Bria Macklin began her career in chemical and biomolecular engineering during her senior year in high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute when she interned in a lab at Johns Hopkins University. There was just one problem: “Initially, high school was a struggle for me because I always dreamed of being an actress,” says Macklin.
Her father urged her to pursue science, “and I said ‘OK, but I’m not too happy about it,’” she recalls wit a laugh, now calling it “the best decision I could have made.”
Since the high school internship, Macklin has become an award-winning, published scholar and graduate researcher in the Gerecht Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, where she is currently completing her Ph.D. in chemical and biomedical engineering. She is a Class of 2021 Siebel Scholar, an award bestowed to about 90 students from the world’s leading graduate schools.
“My research involves using stem cells to create or regenerate blood vessels,” she says. “In the lab, we are able to differentiate stem cells into vascular cells over eight days. We can then use these cells in hydrogels and watch them form vessel-like structures.” She adds that the cells can also be used as a cellular therapy to regenerate blood vessels in animal models.
“My Ph.D. has been aimed at understanding how these cells innately are able to create these blood vessels and how we as engineers can control the process” says Macklin, who was scheduled to defend her thesis on March 4.
Dr. Sharon Gerecht, director of the Institute for Nanobiotechnology, describes Macklin’s early contributions in her lab working with a graduate student to determine appropriate three-dimensional culture environments for tube formation by vascular cells. Gerecht notes that Macklin was “quick to learn new techniques” when given a project and “took it on with a tenacious spirit.”
Gerecht says Macklin followed the progression of tube formations subjected to a variety of chemical modulators and assessed the results. That work resulted in Macklin, as an undergraduate, being credited as co-author on the research, which was published in 2014 in Methods in Molecular Biology and titled “Derivation and Network Formation of Vascular Cells from Human Pluripotent Stem Cells.”
While she was an undergraduate at North Carolina A&T State University, Macklin participated in the National Institutes of Health-funded MARC (Maximizing Access to Research Careers) Program, which fueled her intense interest in research.
“This program gave me the opportunity to conduct research during the school year, as well as during the summers,” Macklin recalls.
Despite her own achievements and awards, Macklin is proudest of the accomplishments of the students she has mentored, including those who have gone on to win scientific awards and enter Ph.D. programs. “This means so much to me, as I can directly see my impact on science by fostering a love for research in my mentees,” she says, adding that another meaningful activity has been her involvement in the relaunch of the Homewood Black Graduate Association at JHU.
“When I began my Ph.D., there was little to no community for Black graduate students at Hopkins, yet there was a dire need for it. Together with another graduate student, we were able to re-launch the organization and create a space for Black graduate students to come together,” she explains. Last year the group received a $50,000 grant from the university to host professional development events for Black graduate students.
Gerecht predicts continued advancement for Macklin in her field of research.
“[Her] dedication to excellence, both in and outside of the lab, are clear indicators to me that she will be a successful and highly impactful scientist,” Gerecht says. “I believe in Bria and her continued growth and the contributions she will make to the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.”
Bria L. Macklin
Institution: Johns Hopkins University
Graduate Program: Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Education: B.S, Bioengineering, North Carolina A&T State University
Mentor: Dr. Sharon Gerecht, Johns Hopkins University
This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2021 edition of Diverse and is one in a series of profiles about this year’s inaugural class of Rising Graduate Scholars. Read the rest of them here.