Alex Ip knew he wanted to study stem cells when he was a sophomore in high school in Northern Virginia. It was 2009, and the FDA had just approved using embryonic stem cells in the first human clinical trials.
“The promise of literally being able to grow any type of cell from one stem cell just shocked me,” Ip said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’” Fast forward seven years and Ip, a junior biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences and Honors College student at Virginia Commonwealth University, is doing exactly that.
Through VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, he started his research project last summer studying the process of making three-dimensional silk fibroin-based scaffolds, a relatively new platform on which to grow stem cells. Raj Rao, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, is his mentor.
It’s a good fit for Ip, who is on track for medical school. “Students on the pre-med track are interested in doing research in my lab because what we do really is the future of personalized medicine,” Rao said.Rao’s lab is focused on human pluripotent stem cells, which are used to grow any of the 200 different cells that constitute the human body. By incorporating them into the silk matrices, the cells can be proliferated and then used for clinical applications that involve curing any type of disease.