Q and A with a molecular engineering graduate student: Olivia Dotson

Filed Under: News

Olivia Dotson headshot

Molecular engineering graduate student Olivia Dotson is not wasting any of her time at UW. The Ypsilanti, Michigan native is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, focused on regeneration in injured or diseased livers. She also volunteers with A Vision for Electronic Literacy & Access (AVELA), Husky Science Communication Initiative, the MolES Graduate Student Association, STEM Pals and the UW chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). Her passion for science is evident not only in her pursuit of a Ph.D. but also in her outreach.

MolES: You have a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan. What interested you in studying biomedical engineering in UW MolE?

Dotson: Moving from chemical engineering to a molecular engineering program was a leap of faith, knowing that this was one of two programs of its kind in the nation. However, I also knew that this interdisciplinary program would give me the flexibility to work in labs spanning chemical engineering, chemistry, materials science and bioengineering. I found in this transition that my background of chemical engineering prepared me well for this program as I already knew how to think like an engineer, but this program has taught me more and more how to think like a scientist.

MolES: You’re working on regenerating liver tissue to help diseased livers—what interested you in this area of research?

Dotson: I have always been interested in the biological and therapeutic applications of engineering. I found that intersection first through development of nanoparticle therapeutics for drug delivery in my undergraduate research, and now I have sought to develop biomaterial therapeutics to regenerate organ tissue. I really became interested in pivoting to the biomaterials space mainly to incorporate elements of 3D printing, design of artificial tissues, and 3D cell culture together to revolutionize therapies and create implantable materials.

Olivia Dotson working in the lab

There is a current “Goldilocks” problem in the field of bioprinting: stiffer printed materials afford more complex geometries and higher structural resolution while softer materials “make cells happy” and promote greater cell proliferation, remodeling, morphogenesis, and self-organization. My long-term goal is to build a dynamic and mechanically tunable platform for 3D printing high-resolution vasculature in “stiff” liver tissues that can then be softened to enable cellular remodeling. Developing this highly tunable platform will effectively close the gap in suitable materials for 3D printing biological structures. I have been working to develop the degradable chemistries for the biomaterial system in the DeForest Lab. Then I will be integrating this as a bio- “ink” in a high-resolution platform for 3D printing hydrogels as well as testing the cytocompatibility with hepatic (liver) cells in the Stevens Lab

This new approach to create bioprinted hydrogel materials, “cells in gels,” with tunable mechanical properties will yield high resolution, cytocompatible, and implantable biomaterials to treat injured liver tissue as a bridge or alternative to transplantation this can essentially serve as a patch to trigger regeneration in diseased liver tissues.

MolES: What interested you in helping start the UW chapter of the NOBCChE?

Dotson: It was very coincidental for me when I heard that we didn’t have a NOBCChE chapter at UW, because I had been involved in starting up a NOBCChE chapter just a year earlier at my undergraduate institution, the University of Michigan. So, when I was approached to help with the effort here, I was excited to help and I was already familiar with the process of setting up meetings and recruiting students across campus. Our team of students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty were drawn together by postdoctoral fellow Tam’ra-Kay Francis and director of education in MolES and professor of chemistry Alshakim Nelson to establish the first UW NOBCChE chapter that was formalized in 2023. We have had our kickoff meeting and are planning to host events for the chemistry, chemical engineering, and broader STEM communities in the near future. To date we have had our kickoff meeting and hosted events for free professional headshots, career panels and study hour sessions. 

The national organization’s mission is to “to build an eminent cadre of successful diverse global leaders in STEM and advance their professional endeavors by adding value to their academic, development, leadership, and philanthropic endeavors throughout the life cycle of their careers.” Our chapter’s goal is to connect with Black students in adjacent fields across campus as a part of a wider effort to enrich the experience of Black undergraduates, graduate students, post docs and faculty at UW through community building.

How do you juggle your research with all the extracurricular work?

Dotson running in race

I would say that I am still finding my ideal balance between my research and extracurricular work. I am the type of person who feeds her passions, but it becomes difficult to follow every path that interests me both inside and outside of the lab. Currently my “juggling” is more like an “ebb and flow” where my efforts tend more heavily to one or the other depending on the demands of my life. Regardless, I will always make time for the extracurriculars that are important to me particularly involving science outreach, like with the Husky Science Communication Initiative, where I’ve led an in-class workshop introducing the scientific method for middle school students, addressing questions and introducing technical concepts in an accessible and interactive way. It allowed me to share in the joy of introducing young people to science. These outreach experiences have continued to refresh my own joy of science and this work has become a vision of mine to continue beyond graduate school. 

Do you know what you want to pursue after graduate school?

My goal is to pursue a research career as an engineer in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industry where I hope to become an influential leader and an expert in my field. To achieve this goal, I want to use my time in graduate school to work tirelessly in making discoveries to advance knowledge in my field, while also taking advantage of all of the resources available at my institution for my own personal and professional development. As I progress in my research and build my name in the scientific community, I will hopefully become a role model for new trainees and prospective students. My efforts in graduate school to make these dreams a reality will lay the foundation for me to have a productive and fulfilling career as a world-renowned scientist, visionary, leader, and role model showing others in my community that science needs people like me to make real change.