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Intelligent Machines

Nina Tandon, SM '06

Biomedical engineer uses electrical signals to grow beating heart tissue

Nina Tandon wants to grow “spare parts” for the human body. “To my friends, I am a real-life Dr. Frankenstein,” she says.

A biomedical engineer, Tandon works at Columbia University’s Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, where she uses electrical signals to direct cell growth and differentiation. The electricity mimics the natural signals that bodies produce and encourages cells to thrive in the lab. So far, Tandon has coaxed heart cells sampled from rats to develop into beating tissue, but her ultimate goal is to blaze a trail for future scientists to grow whole organs for human transplants and pharmaceutical testing.

Tandon traces her fascination with biology to childhood road trips with her family. The New York native recalls watching the passing landscape and realizing what it meant to be the only one of her siblings with unimpaired vision—her brother has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, while both of her sisters are color vision deficient. “Roadside Bingo was a challenge for us,” she says. “But from that, I learned that our perceptions of the world can differ greatly from one individual to another.”

Tandon decided to learn more about the body. After earning an undergraduate degree from the Cooper Union in Manhattan in 2001, she won a Fulbright Scholarship and traveled to the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy to work on LibraNose, an ongoing project analyzing patient breath samples to determine the feasibility of a noninvasive cancer-smelling device.

In 2004, Tandon won an MIT Presidential Fellowship and enrolled. She spent her first semester with the Retinal Implant Research Group in honor of her brother, but it was her second rotation, spent working on the heart at the Langer Lab, that set the course for her career. After completing her SM in bioelectrical engineering, she earned an MS and PhD in biomedical engineering from Columbia University, where she is currently pursuing an MBA in parallel with her research.

Why the business degree? Tandon plans to launch a biomedical enterprise within five years. She credits MIT for her decision: “There, I learned the importance of crossing the ‘Valley of Death’—the gap in feasibility and funding between medical research and the patients who need our help. To do this, scientists need to become leaders in both research and business, building a meritocratic corporate culture.”

Away from the lab, Tandon is a certified yoga instructor. But even on her days off, research is not far from her thoughts. “Yoga teaches the philosophies of living in the moment and careful observation,” she says. “These are skills every scientist aspires to.”

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