Divya Ramamoorthy — a connoisseur of hot chocolates, a greeting card crafter and a UT research assistant — can be found daily with a petri dish full of stem cells in hand. For the past three years, the Plan II and biomedical engineering junior has worked toward creating a real, functioning human heart.
“The end goal is to find ways to regenerate tissue to be fully working organs,” Ramamoorthy said. “So imagine there are just beating cells, but, if we can make them into a 3-D construct, you can get rid of the need for organ transplant.”
Ramamoorthy works on this stem cell project under the supervision of biomedical engineering associate professor Laura Suggs, and the graduate student who developed the project, Laura Geuss. Ramamoorthy is one of the youngest on the research team comprised of graduate students and has been featured on TedxYouth and Business Insider for her work.
Before she entered her freshman year, Ramamoorthy applied to be Suggs’ research assistant. She always planned to be a biomedical engineering major, but she did not know what she was truly interested in until she joined Suggs’ team.
“I got lucky and got something that I really enjoyed,” Ramamoorthy said. “Suggs’ research is really cool because it works directly with human application. It’s like everything is living and everything is tangible, which I liked.”
The team’s work focuses on two different projects in regenerative medicine. For one project, they found a way to stimulate stem cells using magnets to create heart cells. They then search for ways to make these cells grow inside the human body. In the second project, they search for ways to actually keep the cells alive once they are implanted.
“It’s a lot more of what the cells can do on their own, compared to what you can do in a lab.” Ramamoorthy said.
Geuss said Ramamoorthy is dedicated.
“From the beginning I thought she was very motivated,” Geuss said. “Very quick to learn and very eager to learn, which made her easy to work with. Especially considering how young she was.”
In addition to her project with Suggs, Ramamoorthy recently began working with two aerospace engineering seniors on a theoretical design project derived from her research. They are researching the growth of heart cells in space to see if an actual, three-dimensional heart can be produced.
“A lot of research is being done using different scaffolds,” Ramamoorthy said. “Meaning you use different pieces of something that the cells grow through. The other option is potentially using nothing and just using zero gravity to allow the cells to grow in the way you want them to.”
Despite her interest in the human body, Ramamoorthy said medical school is not in her future. She is also involved with the Senate of College Councils and Student Engineers Educating Kids, in which she and a few others conduct engineering projects with middle school students. She also mentors a sixth grader once a week as part of Plan II’s KIPP program.
“I faint at the sight of blood,” Ramamoorthy said. “I’d like to be a professor. I really like teaching little kids and I like research.”
Ramamoorthy said her passion for research comes from applying science and knowledge in a way that helps people.
“A lot of research that you do is by yourself in the corner of a lab,” Ramamoorthy said. “You don’t get to see the end result. But with this, you realize that you’re working with actual things that came from a person and that you’re also going to put back into them, and I think that’s so cool.”