3D Printing Spotlight On: Nicole Witzleben, Biomedical Applications Engineer, EnvisionTEC


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One of the most commonly used 3D bioprinters in the industry is the 3D-Bioplotter by EnvisionTEC, a giant in the 3D printing world that develops, manufactures, and sells over 40 configurations of desktop and production 3D printers. The family of 3D-Bioplotter printers consists of three models with increasing capabilities: the Starter series, the Developer series, and the Manufacturer series. Over 15 years of hardware and software development have brought the original 3D-Bioplotter into its fourth generation, and it’s capable of working on advanced research projects, while also being easy to use.

This brings me to the latest subject of 3DPrint.com’s Spotlight on Women series – Nicole Witzleben, a Biomedical Applications Engineer for EnvisionTEC who is solely focused on the 3D-Bioplotter. She has been with the company for less than a year, teaching customers how to use EnvisionTEC’s 3D-Bioplotter and DLP 3D printers, and spoke about the 3D-Bioplotter at the 2018 AMUG Conference held in St. Louis earlier this month.

[Image: EnvisionTEC]

“I have a bachelor of science in Biophysics from Wayne State University in 2017,” Witzleben tells us. “I’m currently a graduate student at Wayne State and I’m pursuing a masters in Biomedical Engineering with a concentration in tissue engineering.

“I was introduced to 3D printing in my undergraduate research. I was performing research in magnetomotive imaging. My PI had very specific demands for the shape of the tissue phantoms I created for imaging purposes and I was running out of techniques to achieve them. There was a Makerbot in the physics department for students to use and I taught myself how to CAD and create the specific shapes needed for me to make an effective phantom mold. I didn’t know how big a role 3D printing played in research at the time, I just needed to finish the project. I was searching for jobs a few weeks before graduation, and I found the application for my position at EnvisionTEC on LinkedIn. They were looking for people with experience in a biomedical field who were familiar with 3D printing and the rest is history. I did not even know that bioprinting was so huge in the medical research field. Since being here at EnvisionTEC, I’ve learned so much about regenerative medicine and bioprinting in general which really supplements the material I cover in my master’s courses.”

Witzleben is kept pretty busy at EnvisionTEC – she travels around North America installing and performing maintenance and repair on the company’s 3D-Bioplotter and DLP 3D printers. Upon request, she also assists in research and development efforts at the company’s German headquarters, and is part of the exhibition crew that travels to exhibitions and trade shows in North America. Witzleben also serves as the company’s in-house expert to display and discuss these 3D printers in terms of applications. She visits sales managers and customers, as well as designs and executes benchmarks for the 3D-Bioplotter and DLP 3D printers for customers and trade shows in the future.

As wth so many other women in 3D printing, and tech careers in general, WItzleben knows that’s it not always easy being female in the industry.

“Have I experienced any struggles being a woman in this field? Oh definitely! It’s very intimidating and I do feel I have to prove that I know what I’m talking about more than my male coworkers. Attending and presenting at AMUG 2018 was awesome but also incredibly intimidating: the ratio of male to female was definitely not even. At times in the office, I have had people ask me over the phone to ‘speak to the engineer’ to which I have to politely tell them that I am ‘the engineer.’ People often don’t believe that I’m pursuing a master’s degree either but I let the comments fuel my drive more. I feel we definitely need more women in this field and I’m very interested in promoting interest in the STEM field for young women. Though I don’t have the time to volunteer for any organizations that do, it’s definitely something I will pursue once I have the time. The work-life balance with a full time job and full time grad courses is definitely stressful but I want to show more women that it’s possible.”

Growing up, what initially led to your interest in science and technology?

[Image: IMDB]

“I was a huge fan of Bill Nye the Science Guy videos. My mom used to take me to the local library so I could check out the VHS’s and read other scientific books. Math and science have always been some of my favorite subjects. Picking biophysics as my undergraduate degree fit me quite nicely but my passion for it really fired up after I began conducting research. That showed me that it wasn’t just an interest, it was something I truly loved.”

Do you find that most people generally understand what it is you do for a living, or do you have to explain it?

“Most people have no idea what I even do for a living. I’ve tried to explain bioprinting and my role in teaching people about it, but I often get confused nods as my response. I assume it’s because this field is so up and coming.”

