics seemed to be an exciting and fairly new field.

My Master’s thesis consisted in the development of a microfluidics-based 3D printer for biomaterials and tissue engineering applications. The project was fascinating and opportunities endless so I decided to continue on with my PhD under the mentorship of Professor Guenther.

Can you explain the research you conducted here?

My work consisted in the design of a 3D printer using microfluidics, a platform where microscale channels enable the transport of various fluids with a high level of precision. The technology was applied for the printing of soft biomaterials for tissue engineering applications and has led to a collaboration with Sunnybrook Hospital where we developed skin graft for burn wounds.

What made your time at MIE memorable?

I’ve made great friends and met passionate and dedicated scientists who have really inspired me and pushed me to work hard through thick and thin.

How do you think your engineering education has prepared you to work towards and achieve your career goals?

I think my graduate degree has really prepared me to be a critical thinker and always strive for innovation. You really need to keep pushing boundaries but also be dedicated and patient.  Research is an iterative process, and experiments will fail numerous times before they succeed. I think that understanding failure and making the most out of it has really been key in shaping me into the scientist I am today.

After graduating, you were a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and now you’re working as a lead investigator at Emulate Inc., a biotechnology company. Can you take us through your engineering career journey? What decisions led you to where you are now in your career?

After two summer internships in consulting engineering at Hatch during my undergraduate degree, I knew that I wanted to switch to life sciences and truly make an impact on society.  Microfluidics was the field of choice as it is extremely interdisciplinary and has allowed me to learn fundamental biology and apply my 3D printer to the development of human skin grafts.

After I graduated, I had the chance to meet Dr. Donald E. Ingber, founder of the Wyss institute at a conference in Washington. He was looking for a postdoctoral fellow to develop a human skin model using their organs-on-chip technology. I jumped on the occasion and my plan was to develop the platform within a year and join Emulate, a biotech company spun out of the Wyss Institute. It has definitely been an incredible journey and I feel extremely privileged.

Tell us about your job at Emulate.

I’m currently a lead investigator at Emulate and am developing various organs-on-chip platforms including skin, with the goal of recreating key features of the human body, enabling us to understand and predict various disease states and responses to drugs.

What advice would you give to young graduate alumni, or grad students completing their degrees this spring, who want to continue making an impact with their research? 

I would say to keep your mind open to learn and look for what really excites you. Often enough, I have had moments of doubt and wondered if specializing in my field was in fact narrowing my career opportunities, when in reality you truly are learning valuable skills that can be applied anywhere you go.

When in doubt, talk to other scientists and see what they do and what inspires them. Conferences have always been an incredible boost for me, mentally and intellectually, and I have always felt reinvigorated after an exciting meeting.

 What are your career goals for the future, both short-term and long-term?

I hope to influence and inspire other scientists, create impact and be an influencer within the company.

You are also an accomplished fashion photographer. Is there anything you learn from engineering that you bring to your art?

I’m probably as passionate about my work as I am with my photography. I have been doing this for over five years now and have worked with numerous modeling agencies such as Next and Elite. One interesting fact is that I shoot exclusively with film.

My engineering background probably played a big role in that choice, since I picked up photography from the simple enjoyment of repairing vintage cameras. I really like the creative process and being limited to a certain number of frames. The digital world has created a sense of immediacy and the expectation that an infinite number of images that can be captured. I’m a strong believer that constraints force you to be more creative, and I think that applies as well to science.