Nicki Bergmann, Ph.D. 2005

Following a Career Path in Biomaterials

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After earning her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering from Saint Louis University, Nicki Bergmann knew she wanted to continue her education. She began her graduate degree at Purdue University, studying polymers with Professor Nicholas Peppas. When The University of Texas at Austin hired Dr. Peppas, Bergmann followed to complete her research.

"It was a good decision to come to The University of Texas at Austin," says Bergmann. "UT has a great engineering school, and offered a number of different classes in biomedical engineering. I had the opportunity to be exposed to a huge array of specialties and disciplines within the field. And, Austin wasn’t a hard sell either."

While at The University of Texas at Austin, she developed polymers that mimic proteins to bind to different cells or other proteins in the body and recalls Dr. Christine Schmidt’s biomaterials class as one of her favorites. In that class, she worked on a project to develop wound sealants to be used by soldiers on the battlefield—an area she would revisit later in her career.

"I like working with biomaterials, as opposed to doing more theoretical types of engineering, because I enjoy the hands-on part of it," says Bergmann, "You can physically see, test, and study biomaterials, and the research that I do can directly help people. That is appealing to me."

After earning her PhD and conducting postdoctoral research under former UT alumna Dr. Jennifer West, the chair of the Bioengineering Department at Rice University, Bergmann accepted a senior scientist position with KCI in San Antonio. While with KCI, she worked with wound healing as she had previously with Dr. Schmidt.

"KCI has a product called V.A.C., which stands for vacuum-assisted closure, that basically vacuums bacteria and wound fluids from a wound to promote healing," says Bergmann. "By promoting healing, you can help people with chronic or diabetic wounds heal in much less time. I helped make the biomaterials that KCI used more effective and friendly for the body."

Bergmann found another opportunity in the biomaterials field that brought her closer to home and her family. This year she joined ISTO Technologies in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, as lead product development scientist. ISTO Technologies is a smaller biotech company that focuses on cartilage regeneration. The company, which has been in business for nearly ten years and is backed by Zimmer, currently sells an FDA-approved bone graft extender and has two products in phase 3 clinical trials: one is an engineered cartilage implant for knee meniscus repair and the other is injectable cartilage cells for spinal disc regeneration.

Coming from KCI, the largest medical device manufacturer in Texas to a small startup with 35 employees has been a change for Bergmann, but one that she has enjoyed.

"I’m fortunate to have been able to see how both large and small companies operate, and enjoyed both environments. KCI gave me my start, and I was able to do so much there, and ISTO, because it’s small and a startup, has this very fast-paced high risk environment that’s really fun to work in."