Profiles in BME

David R. Maestas, Jr.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a 1st year Biomedical Engineering PhD student currently rotating in Dr. Jennifer Elisseeff’s laboratory at the Translational Tissue Engineering Center (TTEC). I just started my PhD program in August 2016. All of my current research work involves investigating how the immune system can be modulated through various bio-collaborative scaffolds to induce pro-regenerative responses to injury. My hope is to one day design therapeutic treatments that help induce tissue and organ regeneration.

What does your prior academic background look like?

Before coming here, I studied biomedical engineering at The University of Arizona. While my emphasis was biomedical engineering, my other studies heavily emphasized cellular biology and biochemistry. I came straight from undergraduate studies into my graduate program. However, before I even started my undergraduate studies, I came from industry. I grew up in a first-generation low-income household, so after high school I didn’t have much direction. Instead, I went directly into entry-level employment and worked my way up the chain.

What kinds of jobs did you have before going to college?

I think the most notable employment experience I’ve had was my time serving as a general manager in industry. I was in charge of teams of 30-40 employees, and I learned a great deal during those years. I think those experiences ultimately greatly enhance my abilities, but it’s often difficult to go from being the person who is always in charge to the new person with no authority. My experiences provide me a different perspective than many others, but very often it is limited to industry. In that regard, graduate research is very humbling.

What made you want to pursue graduate research?

I did it out of what I consider a pure love of learning. My entire life I’ve been a very curious person. I remember always getting myself into trouble as a kid because of that curiosity. I’d always try to take apart electronics, put them back together, and push any random button I saw. It took many years until I learned to channel that curiosity into more constructive means. After doing very well in management positions, I hit a wall. I realized that while I was good at what I was doing, it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed or saw as a passion. After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to resign and get an education. That journey has evolved into a deep passion for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.

What do you feel makes you unique from the rest of the scientific community?

There are times when I feel as if the answer to that is ‘everything’. While I don’t tend to see race or ethnicity very much, I am one of the very few Hispanic males here at Hopkins. Beyond that, I am unique in that I am a very different thinker than most people I know and work with. My way of processing information typically involves trying to pick out patterns and trends hidden within large data sets, regardless if they are qualitative or quantitative. While most classes will focus on getting students to memorize enormous amounts of material or learning traditional engineering problem-solving, my instinctive approach is to first understand the greater picture at hand. Only then do the arduous details make sense to me. While that probably sounds a little odd, this thinking style has provided me with an ability to really think outside the box. I very often find solutions that are original and different.

What challenges have overcome to get to where you are now?

Can I answer that with saying everything in my life?! No, I’m just playing. One of the hardest challenges to overcome was all the changes that I had to make to attend college, and now graduate school. While most students can step directly into college and graduate school in a sequential manner, my journey was akin to ripping up and re-laying an entire foundation. Going to college meant finding the funding, the time, the energy, and the patience to press forward through sheer force of willpower. While many students have well educated family/support systems that can help finance them, coach them, and provide for them, my family could only really be emotionally supportive. In the darkest of times, I had only my passion to guide me and help press me forward. These past few years I’ve also had my fiancée, Ashlie, to help keep me sane. She has been my rock, and moved with me here to Baltimore.

Last Question: What is your view on diversity and how do you think the scientific community needs to better engage with diversity?

I think diversity is a crucial component to successful innovation. Whether people like it or not, our world and cultures have gotten where it now specifically because of the rich diversity of life. Diversity is the natural expression of life itself. Diversity harbors new minds, new changes, and new perspectives that can solve problems in ways no other system can. While I cannot speak to the politics of diversity, what I can say is that there are vast advantages to having a diverse pool of minds working together. There will be challenges, but the rewards far outweigh them. I think the scientific community is on the right track. A major project I have been a part of is JHU’s new collaboration with P-TECH, a pipeline program that seeks to pair JHU PhD students as mentors with Baltimore City high school students. P-TECH, working together with local Baltimore programs, will help connect diverse students to higher education and employment opportunities.