Elizabeth (Liz) Wayne, UW bioengineering’s newest faculty member, is joining the department as assistant professor of bioengineering on January 1. Wayne brings expertise in immunoengineering, translational research, drug and gene delivery, and biomaterials to the department. Specifically, she is interested in how our immune cells can be repurposed to fight disease.

Wayne was attracted to UW BioE because of the department’s blend of science, engineering and medicine, and appreciates our research in nanoparticle and biomaterials development. “I viewed [UW bioengineering] as one of the top places to do cellular immunotherapy, and I’m really excited to join that community,” Wayne says. She looks forward to exploring the opportunities for translation in hospitals and startup companies in the Seattle area. BioE’s commitment to promoting diverse, equitable and inclusive practices is also attractive to Wayne. “I’m a huge believer that solving the most complex problems takes diverse teams,” she says.

Manipulating nanoparticles for immune responses

In her research with immunoengineering, Wayne works with nanoparticles to instruct immune cells to perform specific functions. This entails changing components of the nanoparticles to send a different message to the cells to create a new response. Immune cells are unique for every individual and each person’s body responds differently to medications. Wayne’s research involves designing the particles to get personalized responses that address each patient’s unique needs.

I’m a huge believer that solving the most complex problems takes diverse teams. Elizabeth Wayne

One of her projects is studying specialized immune cells called monocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infection and is responsive to nanoparticles in the bloodstream. The cells help attack and identify disease. “We use them as a litmus test to tell how well the drugs are going to respond in a disease condition,” Wayne says. “They travel throughout the body, and they can go into multiple tissues to tell us what is happening.”

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Wayne and her team researched the severity of the disease in different people. They noticed the death rates were higher for patients with diabetes and hypertension. The team discovered a connection between monocyte receptors that were damaged due to diabetes and those that allowed the COVID-19 virus into the body. By training monocytes to be hyperglycemic to induce a diabetic state, Wayne’s lab found that the more sugar the manipulated monocytes were given, the more SARS-CoV-2 particles they took up. They hypothesize that monocytes in a hyperglycemic environment might be induced to become more receptive to other diseases.

Wayne’s research has also included examining what size particle monocytes prefer so that drugs delivered by nanoparticles can be altered to influence how effective they are. “We looked at a healthy cell versus a cell that we had trained to be overly responsive like [one in] a hyperglycemic state and found [the cells] preferred different sizes of nanoparticles,” Wayne says. “One of the reasons I think this is interesting is If you want to design drugs for different patient populations, it could be something as simple as changing the size of the drug or changing a modification because these individual cells may respond differently.”

The advantages of diverse perspectives

The path to receiving her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Cornell University was not an easy one for Wayne, but it has shaped how she teaches and her commitment to diversity. As she shared in a Nature Journal article, coming from a disadvantaged background presented many challenges in her educational path. “In my case, my family’s income was less than the cost of one year of college,” Wayne says. “My parents were feeding a family of five on $35,000. I think about what it really meant to go from the environment where I grew up to a top 10, top five Ivy League institution where [people coming from a disadvantaged background are] not usually the average clientele that’s there.”

There is a power in professing because you get to study and translate your knowledge for the public good. Elizabeth Wayne

Wayne reflects on her past when she is teaching and mentoring a diverse student body, whether they come from high resource areas with ample opportunities or low resource areas where the focus may have been on paying the bills for daily needs, not higher education. This also matters to Wayne when it comes to faculty diversity. She feels it’s important that an institution includes a mix of gender, race, cognitive and socioeconomic diversity so that students are taught and mentored by professors who understand their needs and challenges. “There is a power in professing because you get to study and translate your knowledge for the public good,” Wayne says.

The future of bioengineering education

The bioengineering field was attractive to Wayne because of its numerous applications. “We are intellectually diverse; where the bioengineer can be someone who only does cell culture, and it can be someone who has never seen a cell in their lives and works with electrical circuits or does artificial intelligence or works on biomechanical stress and strain or makes implants,” says Wayne. She also appreciates that it is an engineering major that has gender parity and racial diversity that aligns with national diversity.

Bioengineering is a field that excites Wayne because of the biomedical advancements that can positively impact lives. “If you think about people being able to walk or to see or hear. If you think about being able to say, ‘here is a cell and now we’re going to put this cell in you and it’s going to go to the right part of your body and heal your heart, heal your brain.’ These are really powerful things our field is developing,” Wayne says.

A PhDiva and more

Using her experience as a woman of color in academia, Wayne created a podcast in 2015 called PhDivas with Christine (Xine) Yao, a lecturer in American literature at University College London. The podcast focuses on academia, culture and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide. Topics have included advice to graduate students going to grad school or interviewing for jobs, how to find a good mentor, how the immune system works, disability issues and medical history in the 1900s.

In 2017, Wayne was selected as a TED Fellow and gave a talk titled “We can hack our immune cells to fight cancer.” The video has over 1,530,00 views. Wayne received the NCI Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA T32 Fellowship from 2016 to 2019 and was honored with the Cornell CMM Young Investigator Award in 2012. She was also a participant in the McNair Scholars Program in 2007.

Wayne received her B.A. in physics in 2009 from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in biomedical engineering from Cornell University in 2013 and her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Cornell University in 2016. She conducted her postdoctoral research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2015 to 2019.

Life outside of work

When she isn’t teaching or conducting research, Wayne enjoys roller skating and playing tennis. She is also a fan of Korean dramas and anime.