Welcome Nelly Andarawis-Puri

  • New Faculty Year: 2016

Nelly Andarawis-Puri’s work in tendon research is in the sweet spot where basic mechanics and clinical relevance overlap completely. Andarawis-Puri, who is a Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and a Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in Life Sciences in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell, looks at the role of the extracellular matrix (ECM) of the tendon in injuries and in healing.

Tendons are tough bands of connective tissue that transmit forces from the muscle to the bone. Tendons and muscles work together to move bones. The hamstring and the Achilles tendon are the most well-known, but tendons also help move your eyes (ocular tendons), your jaw (masseter tendons), and your toes (lumbrical tendons). Injuries to tendons are notorious among athletes for both the pain they cause and the tenacity with which they hang on.

For such common injuries, not much is known about some basic questions. Researchers don’t know the mechanisms for how ECM damage accumulates in tendons; they don’t know how larger ECM deformations are translated into cell signals in tendon healing and degeneration; and they don’t know how to promote restoration of tendon and joint function. Andarawis-Puri is working to answer all of these questions.

Andarawis-Puri moved from Cairo, Egypt to the United States when she was nine years old. She picked up English very quickly and became enamored with languages—so much so that through high school she assumed she would major in linguistics once she got to college. “But then I got to Columbia and discovered biomedical engineering,” says Andarawis-Puri. “My undergrad experience with biomedical engineering was eye-opening and I went all in. I knew early on I wanted to continue and get a Ph.D. and go into academia.”

For Andarawis-Puri, the subject matter of biomedical engineering was fully engaging, but there was also the quality of the people she met and worked with. “It always comes back to the people for me;” she says, “People are what make the experience.” Professor Clark Hung at Columbia, Dr. Louis Soslowsky at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Evan Flatow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital have all served as mentors and inspiration to Andarawis-Puri.

After Columbia, Andarawis-Puri earned her Ph.D. with Soslowsky at UPenn. “He is a giant in the field of tendon bio-mechanics and he has been a great mentor to me. My Ph.D. was focused very much on the mechanics of tendons in the rotator cuff of the shoulder.” This work positioned her well to then move into clinical applications of what she had learned. Andarawis-Puri landed a postdoctoral position with Flatow at Mount Sinai. “He is one of the top shoulder surgeons in the world and I learned a lot from working with him. My time with Dr. Flatow provided the basis for my current research at Cornell.”

Tendon injuries and tendon surgery both leave scar tissue that is mechanically inferior to tendon tissue. Andarawis-Puri hopes her work will have immediate applications in the treatment of tendon injuries. Left to its own devices, an injured tendon will repair itself, but when it does, the repaired area is just not as good as it was before the injury. One focus of Andarawis-Puri’s research is how to promote regenerative healing—healing that is scar-free and restores original tissue properties.

Andarawis-Puri is an assistant professor in a school of mechanical and aerospace engineering rather than in a university research hospital because, at heart, she takes an engineering approach to the problem of tendon injury and pathogensis. She has adopted a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates biomechanics, biology, imaging, and mathematical modeling. And Cornell Engineering provides the ideal setting for this approach. “When I was invited to visit and check out the department I honestly wasn’t really looking to move,” says Andarawis-Puri. “But then I got here and met the people and I was really taken with the department. It is full of impressive, accomplished people who are also really nice. This is a perfect place for me to continue my work.”

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