Marissa Nichole Rylander was recently recognized for her contribution to research in the field of biomedical engineering with the Y.C. Fung Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineering’s Bioengineering Division.

Nichole Rylander


“It’s an honor for both The University of Texas at Austin and for Virginia Tech,” Rylander said.

Rylander, who joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2006, is conducting novel research in nanomedicine, cancer engineering, and tissue regeneration as an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. The award is one of the most prestigious awards that ASME gives to young investigators, and it’s a testament to Rylander’s contributions to science and the innovative research.

As the director of the Tissue Engineering, Nanotechnology, and Cancer Research Laboratory, Rylander's research combining nanotechnology, laser therapy, and dynamic imaging to study tumor progression and to develop novel cancer treatments led to the National Science Foundation naming her one of its CAREER Award recipients in 2010.

The Fung Award recognizes Rylander’s research and development of a novel sensing system system she co-invented called the holey scaffold. This is the first system capable of minimally invasive and non-destructive light sensitive, molecular sensing and control of biological and transport processes within living organisms.

"The holey scaffold can be visualized as a miniature microscope used in conjunction with a living system” Rylander said. “It is built from tissue scaffolding and embedded with a network of hollow microchannels. Typically made from biodegradable synthetics or biological materials such as collagen, the scaffold promotes tissue growth." 

She uses the scaffold to measure dynamic nanoparticle mass transport, temperature, cell viability, heat shock protein expression, and reactive oxygen species (ROS) production in real-time within an in vitro tumor in a bioreactor or an in vivo tumor within a mouse.  Rylander uses a variety of nanoparticles including carbon nanotubes, novel embodiments of carbon nanotubes and fullerenes, and carbon nanohorns in combination with laser irradiation.

In addition to working with tumors, her lab is also using the holey scaffold to regenerate blood vessels and bone tissue.

Before embarking on her career at Virginia Tech, Rylander earned her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering—all from The University of Texas at Austin.

She and her husband, Dr. Chris Rylander, chose similar paths. The two met during freshman orientation. Chris also earned B.S. and M.S.E degrees in mechanical engineering and chose to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. He is the son of Dr. H. Grady Rylander III, a professor of biomedical engineering at UT Austin, and today, Nichole’s father-in-law.

“When I started at UT as an undergraduate mechanical engineering student, I was also pursuing the premed option, but as I advanced in my engineering education I felt I could contribute my engineering expertise to make a greater impact in the medical field by choosing a career in biomedical engineering,” Rylander said. She continued with her master’s degree in mechanical engineering, where she studied under Dr. Ken Diller, professor of biomedical engineering who was the chair of the department at the time.

“I was interested in bio-heat transfer, and Dr. Diller is an expert in that field,” Rylander said.

She enjoyed her master’s studies so much, that she decided to pursue a Ph.D. and put her research to use in the field of biomedical engineering. Before moving forward, however, she and Chris were married. The couple had a very Longhorn wedding.  Their wedding took place on campus and was followed by a reception at the Texas Union Ballroom. Professor Ken Diller officiated the ceremony and served as an official of their academic careers as well; he was an advisor to both Chris and Nichole when they were doctoral students.

Rylander spent the remainder of her time at UT working with Professor Diller, collaborators at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Professor Tinsley Oden from the Institute of Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES), on experimental and computational modeling, nanoparticles, and laser therapies to treat cancer.

Although both she and her husband now teach at Virginia Tech, they do travel to Austin regularly and recall their time at UT fondly. They even have a longhorn- themed game room painted burnt orange and white at their home in Virginia, as well as a pet dog named Bevo.