Inspires, motivates, and serves
“The more time I spend in academia the more amazed I am with how Dr. Benoit manages to keep up with so many things,” says Janet Sorrels, now a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
What is equally impressive is how Danielle Benoit excels at so many things.
The professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester is:
- A recognized leader in the field of therapeutic biomaterials for drug delivery and regenerative medicine, with a bevy of honorary awards, 9 patents, and continuous research funding from federal agencies, private foundations, and industries.
- An outstanding teacher, who, for example, has provided “real” research experiences for more than 80 undergraduates in her lab, including Sorrels.
- An enthusiastic ambassador for science, who contributes to her community, her University, and her professional field through multiple forms of outreach and service.
And, as if that were not enough, she recently became director of the University’s Materials Science Program, which includes over 60 affiliated University faculty members from across the River Campus, Medical Center, and the Laboratory for Laser Energetics.
‘I loved every science class I came across’
Benoit, who grew up in Maine, says she was “always tinkering” as a kid, making racetracks for matchbox cars out of cardboard, duct tape, and encyclopedias, for example. She remembers tagging along once with her father, who was trained as a forester, but worked essentially as a civil engineer, designing remote logging roads for his company. “I remember all the survey equipment and other gadgets he had. I thought that was really cool,” Benoit says.
She spent hours exploring the woods next to her home.
“I loved every science class that I came across,” she adds. “Even in middle school, I remember going into earth science and thinking ‘this is so cool.’”
She was the first student to graduate in bioengineering from the University of Maine. She completed her PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, then did her postdoctoral research at the University of Washington in Seattle.
She joined the University of Rochester in 2010 because of the proximity of the University’s Medical Center to the Department of Biomedical Engineering – a mere 5-minute walk away. That offered Benoit easier access to basic science medical researchers who could help her advance her work in tissue regeneration, and also the targeted delivery of therapeutic drugs.
She was also impressed that women constitute about half the faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“It wasn’t just women who were junior faculty members, but women who were senior and very well established, and who had thriving research programs,” Benoit says. “To me, that suggested that Rochester was going to support that kind of career development.”
Novel ways to target drugs, rebuild tissue
One of her first collaborations at the University was with Edward Puzas, the Donald and Mary Clark Professor of Orthopaedics, who she talked with during her recruitment visit. Puzas told her about the “crosstalk” that occurs between the cells that continually remodel our bones. He had discovered that the osteoclasts in charge of breaking down depleted bone tissue leave behind “molecular signatures”—so the osteoblasts charged with rebuilding the bone will recognize where they are needed.
“Is that at all interesting?” Puzas asked her. “Could that be useful for something?”
“Yes—and yes,” was Benoit’s reply. The fact that osteoclasts leave behind molecular signatures “is a fantastic way to target bone drug delivery to exactly where it’s needed,” Benoit says.
One of those molecular signatures is a protein called tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase, or TRAP. Working with Puzas, Benoit’s lab began to design a nanoparticle-sized polymer drug-delivery device that includes a peptide that binds to TRAP. The package could be loaded with therapeutic drugs to enhance the bone rebuilding process—in the case of a fracture—or to boost the performance of deficient osteoblasts—in the case of osteoporosis, or chronic bone thinning. It might even be used to target leukemia stem cells deep in the marrow of bone.
“By getting those drugs directly to the osteoblasts, we would have greater impact,” Benoit says. “And because we’re delivering the drugs to just that particular cell type, we would reduce the possibility of ‘off-target’ side effects in other parts of the body.
“It took a number of years, but that’s what we’ve done.”
The result was US Patent #9,949,950: “Compositions and Methods for Controlled Localized Delivery of Bone Forming Therapeutic Agents.”
Other Benoit projects have included engineering new therapeutic approaches to protect tissues, such as salivary glands, from ionizing radiation damage; designing new drug delivery materials to reduce the occurrence of dental caries; and engineering novel therapeutic biomaterials to fight childhood cancer.
