Šeila Selimović

Seila Selimovic2

Šeila Selimovic, elected to Sigma Xi in 2004, has used microfluidics technology to investigate tissue regeneration and particle organization. She hopes gaining a better understanding of proteins and cells using microscale technologies can lead to improved medical diagnostics and treatments.

Tell us about your educational background.

I studied physics at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and received my PhD in condensed matter physics from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. My first foray into physics research in college was a project centering on the rheological properties of colloidal gels. I decided to continue exploring soft matter in graduate school and was assigned to a project involving microfluidics. For my dissertation research I studied the phase behavior of proteins and polymers using microfluidics. Microfluidic technologies are a highly interdisciplinary field, combining physics, chemistry, biology, and various engineering disciplines. These technologies are used to control minuscule amounts of fluids and suspensions inside a miniaturized system. Microfluidic devices are often compared to computer chips, but with liquids and particles being pushed around instead of electrons.

What research have you done since then?

The interdisciplinary nature of my PhD thesis led me to a postdoc position in biological engineering at Harvard Medical School, where I focused on Organ-on-a-Chip projects: I developed long-term viable mammalian tissues (liver and cardiac tissues) inside microfluidic devices containing biochemical sensors and tried to understand their functional response to drugs and toxicants. I am also interested in the biological response of stem cells to chemical gradients, and have developed high throughput microfluidic platforms that facilitate these studies. However, for the moment I am working on science diplomacy and policy issues at the U.S. Department of State as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and, hence, conducting a different type of research.


Tell us about something we might see in our daily lives that directly correlates to your work.

My latest research was in the field of biological engineering and therefore highly applied. My goal is to gain results that could potentially contribute to the development of new or improved medical diagnostics and treatment approaches. For example, studying the behavior of functional tissues in vitro could help us design more effective drugs and vaccines that have fewer side effects, even before the stage of animal testing and clinical studies. The topic of my PhD work—protein crystallization—is relevant for a similar reason: Understanding the behavior of various proteins in our body is essential to understanding disease development. For example, eye cataracts can develop when proteins in the eye lens change from a single-phase state to a liquid-liquid state. Hence, our experiments are designed to test the response of proteins to elevated temperature and other physiological changes. This knowledge will hopefully aid in the development of cataract treatments.


Give us an example of how multidisciplinary research directly contributed to your work.

My PhD research was formally in the field of condensed matter physics, but it entailed a large component of biological research (e.g. isolating and purifying proteins), as well as chemistry (tuning the interactions between proteins and their environment in vitro) and engineering (designing and building the microfluidic device). Similarly, as a postdoc I employed mechanical, electrical, and biological engineering skills to fabricate the microfluidic platforms. In that, my background in fluid mechanics was essential.


What are your thoughts on the future of STEM education?

Having attended schools in several countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Germany, and United States—I think that the current STEM education, or at least science education before college, could be greatly improved without large financial investments.  While having access to the most modern equipment in lab classes is a great benefit for students, I think that being exposed to science as much as possible in our daily lives is as important. This can easily be accomplished by teachers relating the class material to everyday objects and events, rather than simply sticking to textbook-based rote learning, especially in early education. For example, the science and engineering behind much of today’s technology are fascinating to me, yet most cell phone or tablet users do not seem to be aware of or interested in what makes these devices work. Following science blogs and science news feeds is another great source of information for students at any age and is easily accessible. In general, I think that introducing discussions about science in our everyday lives would help make science and engineering more appealing to students. I would also like to see more women and minorities enter STEM-related careers, both in and outside of academia. Finally, on college and graduate levels, it would be great to have more opportunities to learn about careers outside of academe, e.g. in public policy or consulting.


Describe the patent/publishing experience. Were there any bumps along the way for you?

Not really. So far all my manuscripts have gone through a smooth review process, and the remarks from referees have always been detailed and very helpful.


What has the honor of induction into Sigma Xi meant to you?

I consider this a comment on my accomplishments and encouragement to continue contributing to our collective knowledge of science. It also means following an ethical code of conduct in research, and responsibility to our society and future generations.


Has Sigma Xi helped further your career?

I have not yet actively sought out the benefits that Sigma Xi can provide in one’s career. However, my impression is that membership in this honor society contributes positively to the image other scientists and hiring manages have of an applicant.


What books are you currently reading for pleasure?

I have just started reading Dune. Before that I read An Introduction to BioMEMS, a text book that I reviewed for an editorial. It was reading for work, but definitely enjoyable.


What do you do in your free time?

I took on running a few years ago and finished my first marathon (the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, a year and a half ago. I find running to be great stress relief, and it is great fun to be running along the Charles River in Boston and other places I visit. I also play the piano and sometimes record music for my niece.


What’s your favorite movie?

I do not have a favorite movie, but a few favorite TV shows. Most of them are by Joss Whedon: Buffy, Angel, Firefly. I also love The Big Bang Theory and all Star Trek shows, beginning with The Next Generation. (That is probably not surprising for a physicist.)


What is your favorite motto?

Always look on the bright side of life.


What advice would you give a young researcher just starting out in your field?

Network early, keep learning and challenging yourself, and try to think outside of the box in terms of your research focus and general career plans.


What advances do you see in your field of research over the next 100 years?

I envision biological engineering making great strides in enabling personalized medicine, from affordable point-of-care diagnostics and treatment to perfecting a drug for the needs of each individual patient. Further, I hope that the research in tissue engineering will lead to in vitro development of cell-based, implantable vital organs (e.g. kidney or lung). In the context of soft matter physics I believe that some general principles behind the statics and dynamics of biological matter (e.g. protein, cell interaction, formation of biological networks) will be uncovered.


Do you have a particular teacher or professor who inspired your love of science?

My love of physics started with my first physics class in middle school in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since then every single teacher I had seemed to immensely enjoy the beauty of this science and was able to convey their excitement in lectures. I would like to point out my college advisor, Professor Yue Hu, who introduced me to research when I was a sophomore, and showed me what complex, amazing science is hiding behind seemingly mundane things, such as certain foods, gels, etc. From my PhD advisor, Professor Seth Fraden, I learned how to develop my creative side as a scientist. I was also fortunate to study with Professor Robert Meyer at Brandeis, who is famous for his work on liquid crystals and was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal, among many other honors. Working in the presence of and learning from such an accomplished scientist is by itself highly uplifting and motivating.