Photo L to R: Jiyang Chen, Martin King

By Debbie Willmschen

Before Jiyang Chen, Ph.D., started his journey at NC State Wilson College of Textiles in 2013, he thought he only wanted to learn more about fabrics and new techniques in the textiles industry. He knew an advanced degree was the natural next step after receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in textile engineering from Donghua University in Shanghai, China. This decision also seemed a reasonable inclination given that his father owned a clothing company and that his life had been steeped in clothes making. Chen chose the Wilson College as he continued his course of study specifically for its commitment to innovative technologies and its diversity in educational expertise among its educators. 

But, as sometimes happens on journeys, Chen discovered new interests — and along the way his plans changed.

Chen had never left Shanghai before, and upon arriving at the Wilson College his first task was to adjust his expectations for life in his new home. “When I flew over Raleigh, I said ‘Trees are everywhere! Where is the university? Where is the city?’” According to Chen, understanding the unique pace of his new environment was challenging in the beginning. But he soon settled into the routine of study and research and found that he enjoyed the freedom of choosing and running his own projects. Chen credits his mentor, Martin King, professor of Biotextiles and Textile Technology, with helping him to navigate and better understand the Ph.D. process at the Wilson College. 

According to Chen, working with King was critical in helping him to realize new areas of research that he had not previously considered, especially regarding biomedical engineering. With King, Chen worked in the Biomedical Textile Research Group where he connected the textiles techniques that he understood with biomedical engineering that he recently found intriguing. In early projects, Chen worked with polymer science, biomedical materials, scanning electron microscope imaging, cell culture and tissue engineering. Later, his research focused on applying fabrics to tissue engineering and biomedical products and conducting mechanical and biological tests. “I found the biomedical side of textiles engaging, because it can help so many people,” Chen said. King motivated Chen to pursue more independent thinking and to lead his own projects and encouraged him to collaborate with other departments and professionals. “In addition to providing guidance on course selection, Dr. King connected me to other professors and faculty who helped me expand my knowledge.”  

For Chen, it was King’s guidance that ultimately led to the crux of his own doctoral research and the development of a knitted scaffold heart cap that can be used in patients who have heart damage due to a heart attack. Typically, after such an event, the body creates scar tissue in the heart, which can reduce normal heart function and increase heart size, further weakening it. Through Chen’s research, this heart cap provides passive mechanical support to reduce the stress on the heart and to limit the growth of scar tissue. The materials used in fabricating the heart cap also include biodegradable polylactic acid and collagen yarns that carry the progenitor stem cell. These cells secrete various growth factors to help repair and recover heart function. In addition, the biodegradable nature of the materials eliminates some known cardiac challenges, such as removing the device or future surgeries.

“It’s important that our research be clinically related to enable us to design medical textile products that will benefit patients with a particular disease or injury — in this case, cardiac events,” King explained. “I was happy to connect Jiyang with cardiac surgeons at Duke University Health System, researchers at UNC School of Medicine and clinicians here at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine to move his project forward.”  

Chen successfully defended his dissertation thesis in October 2020, receiving his Doctor of Philosophy in fiber and polymer science after a slight delay due to the pandemic shutdown earlier in the year. According to Chen, although the lockdown was especially difficult for Ph.D. students whose research relies mostly on lab work, the Wilson College was flexible and innovative to meet this challenge. 

“I am appreciative of the adaptability of the Wilson College professors and people who helped me complete my research,” Chen said, who was able to minor in biomedical engineering where he learned advanced techniques – such as DNA expression – that were beneficial to his doctoral research. According to Chen, students can explore any path they choose because of the unique learning and research environment at the Wilson College. “The college provides a good platform to explore options and to engage with different types of ideas and people,” said Chen. “You’re not limited here. If you have an idea, you can find a way to realize it.” 

Chen initially thought that he would return to China to help his father with the clothing business – to make the business better or bigger. But now, he thinks he can influence a greater good by expanding his knowledge in different ways. “I really appreciate my parents, because most parents have some kind of expectation for their children,” said Chen. “But they said ‘If you really like to do that, we will support you.’” For now, Chen plans to stay in North Carolina in a post-doc research position at UNC Chapel Hill, where he can continue to focus on biological sciences research.