Tell us how did you end up in such an offbeat unconventional and interesting career?
While Tanvi Shroff, MS ’16, was earning her master’s degree in the ChemBE department at John Hopkins University (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering), she realized what she wanted to do with her career: use microfabrication techniques to create biodegradable, biocompatible materials and products.
What do you do?
Now an engineer at Emulate, Inc., a Boston company that produces organs-on-chips, that is exactly what she does. Shroff uses her strong background in chemical modification to help her group develop chips that contain organ-specific cells and a system of instrumentation to keep them alive, along with apps and other devices to interface the various products. Emulate’s partners include biologists and other scientists tackling medical issues like asthma and Inflammatory Bowel Disease—as well as representatives of the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries—all of whom are seeking human-relevant systems on which to test medicines, foods, and products.
“Microfabrication is a low-cost, high-accuracy technology,” Shroff says. “While it’s been used in the semiconductor industry for years, it’s only recently been applied to the biomedical field. And its potential in biomedical engineering really struck me as something that could be groundbreaking.”
Tell us about your background and your education
Shroff chose ChemBE after earning her BS in chemical engineering at the Institute of Chemical Technology (UDCT) in Mumbai, her hometown. Between her grandmother, a physician, and a father and grandfather who manufactured industrial mixers, she’d become interested in biomedical chemistry during her childhood, growing fascinated in middle school with genetic engineering and the process of manipulating single-celled organisms to create different molecules.
During her senior year of college, Shroff took a course in biomaterials and decided to continue in that direction. Of all the master’s programs she considered, she found that Johns Hopkins offered the best opportunities for the interdisciplinary and translational research she craved. In her ChemBE lab, she tackled projects exploring the use of thermoresponsive materials in drug delivery systems, helped to write a review article, and mentored two high-school girls through the Whiting School’s Women in Science and Engineering program.
How was the experience at John Hopkins?
When Shroff embarked on her job hunt, she found a multitude of resources within the department’s network of faculty and alums. “Hopkins was a really good launch pad for me into industry,” she says. For students in her shoes, she recommends finding a company they like and doing a little research to identify an alum there, who she says will no doubt be happy to help out with expertise and advice. “It’s an inspiring set of alumni,” Shroff says. “A cool group of people who have done really amazing things.”
Besides her chemical engineering and microfabrication skills, Shroff says she took an important mindset with her from her ChemBE experience. While she used to believe that she could only gain expertise in a topic by taking a course or earning a certificate, she came to realize that she could often learn just as much by diving in, researching, and “doing” it; during her thesis research, when she wondered if a certain material would be biocompatible, she followed her adviser’s advice to “just put some in cell culture and find out.” That mindset also includes a belief in the “impossible”—she and her fellow lab members learned that creativity has no bounds when grappling with ideas or problems.
“We were never discouraged from being ridiculous when it comes to ideas,” she says.