Tissue engineering and stem cell expert Leo Q. Wan, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has received a prestigious Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Award from the March of Dimes.

The March of Dimes, founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. Today, research investments are vital to the March of Dimes mission to prevent birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality.

Leo Wan

Leo Wan

The Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Awards are funded in a program specifically designed to support scientists just embarking on their independent research careers. Created in 1973 and named for the first March of Dimes chairman and president, this program provides funding to young investigators to start their own research projects on topics related to the March of Dimes mission.

Wan will use the two-year, $150,000 grant to accelerate research into tissue development and regeneration. Specifically, he is investigating the biomolecular processes of tissues and organs that develop asymmetrically, and the role of this asymmetry in several genetic diseases and birth defects.

“Left-right asymmetry” is a fundamental characteristic of living organisms, Wan said. Examples include the twining of climbing plants, the helices of snail shells, and the bilateral asymmetry of the human body. He is researching new ways, using high-throughput screening technology to observe and collect images of life-right asymmetry in specific types of cells. Once developed, such a system could be a powerful tool for identifying environmental factors associated with birth defects.

In 2013, Wan received a five-year, $400,000 grant as part of a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER Award is given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers and is one of NSF’s most competitive awards, placing emphasis on high-quality research and novel education initiatives.

Also in 2013, Wan was named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences program is highly competitive, awarding recipients $240,000 over four years to pursue their projects without direction or restriction.

A dynamic young voice in the field of biotechnology and biomedical engineering, Wan has been honored by several other organizations for his research. In 2012, he was recognized with an American Heart Association Scientist Development Grant, the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering Conference Rising Star award from the Biomedical Engineering Society, and the Young Investigator Award from the Frontiers in Bioengineering Workshop.