Dr. Stephanie Willerth is a Full Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Victoria and the Chief Executive Officer of Axolotl Biosciences. She is our Women in 3D Printing Guest #278!

Stephanie, Could you let us know briefly about your background and your journey into Additive Manufacturing?

I am a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Victoria where I run an internationally recognized research group that investigates novel ways of engineering tissues using stem cells.

We have been using a variety of bioprinters in combination with our novel bioinks to produce human tissue models from stem cells.

Our work in Additive Manufacturing started with a collaboration with Aspect Biosystems – a Vancouver-based bioprinting company – in 2016. Since then, our work in this area has really taken off as our team has made significant advances in bioprinting human neural tissue models for drug screening.

Our collaboration with Aspect Biosystems was awarded the University of Victoria’s REACH Award for Excellence in Research Partnerships in 2020.

Can you share more about the Centre for Biomedical Research and the Biomedical Engineering program?

I currently direct our undergraduate Biomedical Engineering program here at the University of Victoria. I was also the founding director of this program when it started in 2012.

The program allows students to combine a passion for biology and engineering while gaining practical hands-on skills. We currently offer a popular class in 3D bioprinting human tissues.

The Centre for Biomedical Research promoted health-related research at the University of Victoria – we hosted events like the Victoria Health Hackathon where the community would come together to solve challenges from the health authority and the Café Scientifique series – where scientists and engineers give lay versions of their talks to the general public.

To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?

My team has made amazing progress in bioprinting functional neural tissues from human stem cells. Our tissues replicate some of the functionality seen in vivo, making them a potential tool for drug screening.

Here are some links to our work that is open access in case readers want to learn more:

Do you have any (fun or not) stories about your career to share with us?

Starting a spin-off company (Axolotl Biosciences) has been an exciting journey.

My co-founders (Laura de la Vega and Laila Abelseth) are amazing, and our entire team is dedicated to making 3D bioprinting human tissues accessible to a wide variety of users. It has also been fun running my research lab over the past 10 years and being able to mentor so many students who have gone onto great things.

Have you run into any challenges from being a woman 3D Printing?

The 3D printing community, especially in bioprinting, has been welcoming. There are still some systemic barriers that come along with being a woman in engineering, especially in academia and leadership positions.

What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

I think Carbon3D is doing some really interesting work using their 3D printing technologies for diverse applications.

What advice do you have for women looking to get started in 3D Printing?

I would suggest getting a 3D printer or finding a local Makerspace that has 3D printers. There is also a lot of great free software out there to download and plenty of tutorials to help beginners learn how to do computer-aided design.

In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with Additive Manufacturing?

I think events like the TIPE conference held in January that showcase women working in the field show the possible careers in the field of additive manufacturing.

Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?

Axolotl Biosciences will be launching our TissuePrint bioink this summer and we are also looking for beta testers for our second generation of bioinks.

Favorite 3D tool?

I like all of our bioprinters – I’m excited to see what my lab gets up to with the LumenX from Cellink.

Favorite moment in your day job?

My lab 3D printed me shot glasses shaped like axolotls for my birthday.

What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years?

Bioprinting miniature brains that contain vasculature would be a great achievement in replicating human biology.

Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview?

Karolina Valente would be great!

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