Graduate student spotlight: Engineering stem cells to treat degenerative diseases

Throughout the year, we highlight Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month, we’re featuring Vladimir Molchanov, a Ph.D. student in the lab of Dr. Tao Yang. Vladimir studies how modifying a person’s own stem cells using genetic engineering may help develop new treatments for osteoarthritis.

How would you describe your area of study to someone without a scientific background?

My research focuses on developing new therapies to treat osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease that results in the breakdown of joint cartilage. This tissue normally cushions and protects bones from damage and cannot naturally repair itself, and thus can be completely lost during osteoarthritis.

To stop and cure this disease, we need to artificially evoke cartilage regeneration. This can be achieved by bringing in stem cells, which can develop into cartilage tissue and repair the damaged joint under certain conditions. These cells can be isolated from the patients’ bone marrow or fat and injected into the diseased joint.

However, recent studies have shown that stem cells fail to attach within the joint upon injection and cannot effectively repair cartilage tissue. In my work, I aim to overcome these issues by modifying stem cells to recognize and bind to damaged areas of the cartilage and regenerate lost tissue.

What do you want to do with your degree?

I ultimately aim to become a principal investigator in the field of biological engineering. I am fascinated with integrative research that seeks to develop solutions to complex biomedical problems and can directly improve human health.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

My primary motivation comes from the excitement of accepting and overcoming challenges while both solving biomedical problems and achieving academic goals. Moreover, I’m fueled by the contribution my research can make to tackling currently incurable diseases and thus helping millions of people.

What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?

I am most proud of being awarded a highly competitive Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology during the third year of my undergraduate program. There, I had an exceptional opportunity to do research with many extraordinary scientists at an institution that facilitated the work of more than 40 Nobel Prize laureates, including Albert Einstein.

Why did you choose Van Andel Institute Graduate School?

I was attracted by the unique problem-based approach implemented in the coursework, which promotes a highly engaged learning process and a deeper understanding of concepts. With classes directly instructed by world-renowned scientists in state-of-the-art research facilities, VAI’s program provides an exceptional opportunity to become a biomedical research leader. Throughout the entire application process to this Ph.D. program, I received phenomenal support from the Graduate School, which further influenced me to join VAI.

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school, or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?

During my undergrad degree, I gained many important critical thinking and self-organizational skills, which prepared me for certain challenges of the graduate program. However, pursuing a Ph.D. has been an experience different from any other I had before, pushing me to formulate new strategies in managing professional relationships and scientific expectations.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?

Although I gained most of my current field-specific knowledge during the graduate program, my previous coursework provided me with fundamental concepts in biotechnology, chemistry, physics, pharmaceutical manufacturing and mechanical engineering that often enable me to shape a broader perspective of my research area. Mechanisms behind osteoarthritis pathology extend far beyond molecular and cell biology, and thus therapeutic development requires a comprehensive approach.

Interested in Van Andel Institute Graduate School? Learn more at and read previous student spotlights here. Read more about the M.D./Ph.D. program here.