Grads to Watch—Spring 2017: Meet two biomedical engineering leaders

Mark Blaser, Gen Foley

Genevieve Foley and Mark Blaser are two IBBME graduates who will be addressing global human health challenges with knowledge gained from their biomedical engineering degrees. (Photos: Neil Ta / Mark Blaser)

June 7, 2017 | By Tyler Irving and Luke Ng

This spring, 20 students from the U of T Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) will mark both the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

Here are two of our spring 2017 graduates joining our global network of alumni and addressing today’s most pressing challenges in human health.

Mark Blaser, IBBME PhD 1T7

Fighting heart disease

Mark Blaser

Blaser’s doctoral research, conducted under the supervision of Professor Craig Simmons at the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research, studied new mechanisms that regulate the development of heart valves, which are internal structures that allow the organ to pump efficiently. His work looked at the valves’ health from the embryonic to adult stage to further understand how heart disease begins and progresses. He also identified a new set of drug targets that could lead to better therapies.

During his time at U of T, Blaser had the opportunity to study abroad in the laboratory of Professor Arash Kheradvar at the University of California-Irvine, with funding provided by the Government of Canada as a Michael Smith Foreign Study Scholar. There, he was able to use high-resolution ultrasound systems and cutting-edge computational tracking methods to develop new ways of imaging and measuring the disease-causing blood flow patterns that occur around the heart valves. In 2017, Blaser was honoured with U of T’s John Leyerle-CIFAR Prize for his doctoral thesis’ interdisciplinary research impact.

“Completing my PhD was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the most rewarding times of my life,” said Blaser. “My experiences at U of T have continuously pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and have challenged me to become a better researcher and person.”

After finishing his PhD defence earlier this spring, Blaser moved to Boston to join Professor Elena Aikawa’s lab at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. There, he is working alongside academics and researchers from Kowa Pharmaceuticals to identify drug targets for cardiovascular calcification using proteomics and mass spectrometry in a unique and translational environment.

Shout out: “I owe my PhD supervisor, Professor Craig Simmons, a huge debt of gratitude for his mentorship and guidance. He is a superb example of how to navigate the halls of academia with a human touch. I also want to thank all the members of Professor Simmons’ Cellular Mechanobiology Laboratory for their support and friendship.”

Genevieve Foley, IBBME MASc 1T7

Robots helping people

Genevieve Foley

For her master’s thesis, Foley designed the Parking Assistant Reasoning Copilot (PARC) system which assists powered-wheelchair users with the task of driving up to and underneath tables. PARC was designed to empower older adult powered-wheelchair users who may struggle with wheelchair operation and the table docking task due to cognitive, sensory or physical impairments.

Foley also led the Biomedical Engineering Students’ Association, serving as its president. “One of my favourite things about U of T Engineering are the rich cultures that surround you,” she says. “Whether it’s about academics, technology or startups, there is always a talk, demo or session to attend, enabling you to learn more and network with people with shared interests.”

After graduation, Foley will take up a position at Kinova Robotics, a Montreal-based company that creates robots both for industry and for people with disabilities. “I want to continue to work towards improving the quality of life of vulnerable individuals by empowering humans through technology.”

Shout out: “I would like to thank Professor Alex Mihailidis for providing me with the opportunity to learn about and to conduct applied research to improve the quality of life of our end users. I also wish to express my gratitude to Dr. Pooja Viswanathan for taking me under her wing and showing me how to be an innovator.”