Unexpected turn moved newest chemical engineering prof into creating brain models

Vanderbilt University’s newest chemical and biomolecular engineering assistant professor grew up fascinated with the human brain and decided early on he’d focus his research on that complex organ.

But a surprise turn of events as an undergraduate led Ethan Lippmann into a particular avenue of brain research: using induced pluripotent stem cells to make brain models. These particular stem cells are harvested from adults and reprogrammed to behave as embryonic stem cells, marked by the ability to transform into any other kind of cell.

Ethan Lippmann (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

“I wanted to be the person designing therapies, but my adviser didn’t have room on those types of projects. He had room on stem cell work that he wanted to get up and running,” Lippmann said. “I realized it was an incredibly interesting area to be in. Drug discovery and organ and tissue replacement will be emerging from this nascent technology, and I wasn’t even thinking about doing it. This was very serendipitous.”

He earned a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, one of the birthplaces of induced pluripotent stem cells, and then continued to a post-doctorate position at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, an organization designed to foster collaboration between university departments. There, Lippmann worked with labs specializing in tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and epigenetics.

That familiarity with the benefits of cross-departmental collaboration made for an easy match with Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. Early on in the process of coming here, Lippmann spoke with medical school professors Charles Hong, a cardiac specialist, and Aaron Bowman, a neurologist, both already involved in induced pluripotent stem cell work. Lippmann is also making connections at the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education.

He brings with him welcome technology – the knowledge of how to prepare Essential 8 Media, which was developed at the University of Wisconsin to more easily and inexpensively preserve stem cells in their pluripotent state.

Lippmann’s chemical engineer grandfather, the late Stanley Davis, would undoubtedly have been proud to hear of these achievements. Lippmann grew up hearing him tell stories about working on the Manhattan Project at Argonne National Laboratories and helping build nuclear reactors in Russia.

“As I went through college, I knew I was more interested in the intersection between chemical engineering and biology, which kind of bummed him out a bit. He used to rib me,” Lippmann said.

Lippmann more than found his footing in engineering. And he’s hoping to find time for a beloved sport, too.

“I played volleyball for the school’s club team in college and played as much as I could in grad school,” he said.

But has he found any opportunities to play in Nashville?

“Supposedly. I’m working on it.”


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering