Laney Casella lives by one phrase: “You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it.” In other words, stupid questions are always worth asking, and mistakes are always forgivable. What kind of person lives by these words? Only a true scientist, student, teacher, mentor, engineer, and inspiration is so compassionate and patient.
Laney comes from a family of engineers. Her parents and both of her older sisters are mechanical engineers. However, she had no clue what she wanted to study when she was in high school. The career tests she took did not provide her much guidance either. Her first suggested career was to be a doctor, and her second was to be an artist. To her, they seemed utterly unrelated and provided no clarity. When the time came to pick a major, she remembered her parents had taught her that an engineering degree is versatile and can open doors to a myriad of careers, and she chose to follow in her family’s footsteps. Looking back on those seemingly useless career tests, Laney now understands they were telling her that a profession centered around helping others and being creative was the perfect fit for her.
She went on to study biomedical engineering at the University of Akron, and she became interested in addressing the pressing need for organ transplants. Now, under the guidance of Dr. Kent Leach and Dr. Alyssa Panitch at UC Davis, Laney is developing a technique to heal wounds that would otherwise not heal themselves. The focus of her research is tissue engineering, which attempts to recreate the tissues and organs of the body using materials, cells, and signals. Specifically, her project aims to use electrically conductive materials to allow cells to communicate with electric signals. She believes electric signaling will encourage nerves to heal better since nerves are electrically active tissues. If Laney discovers a material that can promote nerve growth, it will have countless applications for other types of tissues.
Creating something out of nothing to help our bodies heal sounds like magic. How did Laney reach a place where she can do things like tissue engineering? Well, many of her achievements come from her courage in the pursuit of her goals and her willingness to try new things. She also owes much of her success to her support system. Laney has received fantastic support from her family, friends, role models, and mentors at every stage of her career. They have always encouraged her to pursue her goals and reminded her that she is her own worst critic. Without loving support in her life, she would have given up on her dreams. That is why Laney strongly recommends seeking advice from someone you trust and respect when you feel lost or unmotivated in your own path to success.
While her family has given her a lot of concrete career advice, the lesson that has helped Laney most is the importance of independence. Learning that most of your adult life is shaped by you is both daunting and freeing. For Laney, being independent means trying things that no one else in her family has tried: taking courses outside of her curriculum, moving to different parts of the country to further her career, and getting involved in worthy pursuits outside of her job description or purview. Although accompanied by fear and doubt, these experiences were exciting and taught her valuable lessons. She tells others that independence is an individual pursuit. Independence may not look the same from person to person, but she hopes her experiences inspire others to acknowledge their fears about trying something new and decide to try it anyway.
Choosing a STEM field for her career has taught Laney about resilience and bouncing back from failure. She has learned to think critically, which has not only made her a better scientist but also helped her navigate through current events discussions. Her greatest piece of advice to aspiring scientists is that you cannot place your self-worth on your academic performance. STEM is a competitive field, and while the hard work it requires is certainly rewarding, it is essential to develop fulfilling interests and hobbies outside of work. You will fail, but that does not mean you are a failure. When times are tough, do not let yourself give up on the things that are important to you.
Laney Casella is not afraid of failure or standing up for herself. Science is mainly problem-solving, and it is just a matter of being resilient, trying new things, and not being afraid of failure. So what can you learn from her? Really, the question should be what can’t you learn from Laney Casella.