Diane Dalecki '83 '85MS '93PhD
‘Rochester through and through’
Diane Dalecki earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and master’s and PhD degrees in electrical engineering—all at the University of Rochester.
She was mentored by two of its most prominent scientists – Edwin Carstensen, a pioneer in biomedical ultrasound, and Kevin Parker, a pioneer in sonoelastography.
And yet, if you add up all that she has received from the University, it will be at least matched—if not greatly exceeded—by all she has done for the institution in return.
Now a full professor in the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, her novel use of ultrasound for tissue engineering and wound healing is a shining example of the multidisciplinary research made possible by the close proximity of the University’s River Campus to its Medical Center.
She is a three-time recipient of outstanding teaching and education awards from the University and its students.
She now directs the Rochester Center for Biomedical Ultrasound where she cut her teeth as a graduate student, and is chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which she helped build from the ground up.
So, when Dalecki was installed as the Kevin J. Parker Distinguished Professor in Biomedical Engineering, it seemed entirely appropriate that Donald Hall, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences & Engineering, would describe her as “Rochester through and through.”
Why Rochester ‘felt right’
Dalecki was born and raised in Williston Park on Long Island, about a 25-minute drive from downtown Manhattan. Her father, a manager in the industrial weights and measurements business, “had a sharp technical mind,” Dalecki says. Both her father, who later started his own business, and her mother, who worked part time in manufacturing after raising four children, supported Dalecki’s interest in math and science from an early age.
Dalecki remembers in the late 1970s scanning the catalogues that arrived from the colleges she applied to, trying to find a degree program to match her interests. She finally found it: biomedical engineering.
The idea of using the skills she had acquired in math and physics for biological applications “was really exciting,” she says. “That’s what I really wanted to do.”
However, very few universities offered biomedical engineering at the time.
Thus, she enrolled at the University of Rochester. It “felt right” when she visited the campus, she says. The University offered strong programs in science and engineering in the broader context of a liberal arts institution. It also offered a diverse enrollment, the right size, and proximity to a city.
“Everything that we continue to feel proud about the University is what felt good to me back then,” she says.
She received her chemical engineering degree in 1983, then her master’s in electrical engineering in 1985. Her master’s thesis, supervised by Carstensen, was titled “Nonlinear Absorption of Focused Ultrasound and its Effect on Lesion Thresholds”. She then worked for three years as a laboratory engineer in the Diagnostic Ultrasound Research Laboratory of Robert C. Waag, also a professor of electrical engineering, studying the angular scattering of ultrasound, wave front distortion, and tissue characterization.
Her PhD work, again under Carstensen, culminated in her PhD thesis, “Methods of Interaction of Ultrasound and Lithotripter Fields with Cardiac and Neural Tissues” in 1993.
Dalecki then joined the Department of Electrical Engineering as an assistant professor and research associate.
New applications for ultrasound
Medical ultrasound, also called sonography, uses sound waves—at frequencies so high we cannot hear them—to capture live images from inside the body, such as a fetus during pregnancy. The sound waves send back echoes when they strike cells or arteries, much as echoes from sonar and radar waves can help detect planes and ships. Ultrasound can also be used to generate high-energy shock waves to break up kidney and gallbladder stones in a procedure known as lithotripsy. When used properly, ultrasound is not only noninvasive and inexpensive, but harmless.
Much of Dalecki’s early research with Carstensen and Parker, and then with her own lab, involved gaining a better understanding of the interactions between ultrasound and biological systems and helping set standards for safe use.
She was the first person in the world, for example, to pace heartbeats with pulsed ultrasound.
More recently her lab has explored new therapeutic applications of ultrasound. Perhaps most exciting of all is the partnership Dalecki has forged with a Medical Center colleague to explore the use of ultrasound for wound healing and to create artificial tissues and organs.
In pursuit of the ‘holy grail’
In 2003, Dalecki contacted Denise Hocking, who is a professor of pharmacology and physiology (with a joint appointment in biomedical engineering) and an expert in the mechanisms of wound healing.
“Diane had seen some lectures concerning how ultrasound might enhance wound healing,” Hocking says. “And suddenly a light bulb went off in my head. If it (ultrasound) is used as a simple force... you could ‘whisper’ on a cell and affect the way the cell functions, or the way proteins are arranged. We might have the opportunity to control cells and control tissue organization, simply by exposing them to different ultrasound parameters.”
Their research collaboration has demonstrated that when an ultrasound standing wave field is developed within a solution containing cells, the cells will move to the equally spaced pressure nodes in the field, forming cell layers. By changing the frequency, the space between those layers can be adjusted; by changing intensity, the density of cells within those layers can be changed, all in three dimensions.
These changes can be locked in by using a collagen solution, which can be polymerized with heat.
Moreover, when this is done using endothelial cells as precursors for blood vessels, micro-vessels begin "sprouting" within one day, Dalecki noted. Furthermore, by changing the frequency and intensity of the standing wave field during the initial exposure to ultrasound, the actual structure and arrangement of the resulting blood vessels into a vascular network can be affected.
This is important because “all tissues need a vascular network in order to survive,” Dalecki explains. “The vascular network is what brings the nutrients to the cells and takes away the waste products. The ability to create a vascular network in artificial tissue is one of the largest challenges in tissue engineering. Solving that is perhaps the holy grail of tissue engineering.”
The over $9 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies that Dalecki and Hocking have received for their work on ultrasound for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine has not only supported their research but provided a rich, multidisciplinary environment for training their graduate students. They have received a US patent for “Ultrasound Technology to Control the Spatial Organization of Cells and Proteins in Engineered Tissues.”
“Our joint collaboration on this project over the years has really allowed us to bring together what were two very disparate fields—tissue engineering and ultrasound technology—to do work we think is going to really advance the field,” Dalecki says.
“I didn’t know anything about ultrasound before I started this, and Diane didn't have the ability to do the cell and tissue work,” Hocking adds, “so when you put the two together you have two very different worlds of science coming together.”
For a wide range of research achievements in ultrasound, Dalecki has been elected a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), the Acoustical Society of America, and the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine.
Building a department
Even before Biomedical Engineering became a department at the University of Rochester, Dalecki wrote the curriculum for what was then a fledgling interdepartmental program for undergraduates.
After the department was formed in 2000, she was among its first faculty members.
She was its first director of undergraduate studies and she oversaw the department’s first accreditation visit.
“She implemented hands-on labs as part of a freshman class that enrolls more than 100 students, which is no mean feat,” said Richard Waugh, BME’s first chair, when Dalecki was announced as his successor.
And she started the introductory course on biomedical engineering, turning it into a course “that really had teeth and became a model” for introductory courses offered by the other engineering departments in the Hajim School, Waugh added.
“She’s always been there, extraordinarily dedicated and devoted to the department, and I think everybody senses that.”
In other words, Dalecki has helped ensure that when high school students get excited, as she did, about using science and math for biological applications, they’ll have a great place to pursue their passion.
She will welcome them with what Hall describes as a “very warm and welcoming leadership style. Her door is always open to faculty, staff and students.”
For Dalecki, the department is “truly a home. I simply could not imagine better faculty and staff colleagues. I am proud of what we have accomplished together, and I am excited by what we will achieve together in the future.”