“She is a true and creative biomedical engineer, applying principals of classical engineering and materials science to new biomedical applications in medicine,” says Diane Dalecki, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Benoit has received international recognition, including induction as a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (2019), 10 Science News Top 10 Scientists to Watch nominee (2017); Emerging Innovator – Journal of Materials Chemistry B (2016), Young Innovator Award in Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering (2015), and National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award (2015). She also received the 2016 Young Engineering of the Year Award from the Rochester Engineering Society.
Reaching out beyond the lab
Benoit has gone above and beyond to share her passion for research with the Rochester community.
For four years she invited a fourth-grade classroom to her lab for a day of learning and hands-on experimentation.
Each year, she holds a lemonade stand at local farmers’ markets to raise funds for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and raise awareness of the need for research in childhood cancer.
“Most people don’t realize that treating cancer in children is much different from treating cancer in adults,” Benoit says. “At the same time, funding for childhood cancer research is woefully miniscule, compared to the money that goes into studying adult cancers.”
In collaboration with the Warner School of Education, she brings Rochester City School District science teachers into her lab each summer for hands-on demonstrations and take-home activities for the classroom, with a particular focus on biomaterials and biomaterial-ell interactions. (link to story)
“Importantly, Professor Benoit always involves the undergraduate students and graduate trainees in her lab in these events, thereby instilling the importance of community outreach to the next generation of engineers,” Dalecki says.
In addition to directing the Materials Science Program, Benoit serves on the College Research Advisory Committee, the UR Microscopy External Steering Committee, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) proposal review committee, and the Medical Scientist Trainee Program Admissions Committee.
Finding the potential in her students
In 2019, Benoit became the second recipient of the College Award for Undergraduate Teaching and Research Mentorship at the University of Rochester. She teaches courses in Advanced Biomaterials, Controlled Release Systems, Research Methods, and Cell and Tissue Engineering, which is the capstone course for biomedical engineering majors with concentrations in that subfield.
She also developed and taught for eight years a biomaterials course, required of all biomedical engineering majors, that typically enrolls about 70 students. She designed the laboratory components of the course so they would dovetail with a biomedical computation and statistics course students take at the same time.
“Students complete laboratories in biomaterials one week, and then analyze data they collected by applying statistical approaches from the other course the following week,” Dalecki says. “This is an excellent pedagogical approach for students to understand how concepts they’re learning in different classes combine to enhance their skills as an engineer.”
Benoit strives to create a similar learning environment in her lab.
“For me, part and parcel of being a faculty member here is to teach on multiple levels, not just in the classroom but also in the lab, where I can teach undergraduate and graduate students alike the best, cutting-edge research practices,” Benoit says.
Students say the benefits of working in the Benoit Lab extend beyond the research skills they learn.
“Danielle has always been my go-to mentor for all sorts of advice – moral, social, intellectual – and was a powerful advocate for me if I ever found myself in a challenging situation,” says Amanda Chen ‘14, now a PhD student at MIT.
Tim Felong ‘14, now at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, says he especially appreciated the “culture” of the lab, which was more like a “family environment. She takes the time to really get to know her students—their interests and hobbies. She hosts biannual parties, where you get to interact with her energy-packed, fun family. I think this openness and mutual appreciation for life inside and outside of work is really motivating for many people my age. I know it was for me.”
Her students are “challenged with true research projects, are provided excellent training in key skills, and are guided by a hierarchy of mentors and role models that includes graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and Professor Benoit herself,” says Dalecki. “It is impressive how often undergraduate students are included as co-authors on papers from Professor Benoit’s laboratory.”
Perhaps the ultimate measure of a good teacher is the ability to inspire, motivate, and serve as a role model.
“Danielle suggested that I apply for the Research Initiative Award for Undergraduates, which is much like a grant application,” Felong says. “I never would have thought that I had a shot at winning that grant, but I applied and ended up getting it.” Benoit, as well as Andrew Shubin ’16 (PhD), ’18M (MD), the graduate student with whom Benoit paired Felong in her lab, “saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Chen says she “often reflects on mentorship behaviors that I hope to build into my own management style – now as I work with undergraduate trainees (at MIT), but also in my future career. And I find myself often thinking back to my experiences in Danielle’s lab.”