If laboratories are ever to become factories that can produce human organs, scientists must find ways to grow cells faster and in a more controllable way. Achemical engineer who trained at the intensively competitive Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Surya Mallapragada is closing in on that goal. Mallapragada has designed biodegradable polymer scaffolding to guide the growth of individual cells in the same way that wooden supports guide the tendrils of a grapevine. In experiments, she implanted her scaffolds in rats, tied the ends of torn nerve cells to them and showed that the cells could relink by growing along fine grooves on the polymer surface. Carving the grooves was key;t he usual technique of bombarding the scaffold with ions degrades the polymer, so Mallapragada used alternatives like laser etching and atomic-force microscopy that minimize degradation.To entice tissue to grow quickly, Mallapragada lined the grooves with special cells that ooze growth-inducing proteins. When she’s not busy teaching nerve cells to grow, Mallapragada spends a little time learning tae kwon do.