Photo: Mary Wallingford (left) and her Tufts lab members

The least understood human organ may also be the most important for long-term cardiovascular health. The placenta serves a crucial role in delivering nutrients from the mother’s blood and removing waste from the fetus’s blood during pregnancy. Its normal growth and development are essential for the health of mother and baby, both during pregnancy and later in life. Placental problems can cause pregnancy complications, including preeclampsia, preterm birth and death. Mothers who experience preeclampsia, which causes high blood pressure, are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and coronary artery calcification later in life. Their children may also face cardiovascular-related problems, including high blood pressure, increased body mass index and stroke.

Few options for diagnosing and treating placental disorders exist, and research efforts are hindered because access to placental tissue is limited for ethical, religious and social reasons. Animal models of placental dysfunction offer some insight, but are limited in how well they apply to the maternal-fetal interface in humans. Partly due to these challenges, pregnant women and their babies have been historically underserved by biomedical research.

Mary Wallingford

Mary Wallingford

As a senior postdoctoral fellow in UW Bioengineering W. Hunter & Dorothy Simpson Endowed Chair and Professor Cecilia Giachelli’s lab, Mary Wallingford saw ways she could potentially improve obstetric cardiovascular medicine. Her work investigating placental vascular development and pathophysiology yielded an NIH K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award and positioned her to pursue a career in academia. Now an Assistant Professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, and a joint member of Tufts’ Mother Infant Research Initiative and Molecular Cardiology Research Institute, Dr. Wallingford reflects on how her experience in UW BioE helped her refine her research focus and build skills to pursue success as an independent investigator.

Now that you’re at Tufts, what’s next?

I am exactly where I want to be!  As my lab continues to grow, we will work towards our overall goal of advancing biomedical understanding of vascular development and pathophysiology of the placenta.  My lab is currently focusing on three specific projects that will likely evolve over time.

Our Morphogenetic Analysis of Placentation (MAP) project investigates developmental mechanisms that control placental blood vessel formation, vascular remodeling, and vascular mimicry during placenta development. Our Maternal-Fetal Phosphate Transport (M-FPT) project aims to define maternal-fetal phosphate transport routes, test hypotheses on the basic science of phosphate transport across the placenta, and develop new assays for maternal-fetal phosphate homeostasis and placenta vascular calcification that may one day be useful for assessment and interpretation of maternal and fetal health in the clinic. Lastly, our Placental Vascular Structure-Function Relationships (PVS-FR) project is a suite of collaborative beta testing initiatives that I help to coordinate.

Tell us about your background before starting postdoctoral studies at UW, and how this work inspired you to pursue a career in academia.

I did my doctoral research in Dr. Jesse Mager’s lab at the University of Massachusetts, where I studied early embryonic development.  As a doctoral candidate, I designed and ran a small side project on peri-implantation development – what’s happening in the uterus and the embryo around the time of implantation – that really got me hooked on research into embryonic-extraembryonic interactions.  We chose to build a schematic of peri-implantation development. No schematics were previously available, despite this stage’s importance in reproductive medicine. As I pursued this project, I became more and more intrigued by the unanswered questions in implantation and early placenta developmental biology.  The study yielded exciting findings on both the maternal side and the embryonic side – it was published in Developmental Dynamics.

What attracted you to choose UW for your postdoctoral research?

Dr. Giachelli and her lab’s work were what attracted me to UW BioE.  After I had decided to commit to investigating the placenta, I thought carefully about what training I should obtain as a postdoc – in other words, what might be valuable to the placenta research field.  As the placenta is a highly vascularized organ that mediates communication between two circulatory systems, I was thrilled at the prospect of obtaining training in a lab with strong vascular disease expertise.

Not only is Dr. Giachelli a leader in her field and an inspirational role model, but she is also an expert in phosphate transport biology. Despite the essential role of maternal-fetal phosphate transport in development and the diseases associated with dysregulated phosphate homeostasis, relatively little is known about developmental phosphate transport. Dr. Giachelli and I agreed that this was likely to be a promising area of synergistic research. Several years later, it led to my successful K99 application.

How did BioE, and UW, in general contribute to your development as an independent investigator?

The resources at BioE and UW were essential in my postdoctoral education, and I have many people there to thank for the opportunity to work as an independent investigator.  The mentorship and support I received from Dr. Giachelli and UW Medicine Cardiology’s Dr. David Dichek through the Cardiovascular Training Grant T32 Program was essential to my training.  The Giachelli Lab members including Mei Speer, Liz Soberg, and others provided invaluable research support. BioE’s grant administrative staff, especially Becky Rooney and Jan Cranfield, were immensely helpful in the development of me grant writing and grant management skills.

There were also many fantastic programs that helped me to develop professional skills, including the HHMI Future Faculty Fellows workshop, the UW Postdoctoral Association (UWPA) run by Dean Kelly Edwards, the Science Teaching Experience for Postdocs (STEP) program run by Becca Price, and the Career Planning Dinner series run by Lee Huntsman, Matt O’Donnell, Gordon Anderson, and Rick Baugh.

What did you enjoy the most about your time at UW?

The thing I enjoyed the most was being able to cross boundaries and build something new, even as a postdoc. Here’s the story of my most significant example: When I was partway through my time as a postdoc, I gave a talk titled, ‘Placenta, is that an Organ?’ at the UW Postdoc Seminar Series and it filled the house! Annie Becker, then a research coordinator for the Department of Radiology, approached me after the talk and asked how she could help to support my research. It was amazing!

We planned to have coffee to talk about research, but before that rolled around, I realized what we should do – organize an interdisciplinary symposium aimed at educating and recruiting researchers to placenta research. Annie loved the idea and introduced me to Manjiri Dighe, the Director of Body Imaging and Ultrasound in UW Medicine Radiology, who was interested in the project and brought new ideas. Together, the three of us made it happen!

The result of our collaboration, the UW Placenta Research Network Symposium, was held twice, though the first one was much more successful, with over 70 attendees from at least 19 departments and institutes. The symposia resulted in a new seminar series and multiple collaborative projects that are still ongoing.  We received monetary conference support from UW Pharmaceutics, UW Graduate and Research Education, UW Radiology, and the March of Dimes.

This was a fantastic learning experience for me, and it was the environment in BioE and UW in general that enabled it. I am still mentored by people I met through this program, including Dr. Dighe, and I recently published a collaborative Frontiers in Physiology article with Martin Frasch, who I met through the Placenta Research Network Symposia.

UW has strong opportunities for postdoctoral scholars across scientific disciplines. Would you recommend BioE for postdoctoral researchers seeking to take the next step in their careers, and if so, why?

Absolutely!  There are such amazing resources at UW. The resources at the Health Sciences Library alone are incredible – the BioE liaison Diana Louden is extremely knowledgeable and she helped me with many things over the years. There is a unique and highly valuable set of research expertise and high-tech equipment at BioE as well. I honestly barely tapped into everything that was available to me. The sky is the limit for a motivated postdoc in UW BioE.