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Assistant professor, Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering
University of ArkansasVIEW PROFILE
Rebekah Samsonraj, Ph.D. (OR ’16), focused her early work on determining the potency of mesenchymal stem cells (MSC), including identifying a novel genomic DNA biomarker. She developed and patented a method to identify stem cells with improved bone-forming ability, which led to the identification of a novel genomic biomarker to assess MSC potency. In the last year, she moved from Mayo Clinic to the University of Arkansas, where she established a lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Samsonraj looks forward to supporting her trainees the way her mentors supported her, including introducing her to leaders in the field as an up-and-comer. “My students’ success is my success,” she says. “Our research must be sustained and continued by the next generation of talented researchers. I want to do whatever it takes to transform the world to be a better place for the generations to come. That involves seeing my graduate students be more successful than I am.” They have big shoes to fill if Dr. Samsonraj’s career trajectory continues.
“Mayo Clinic is impeccable — a perfect place that brought out the best in me. Things get completed in a timely way, and questions are answered within 24 hours. When you’re there, you may not see the perfection. I hope Mayo keeps its culture of professionalism and kindness for a thousand generations to come.”
I’m from India, where my mother is a physician, and my father is a professor of engineering. My mother worked at the public health hospital, and I saw her take care of patients and work with cool surgical instruments. As young as age 8, I knew that biology, science and the human body were the areas I wanted to work in.
My official entrée to medicine was at age 14. I was selected from 150 students to present a lecture on tissue culture (which later became the foundation for regenerative medicine) in a competition. For two months, I went to university libraries, read and spoke to Ph.D. students about my topic. The experience gave me confidence. I pursued medicine but later realized I’d contribute to medicine in a different way, so I decided to pursue research. My earlier research experiences had been inspirational.
After completing undergraduate education in India, I applied to graduate schools in Singapore. One of the reviewers of my Ph.D. thesis was a faculty member from Mayo Clinic — Andre van Wijnen, Ph.D. (OR ’12). He was a collaborator with a faculty member at the National University of Singapore and mentioned that Mayo was interested in expanding its research in the area of my work. After defending my thesis, I received an email from Dr. van Wijnen, saying he’d be happy for me to join his team at Mayo Clinic. I knew of Mayo’s reputation but didn’t know where it was. I did a postdoctoral research fellowship at Mayo Clinic in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, followed by a research fellowship in the Kogod Center on Aging. After that, I was an assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic for a year.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support and encouragement of my Ph.D. mentor Simon Cool, Ph.D., and Michael Rahunath, Ph.D. They recognized every ounce of effort I put in, which made me want to do more. At conferences, Michael introduced me to leaders in the stem cell world, saying “Here’s an up-and-coming scientist.” Having mentors who introduced me to the scientific community and helped get me noticed has been huge in my journey.
I loved it from day one. It’s a warm, kind community.
I was six months pregnant with my first child when I came to Mayo Clinic, so I also experienced the clinical side from the patient’s point of view. I saw professionalism at every level. I was so proud to be a researcher at this institution, in part because of the care our family received.
Mayo Clinic is impeccable — a perfect place that brought out the best in me. Things get completed in a timely way, and questions are answered within 24 hours. When you’re there, you may not see the perfection. I hope Mayo keeps its culture of professionalism and kindness for a thousand generations to come.
Dr. van Wijnen was my mentor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery for two and a half years. I received a Career Development Award to study aging, and then Robert Pignolo, M.D., Ph.D. (HIM ’16, chair, Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology), became a mentor in the Department of Medicine.
All hard work is rewarding. Mayo Clinic was proof of that. If you work hard, you get rewarded.
I also learned the value of interpersonal relationships. Mayo Clinic was a good fit for me because it’s the kind of place where you can do science and be empathetic. The two don’t always go together. I tend to be empathetic and caring by nature, and I approach science by asking how my work will benefit the patient. I set out to work each day to change the lives of the people I see walking around the campus rather than to produce work that enables me to publish or present at conferences.
I’m most proud of my training and association with Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic is increasingly recognized for groundbreaking, best-in-class international research. It’s a dream for many to train at Mayo Clinic.
I also was proud to be named an MSC Rising Star by RoosterBio, a leading cell manufacturing company.
If you’re stuck, reach out to others. Don’t be shy to ask questions to the broader scientific community and its leaders. In today’s world, opportunities are plenty. Go to meetings and conferences, and develop a network. Let your voice be known. Make the most of all that Mayo Clinic has to offer, including leaders in the field. You’re at one of the best places in the world with the best resources. Give your best, and put your heart, mind and soul into your research. Success is a byproduct of your work.
Have a vision, and work toward your goals. Don’t give up on one failed experiment or one rejected publication. Keep pursuing what you’re doing. It’s OK to make mistakes; it’s all about getting up from what life throws at you. Dust yourself off and keep marching. If one door is shut, another will surely open.
After five years at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, I wanted to move to a warmer place. I applied for tenure track positions, which are hard to come by these days. I successfully landed at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Northwest Arkansas is a hidden gem.
My lab focuses on developing strategies for safe and efficacious mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapies for clinical indications. I apply novel proteomics- and genomics-based approaches to understand stem cell function. My work to establish criteria for MSC potency allowed me to develop and patent a method for identifying sub-populations of stem cells with improved bone-forming ability, which led to the identification of a novel genomic biomarker to assess MSC potency.
Although I am a biomedical scientist by training, I teach data science as part of my teaching assignments. I’m also a part of the diversity and inclusion panel at the university and contribute to developing a diverse, inclusive environment for students, faculty and staff.
I want to become a scientific and administrative leader in an academic health science institution and support upcoming researchers by doing what my mentors did for me — vouch for them. That makes a huge difference. I want to see graduate and medical students do well, thrive and achieve what they want to be. We need biomedical research to be sustained and continued by the next generation of talented researchers. My vision is to do whatever it takes to transform the world to be a better place for the generations to come. That involves seeing young researchers, students and postdocs becoming more successful than I am.
I take one day at a time. I try not to work on Sundays. It’s difficult but refreshing.
Being connected to the community encourages me to do things other than work. My health is important, too. I have to be in good working condition to do excellent work. I make a conscious effort to not let work burn me out, and that involves planning. It gets easier with practice and experience.
I have a 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. Our family loves to go on road trips. We’re out exploring nature as much we can. I also work out at a gym.
If I hadn’t taken the science and engineering path, I would be an interior design architect.
See past New Chapter stories here.