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Student Q&A: Nathaniel Henning, Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences.

Nathaniel Henning

Imagine 3D-printing replacement skin, bone, muscle or organs. The field of bioprinting is in its early stages, but Nathaniel Henning, a third-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DGP), has set his sights on a complex but important goal: 3D printing an ovary. Working in the laboratory of Monica Laronda, PhD, assistant professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, Henning recently published a study detailing a new way to map ovarian proteins, discovering how certain proteins changed across depths of the ovary. 


Where is your hometown?

I grew up in the frozen tundra of Saint Paul, Minnesota. I went to Hamline University where I majored in Biology and Chemistry.

What are your research interests?

I work in the field of reproductive sciences — focused on ovarian biology — and I’m interested in how we can use tissue engineering to solve problems in reproductive sciences such as premature ovarian insufficiency.

More specifically, I’m interested in developing informed engineering approaches for regenerative medicine by studying how the matrisome (extracellular matrix and associated proteins) and physical properties of organs modulate important biological processes, and how these properties can be leveraged to help resolve medical issues. Currently, I’m looking at these properties in the ovary, but I’m also interested in applying this in other organ systems.

What exciting projects are you working on?

In the lab we’re working on developing the next generation of 3D printed ovarian bio-prosthetics. To do this, I’ve been examining the ovarian matrisome and physical properties of the ovary to take an informed engineering approach for bio-inks and scaffold design. 

To define the matrisome we developed a novel method for spatially mapping matrisome proteins on a whole organ-scale using a computational pipeline I developed in collaboration with Dr. Richard LeDuc. Using this approach, were to discover and map — in three dimensions — how matrisome proteins changed across depths of the ovary.

We just published a paper on this project in Scientific Reports which features maps of matrisome proteins in porcine ovaries. I am using this information to dissect the mechanistic relationships between differentially distributed matrisome proteins and follicle activation using an in situ culture system developed in the Laronda laboratory alongside developing (and testing) inks with 3D printed scaffolds.

We’ve also been looking at mapping mechanical properties of the ovary using AFM-based methods and looking at how differences in the physical environment can affect folliculogenesis. We believe that we can use data from these two projects to create long-term ovarian bio-prosthetics suitable for use in humans. We also are looking to see if the techniques and experimental pipeline we’ve developed can be implemented in other organ systems.

What attracted you to your program?

When I first was looking at programs I was looking for ones that were interdisciplinary, focused on translational research and was strong in infectious disease research. Northwestern has these in spades, but during interviews I was most impressed by the culture of the institution. The professors I interviewed with stressed the collaborative and supportive culture of Northwestern, which very much appealed to me as I started my research career.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

Working with Dr. Monica Laronda has been an impactful experience at Feinberg. I am her first graduate student and I have been able to have a hand in developing and executing a lot of the ongoing lab projects. I have had the opportunity to present at a variety of conferences and received a lot of great one-on-one mentorship and guidance on everything from writing manuscripts and grant applications to isolating follicles from tissue and seeding them into scaffolds.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

I think the faculty at Feinberg (and core facilities) are supportive and approachable. Professors are open to new ideas even if they may sound a little unfeasible at first, like spatially mapping the matrisome of a whole organ using proteomics, so long as scientifically the idea is sound. There’s also a very collaborative and helpful atmosphere and I’ve reliably found Professors very open to sharing their expertise to help with a project or provide a much-needed reagent.

What do you do in your free time?

I think it’s important to make room for activities outside of the lab even though this can be challenging. When I am able to carve out some free time I tend to split it between cooking, reading, playing video games, and painting models.

What are your plans for after graduation?

Since I’m into the later stages of my graduate education I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. Right now, after graduate school I’m hoping to continue doing research in reproductive sciences and/or regenerative medicine as a postdoc towards becoming an independent investigator.