What specifically makes your biomedical engineering work so important to the world?
“Bioprinting is revolutionizing the field of regenerative medicine. The research in this area is aiming to allow our bodies to heal using our own tissues. Organ transplants are in high demand, for example. The amount of lives that could be saved if we were able to regenerate organs using the patient’s own tissues would be astronomical. It would also reduce risk factors such as the chance of rejection. This reality is still very far out, but the more people I teach these skills to, the greater the chance we can reach this goal.”
How is 3D printing changing the face of medical research? What specific advantages does the technology provide?

“One of the many benefits to bioprinting is that it offers the option of using the patient’s own cells and tissues to heal or produce the body parts required. If a child were to need something such as a hip or knee replacement, the amount of surgeries needed to keep up with their growth and assure the implant correctly fits would be painful to the patient. If we were to simply regenerate the bone itself, we wouldn’t need constant procedures. Bioprinting allows for the users to create objects out of these biomaterials that are three-dimensional, meaning living tissues no longer are limited to flat petri dishes and well plates.”

Nicole Witzleben with 3D-Bioplotter

The 3D-Bioplotter is easily one of the most commonly used 3D bioprinters in the industry. Was there a big learning curve when you first began using it? How long did it take you to become an expert?

“I spent a week at our German offices learning the ins and outs of the machine and understanding how to print with it. After that, I was shadowed a few times to make sure I was correctly instructing customers on the methods to printing so it definitely took a while to really know my stuff. However, I feel that I’m always learning something new in this position, even after almost a year.”

What do you think is the most significant project in which the 3D-Bioplotter has been used so far? Are there any interesting projects the system is currently being used for?

“I think the academic paper, A Bioprosthetic Ovary Created Using 3D Printed Microporous Scaffolds Restores Ovarian Function In Sterilized Mice, published in 2017 by Laronda et al at Northwestern University, is one of the most interesting projects done on the Bioplotter to date. Laronda et al were able to print a successful mouse ovary scaffold, which after seeding with ovarian follicles, was implanted into a sterile mouse. The sterile mouse regained function of her reproductive system, giving birth to a completely healthy litter of…pups. The pups showed no signs of abnormality and it was also noted that the female mouse with the ovarian implant also regained hormonal functions such as producing breastmilk. When people think of regenerative medicine and bioprinting, their first thought is always to ask ‘Wait so we can print organs?’ Well, research shows that the answer is indeed pointing towards yes!

“I can’t comment on current projects done by our customers unless I receive their permission unfortunately. However, we do have over 225 published articles using our technology.”

This mouse gave birth to live babies after being implanted with ovaries 3D printed on the 3D-Bioplotter.

You said that sometimes people express disbelief that you’re an engineer, and that you’re pursuing a master’s degree.  As a woman in tech, what kinds of opportunities and initiatives are there that currently support and promote interest in STEM learning for girls and young women? What more do you think could be done?

“One of my favorite movements to get young girls involved in STEM is the organization known as GO GIRL. This program gets young girls aged before high school interested in the STEM fields by allowing them to explore different fields. I learned about the organization through some of my sorority sisters who were mentors and I loved the message that it sent. My biggest piece of advice is for parents to encourage young girls to get involved with science-oriented organizations inside and outside school as much as you would encourage your daughter to, say, join a cheerleading squad. Take your daughter to hands-on museums instead of the mall or let her play with Legos instead of Barbies if she wants to.”

What advice do you have for other women who are interested or already involved in 3D printing?

“If you’re already in the field: keep at it, you’re not the only one in the field! If you’re interested, take the plunge! It’s such an amazing field to be in and the possibilities for applications are nearly endless.”

You mentioned that you would be interested in someday volunteering with organizations that promote interest in the STEM field for young women. Which organizations would you work with if you had the time?

GO GIRL [Image: Wayne State University]

“GO GIRL or Math Corps, both Wayne State University organizations that help young kids discover an interest in the STEM fields.”

How do you balance graduate school courses and your full time job, which involves travel, with a personal life?

“Constant communication is the key to balancing everything. I make sure to write everything down on my calendars way ahead of time. My professors and coworkers are always informed of my whereabouts. Graduate school is a little less time consuming than undergrad in my opinion as well: you take less credits to be considered full time and the professors are more understanding of work schedules. Many graduate students in my program also work full time. However, it’s still not easy, and my social life and sleep schedule often take a big hit, but it’s completely worth it. I don’t know anyone my age who has travelled to so many places as part of their job. I’m really thankful for this.”

If you are interested in sharing your story, or know a woman we should get in touch with for this new series, please reach out any time. Send us an email or connect on Twitter. We’re looking forward to sharing more stories about women in 3D printing. Find all the features in this series here.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 


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