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On Jan. 1, Princess Imoukhuede, PhD, joined the University of Washington as the Hunter and Dorothy Simpson Endowed Chair and Professor in Bioengineering.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she earned a PhD in bioengineering at Caltech, the first African American woman to do so. As a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, she earned the prestigious United Negro College Fund/Merck Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is the recipient of many other awards, such as the Biomedical Engineering Society 2021 Mid-Career Award and the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program Award. In 2020, she was named one of the 1,000 “inspiring Black scientists” by Cell Mentor.

Imoukhuede joined UW Bioengineering, a joint department in the School of Medicine and College of Engineering, from Washington University in St. Louis, where she was an associate professor of bioengineering and director of diversity initiatives.

UW Bioengineering recently spoke with Imoukhuede about her background, lessons from diversity efforts and opportunities ahead for the department.

What inspired your interest in bioengineering, and what makes it meaningful for you?

I was lucky as a child to be part of different enrichment programs, which exposed me to principles in biology, engineering, math and science. It was through those programs that I first saw girls and other underrepresented students who shared my interests in the STEM disciplines. During my junior year of high school, I was matched to do research at the Midwestern University College of Pharmacy. I worked with chemical engineers to learn the process of drug microencapsulation, which allows drugs to release over time. That’s where my interest in bioengineering started to form, using chemistry and biology principles to solve problems in medicine.

What attracted you to UW Bioengineering? What opportunities excite you here?

There’s a shared passion for research. What has always inspired my interest in bioengineering is the research and the possibility of making high impact discoveries that affect human health. I can think of no better place than UW Bioengineering in terms of having that strength. UW stands out as having breadth as well as depth in each of the major areas of bioengineering. And UW has always been a forerunner in bioengineering as a discipline.

I’ve been very energized to work with everyone I’ve met along the way. It comes from having similar values, a deep culture of respect and collaboration. There’s been a lot of grassroots effort here moving in the direction of diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI], an area in which we have a shared commitment. UW Bioengineering also has a strong record for mentorship, for teaching and for training, and I see these strengths as wonderful opportunities to continue elevating the department in these areas.

What are your first priorities, and what do you envision for the department?

My first priorities are listening and understanding what’s going on in the department. Some important areas in terms of my vision are those that have drawn me here — achieving equity, driving faculty success and supporting innovation.

Tell us about your plans to continue your systems biology research at UW

One research focus is on the VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factors) receptor family of ligands and receptors. They are the primary molecule involved in the process of growth of new blood vessels from pre-existing blood vessels. UW has a strong vascular and cardiovascular tradition, so I’ll be able to work with others to understand this signaling system in several areas, in the brain, heart and lungs. In the area of women’s health, I’m focusing on understanding oxytocin signaling, which is important in labor and delivery, the letdown effect in chest feeding, and understanding how that can be modulated to improve its efficacy in labor and delivery.

The cardiovascular as well as the women’s health research uses systems biology approaches of understanding the environment and the signaling systems, using computational as well as experimental approaches.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges facing bioengineering or bioengineering education today?

Improving DEI in our different universities is on the national agenda. Bioengineering faculty member Kelly Stevens has started a national biomedical engineering UNITE group, looking at what can we do individually and as representatives in our various organizations to move the needle. UW Bioengineering had the foresight to establish a JEDI [Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] committee and create strategic plans early. I see UW Bioengineering as a leader in this space, and there’s an opportunity to continue growing and leading.

Another challenge is that junior faculty are going against a pretty steep funding curve. There’s only so much federal funding to go around. We need to identify inclusive mentoring programs and other resources for junior faculty, ensuring that they have all the tools needed to succeed.

UW Bioengineering is a joint department in the School of Medicine and College of Engineering. What excites you about working across both schools?

Being in both the School of Medicine and the College of Engineering means that we have connections on the ground to faculty within the medical school. There’s an understanding and an appreciation for the needs of engineering to interface with medicine. That’s absolutely necessary for our discipline to continue moving forward.

When engineers collaborate closely with physicians, they learn to speak the language of medicine. This can lead to more practical medical applications and greater impact.

You’ve led diversity initiatives at Washington University and worked with Kelly Stevens and others to call on the NIH to fund Black scientists, among other efforts. What lessons have you learned so far? What are the keys to successful equity partnerships?

It’s important to understand how change occurs. We need communities of practice, spaces where people can trust, make mistakes, be forgiven, so we can all move forward together. These are places where people can have opportunities to question and find answers to their questions. If we keep at the forefront of our minds how our equity work can affect people’s lives, it goes a long way toward helping people get past any fears that might cause them to stall.

It’s important to keep our goals in mind, and to make sure we have people we can go to for advice and guidance when we’re not sure if we’re doing the right thing.

What advice do you have for people interested in expanding their DEI awareness and support in bioengineering?

If you’re a faculty member, connect with the UNITE group, which holds monthly sessions. The Biomedical Engineering Society also has programming throughout the year. For students, there are several student organizations in the department, and the grassroots UW AVELA group creates opportunities for high school students and kids in the region to enter into engineering. Connecting to some of those efforts is a great place to start.

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?

Once people get to know me, they know how much I love tennis. So, if you don’t know me yet, yeah, you’ll find me on that tennis court.

Guest Writer: Lia Unrau. A version of this story originally appeared on the UW Bioengineering page.