(Editor’s note: Each month since May, the WVU Alumni Magazine online features a woman who has made her career in science or related field at the University. They each have a different, fascinating story to tell about how they’re contributing to human knowledge. Visit the site to find monthly updates on A Year of Women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.)
Dinu grew up in Communist Romania in her grandparents’ home where her grandmother, Dobrita (Dob-REE-tza), encouraged her to read.
But it was a joint effort.
Once Cerasela was done with a book, Dobrita would read it as well. They continued that way for years, moving on from nursery tales to youth fiction.
“My grandmother was the one pushing me since I was a small kid,” Dinu said.
Dobrita had taken all seven years of primary school in her village, and the local priest suggested to her father that she study to qualify as a teacher.
She never had the chance. Her father died and the Second World War began. But she sent her two daughters to high school.
Dinu, the first in her family to attend college, went further toward her career when her parents took “no” for an answer. They wanted her to attend a vocational high school, but she chose to study math and science, subjects she excelled in. They accepted that.
Most of all, Dinu is now exploring futuristic nanobiotechnology approaches at West Virginia University because of herself. She’s competitive. She’s driven. She calls her motivation a “fire in the belly.”
“I just want to know what I’m able to do in order to make a difference,” she said.
Journey to engineering
Braila, Romania, where Dinu grew up, was similar in size to West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston but with a flat landscape.
She grew an imagination quickly. She was nearly a decade younger than her brother and sister, and during her childhood the only television programming in the country was mostly propaganda every night.
In a way, growing up in a Communist country was a motivator to excel. And whatever the reason, she grew up without hearing that women couldn’t pursue careers in science.
She took a physics degree in college and received a master’s degree in biophysics, but not before she took a semester of research in Italy, a big step that culminated in getting her Ph.D. in Germany and a move to the U.S.
Since then, the physicist has pursued the emerging fields of biomedical engineering and nanotechnology, something that hadn’t entered her head when she started college.
As a woman, she says she hasn’t been discouraged in her career path. She knows of others who were discouraged from pursuing the path she took, but she feels the engineering field could do with greater diversity. According to a National Science Foundation report on “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering,” approximately 11 percent of engineers are women.
Dinu sees women in engineering as filling an important role in innovation. The sexes need the other’s perspective in the workplace.
“They look at the same thing and they see different things,” Dinu said. “They do tend to complement each other I will say. But when it comes to hard work, you see hard workers in both females and males.”
Dinu daily examines something called a carbon nanotube. The cylinder made of carbon can range from one to 50 nanometers in diameter at its smallest, about the size of smoke or virus particles. Experts in her field are exploring how the tube could potentially deliver targeted medications to attack a tumor while leaving the rest of the body untouched.
Dinu, who has been awarded National Science Foundation funding and works with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is examining any potential harm the tube could have on human cells. Her research can help direct biomedical efforts toward the nanotube as a solution or away if it proves harmful.
She and her graduate students watch the smallest movements of the cells that are touched by the nanotubes. They see if the cell proteins or surface morphology change. They watch for stiffening and any toxicity.
She’s seen an opportunity for her research to change medical treatments, yet she also sees an opportunity for her students. On the one hand, she’s exploring the pitfalls of localized drug treatment through nanotechnology and on the other she has an eye on statistics that say biomedical engineering is the new “it” field.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the occupation of biomedical engineer will be the third fastest growing in the nation, with the field ballooning by nearly 62 percent between 2010 and 2020.
That’s why she has taken on undergraduates for summer research as well as several graduate students every year and formed a chapter of the Society for Biological Engineering shortly after her arrival at WVU. This year she will be advising that chapter along with the chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
The little girl with dreams
Dinu was often sick as a child. She saw many doctors in white coats. When she got home she practiced on her dolls, some of which sported missing limbs.
“I was the little girl that wanted to be a doctor,” she said.
Later she saw her family members, including Dobrita, age, grow ill and die. She had a new motivation for medicine.
“It’s seeing your parents and grandparents getting sick and being able to do nothing,” she said.
But the medical system in Romania was too corrupt, she felt, and she was an assertive patient who wanted to ask questions and be involved in her healthcare decisions. She didn’t want the power that came with being a doctor; the power of making decisions for another’s life.
“I believe that one has to be actively involved in his or her own healing process and ask questions,” she said.
Now she says she’s contributing to medicine in another way. She’s a different kind of doctor. One who asks questions about the fundamental unit of our bodies: the cell.
“The average body is a complex machine formed from about 50 to 75 trillion cells,” she said. “Sometimes those cells need repair. That is where we come in as biomedical engineers: we apply engineering to solve problems in medicine to understand, restore and improve the quality of life for people who are suffering.
“The idea of doing something biomedical-related is the one that is appealing to me because you feel like that’s the impact that you can make to society, which is transforming because of aging and new diseases.”
By Diana Mazzella
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