Cheryl Gomillion, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, shows students how the basics of science, technology and engineering can be applied to medical challenges.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in biosystems engineering (emphasis in applied biotechnology) and my master’s degree and doctorate in bioengineering, all from Clemson University. I completed three years of postdoctoral training at the University of Connecticut Health Center School of Dental Medicine in the department of reconstructive sciences, followed by one year of postdoctoral training at Yale University School of Medicine in the department of plastic and reconstructive surgery. I am currently an assistant professor in biological and biochemical engineering here at UGA in the College of Engineering, where my responsibilities include teaching and mentoring students and engaging in research.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in January 2015 to begin my first faculty position after completing my postdoctoral training in Connecticut. When I first entered the academic job market, I applied for faculty positions all over the country. Ultimately, I felt that the College of Engineering here at UGA was a good fit for me and my research interests in the area of tissue engineering, since our interdisciplinary college emphasizes cross-disciplinary research and the field of tissue engineering is a hybrid of multiple disciplines. Another key factor in my coming to UGA was the Athens location. Being a South Carolina native, I had my fill of snow and harsh winters during the four years that I spent in Connecticut while completing my postdoctoral training. Returning to the Southeast, with its warmer temperatures and closer proximity to my family, was a welcome change.
What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite course is my undergraduate course in tissue engineering. I enjoy teaching others about my field, and this course allows me to spend an entire semester doing just that. In this class, in addition to learning about the basics of cells, biomaterials and engineering tissue systems, we talk about current developments in biomedical research, which can include the latest technological advances or ethical considerations. It has been rewarding to see their interest in new technologies and very enlightening to hear the thoughts and opinions of my students on certain issues.
What interests you about your field?
Tissue engineering research aims to develop biological substitutes for damaged or diseased tissues of the body, most often using a combination of cells obtained from healthy patient tissues and biomaterial scaffolds that support cell growth and subsequent new tissue formation. Currently, my lab is focused on engineering replacements for hard and soft tissues of the body, i.e. bone and breast tissue, respectively, and further developing these systems for use as pre-clinical modeling systems to study disease progression and drug efficacy. I am most interested in this field because of the direct application to developing solutions for real-world clinical problems that may affect everyone in some way. With our work, we hope to improve various aspects of human health and improve quality of life for patients who could benefit from tissue-engineered solutions.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
I still feel pretty early in my career here at UGA, so I have yet to see all the highlights that I know are to come. Thus far, I would say that my highlights have been starting up my research lab, receiving my first seed grant funding and participating in the New Faculty Tour and UGA Teaching Academy Fellows program.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I first became interested in tissue engineering because I could instantly see a personal connection as to how advances in this area of research could impact my loved ones. I use a similar approach of teaching my students about an array of biomedical issues and all the ways that tissue engineering research may help address these problems. They get excited about the possibilities of new methods and treatment approaches that could benefit people in general, but particularly those they care about most. This fosters their motivation to learn about the basics in the field and to apply what they’ve learned toward imagining new ways of helping people. When they come to me with the “what if someone could…” comments, I see firsthand what they have learned from me, and I learn from them a new way of thinking about creative solutions to these problems.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope that students gain an understanding of how the basics of science, technology and engineering can be applied to help address medical challenges. Along with this awareness, I want them to also appreciate how much effort and work goes into the research behind developing such technologies.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is one that is interested, engaged and gives genuine effort. A student that may not have perfect grades but demonstrates a “stick-to-it” attitude of persistence will always stand out to me and have my respect.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
I enjoy the time I spend with my students, particularly in the lab, when I can see them working on their own and they do not need my help, and also during my meetings with them, when I can see them interact with each other as a group and hear their ideas and thoughts.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
I enjoy spending time with family and friends and traveling. I am also a huge sports fan. Although I am a Georgia resident and UGA employee who will occasionally wear red and black now, my favorite football teams are still in the Carolinas. I love going to Clemson football games and also try to see my Carolina Panthers whenever I can.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I am the faculty adviser for our student chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society. I am very interested in mentoring and outreach activities and have hosted students from local schools in my lab. I also participate in activities with the Athens Clemson Club, a group of alumni and supporters of Clemson University local to Athens, such as our Adopt-A-Highway cleanup in town.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
In the past I’ve read a lot of fiction, but lately have moved to more nonfiction works. A longtime favorite book is “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. I have several recent reads that would make a favorites list, including “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, and “What I Know For Sure” by Oprah Winfrey. Books that interest me most are those that are relatable in some way or that make you think about things from a new perspective. Regarding movies, I enjoy anything that’s not a horror movie, whether it’s action, comedy, romantic comedy or animated. It is hard to pick one favorite, but at the top of my list would be “The Shawshank Redemption”or“Love and Basketball.”
Proudest moment at UGA?
Starting my position here was truly a proud moment. I am a first-generation college graduate, and growing up I never thought about graduate school or getting my Ph.D. Certainly being a university faculty member was not on my radar as a possible career option. I am excited to be here and when I talk to students about my path getting here, I appreciate when some small part of my story is relatable to them. Going forward, I will be even more proud to see the success of my students and growth of my research program along the way.
Originally published Sept. 11, 2016.