Faculty Spotlight: Joseph Freeman

“When a student first comes in, they’re asking you questions. By the time they leave, if you did your job right, you’re asking them questions.”

– Joseph Freeman, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director, Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineering associate professor and graduate program director Joseph Freeman is unstoppable – even in the midst of a global pandemic. Named a recipient of the 2020 Outstanding Engineering Faculty Award by the SoE Industry Advisory Board, he has also recently received a collaborative NJ ACTS grant to create a tissue-engineered implant able to monitor tissue development in real time. His SoE Musculoskeletal Tissue Regeneration (MoTR) lab focuses on repairing and regenerating musculoskeletal tissues through tissue engineering techniques, while also exploring mechanisms of tissue damage and healing, cancer development, and molecular modeling of structural proteins. He has also co-authored the seminal textbook, Building Tissues: An Engineer’s Guide to Regenerative Medicine, which was published in 2018 and which is an extension of his classroom teaching on tissue engineering.

What drew you to biomedical engineering and tissue regeneration?

I’ve known I wanted to be an engineer since middle school. My mom found an article in the Star-Ledger about a 10- or 11-year-old kid who had bone cancer in his femur, which his doctors removed and replaced with a metallic implant. The kid had to grow, so there was a groundbreaking advancement of a pin in the implant that could be adjusted with additional painful surgeries as the kid grew. I thought there had to be a better way to avoid repeated surgeries, pain, and recuperations and in high school I came up with the idea of an implant that would grow with a kid. That’s when I decided I wanted to work in this field.

Have you realized this goal?

We have a patented bone implant that we are still working on. What’s interesting is that it’s designed to grow new bone and also provide blood vessels for the new bone.

We can grow tissue – no problem. But without infusing the tissue with blood vessels to provide nutrients and transplant waste, it develops a necrotic core and dies.

So, we’ve set out to provide a graft that already has the blood vessels put in, so that once implanted stem cells can climb in and grow new vasculature off of this scaffold.

Who would most benefit from this?

The main application is for people with shattered, broken bones, like wounded soldiers or accident victims.

When a bone is shattered, doctors approach this like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. They take out all the pieces, put a metal rod through and try to stitch things together. The patient is then immobilized for healing.

In our case, we would still use the rod, but around it would have the implants. There would be clean cuts, no jagged edges and our implant would go into a space seeded with stem cells, so that it would fuse well with surrounding bone and grow. You’d have a cleaner, shorter surgery, which would reduce chances of infection, fewer complications from anesthesia, and an easier recovery.

This approach could also be used for cancer patients, whose bone has been removed. We would remodel after a cancer resection and provide all the scaffolding for muscles, bone, and ligaments.

Did you ever want to be a doctor?

I thought about it but didn’t like blood at the time – I’m kind of squeamish.

What does your recent NJ ACTS grant support?

It’s a small grant for me and my NJIT colleague, Roman Voronov, for a device that he came up with. He brought me along on the grant because of the work my MoTR lab has done on bone.

It’s a way to run an animal experiment and look at the progression of what you implanted without sacrificing the animal. The idea is that this could be a tool in the future for researchers to see how implants are doing that would be cheaper and more effective. You could sample more frequently and get tons more data for a fraction of the work and cost, monitor more animals, while reducing the numbers of animals you would have to sacrifice.

What does the future hold for tissue regeneration?

I think we’ll go into two routes. On track leads to advancing tissue health. A lot of work will be in maintenance, where we can do therapeutic things to maintain overall tissue health to increase the number of stem cells and prolong their life, so that as people age you won’t see as much musculoskeletal degeneration.

The other track leads to emergency cases. A lot of what I do is for emergency care from accidents or injuries where I would provide functional scaffolding to let the cells do what they need to do to fix something.

What most excites and inspires you about your research?

To be able to build something and do something to help people is really great.

I have a condition called Prune Belly Syndrome (PBS) – no abdominal muscles and a distended bladder. The idea that I could do some research that could help children who have the same issues I do – so that they don’t have to go through endless doctor’s visits or being teased – pushes me.

Do students help in your work?

They are the main ones who keep things going! When a student first comes in, they’re asking you questions. By the time they leave, if you did your job right, you’re asking them questions. I tell them that now that you’re leaving, you are so much more interesting.

What does your 2020 Outstanding Faculty Award mean to you?

It’s really cool. You get into the job because you like teaching and doing research, but you also like the idea of training and grooming the next generation of engineers. Being recognized for this part of my job means a lot. We can all look back to see who helped us, mentored us, or gave us the skills to be what we are in our profession. This acknowledges that I’m doing what I set out to do to be an effective teacher and mentor.

The award recognizes not only your scholarship and teaching, but also your service. What are some of your service activities?

I’ve done a lot for the School in terms of diversity and inclusion. I’m on the LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation) board. I opened up my lab so students could apply and come in and get lab experience through the LSAMP program.

I’m originally from Newark, and moved to South Orange, but make it a point to go back to schools in Newark and talk to students there. I share my path and run an experiment. From what I’ve heard, the students are excited that someone who looks like them is doing something cool and that biomedical engineering is an actual profession. I do this in the schools where my mom and sister teach and in my own kids’ schools as well.

You  spoke powerfully about racism at the BME Class of 2020 virtual celebration as Black Lives Matter protests were in full swing, urging the new graduates to, “Look at the problem from different angles, analyze it, and then act. Add your voice to others about this until they see the wrong.” How do you think SoE can support and celebrate diversity and inclusion during this time of remote learning?

Although you can’t do some of the things – such as programs and events – right now, I think the basic rule of opening yourself up to others still applies. If you’re a student in a group, make sure the other students don’t all look like you. When hiring, make sure you bring in a wide range of people. The more you make diversity and inclusion a priority, the easier it becomes. It’s the little, everyday things that make a difference.

What do you like to do for fun?

Before everything happened with the pandemic, I played basketball two or three times a week at lunchtime with faculty and staff. I’d hang out with friends and family and see movies.

Now I go for walks and listen to podcasts. My daughter is into Japanese and other cuisines, so we’ve had some experimenting in the kitchen. My kids are 14, 12, and 10 – they eat a lot! It’s like having college students in my house.

If you were able to take a vacation these days, where would you go?

I’d go to an island – to the Bahamas or Bermuda just to be by the beach every day, have great food and rest. I miss that – not being able to take that kind of vacation really stinks.