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Washington People: Jessica Wagenseil

One in three American adults has high blood pressure, a serious condition that can lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure and other health problems. Jessica Wagenseil is investigating how mechanical properties of the cardiovascular system contribute to this widespread disease.

Jessica Wagenseil

Wagenseil, associate professor of mechanical engineering, joined the Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science (MEMS) faculty in August from Saint Louis University. Her work focuses on cardiovascular mechanics, and how the mechanical properties of the large arteries influence cardiovascular development and disease.

Where are you from originally?
I’m from California. I came here for grad school and met and married a St. Louis boy.

Where did you get your education?
I got a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, San Diego. I got my DSc from Washington University in 2003, working with Ruth Okamoto (DSc, senior research associate in MEMS). I finished my postdoctoral research with Bob Mecham (PhD, Alumni Endowed Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology; interim head of the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology; and professor of medicine, of biomedical engineering and of pediatrics) in 2008.

Explain your research focus.
My research area is cardiovascular biomechanics. MEMS is building a focus in biomechanics with Spencer Lake, (PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering); Amit Pathak, (PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering); Guy Genin (PhD, professor of mechanical engineering); and Phil Bayly, (PhD, department chair and the Lilyan and E. Lisle Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering). I apply mechanical engineering principles to the large arteries — the ones directly off the heart. The heart pumps blood out of the large arteries, and their mechanical properties — whether they are stiff or compliant — affects how much work the heart has to do. Diseases such as hypertension and atherosclerosis are correlated with stiffening of the arteries and can eventually lead to heart failure, so we try to understand how changes in the mechanical properties of the arteries lead to disease and how we might be able to treat them. The other side of my research is cardiovascular development. The large arteries are constructed during development with specific “building materials” of extracellular matrix proteins that provide the necessary mechanical behavior. Genetic defects cause alterations in the amount of matrix proteins available for arterial wall construction and lead to changes in the mechanical properties and ultimately impaired cardiovascular function. We try to understand how the arteries are constructed during development and how we can modify this process in the case of genetic diseases.

Did you ever think about going to medical school?
Yes, but I was mostly interested in the research side of things.

What projects are you working on?
I have two main projects: one focuses on arterial stiffness and hypertension. We use transgenic mice that have stiff arteries and try to understand how stiffness and hypertension are related. We also are trying to see if we can reduce stiffness to reverse hypertension. There are drugs currently in use that are aimed at reducing blood pressure directly, but some affect the mechanical properties of the wall as well, so if we can affect both, it may be a better treatment than just focusing on the pressure alone. That project is in collaboration with Bob Mecham.

My other project involves arterial development. We look at what happens to arterial wall development when matrix genes aren’t expressed properly in the embryonic and newborn mice. We look at gene expression to see what genes are being turned on in the cells that may lead to the improper wall development. We think the mechanical forces from blood flow and blood pressure are really important in affecting the wall development, so we’re trying to measure those and alter those to see if we can slow down some off the defects that occur. The forces felt by the cells depend on the mechanical properties of the surrounding matrix, so we measure those as well. We collaborate with cell biologists and physiologists who provide the transgenic mice, but focus on the disease from a mechanical engineering perspective.

What classes are you teaching?
In the spring I will teach Experimental Methods in Mechanics for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students, and next fall I’ll teach Thermodynamics.

What do you do outside of work?
I have two daughters, Rachel and Lauren, ages 7 and 5. As a family, we like to travel and go to the Saint Louis Zoo, the Science Center and the Magic House.

I play tennis and soccer, and I run. I’m on a very casual women’s soccer league in Clayton, and play tennis with US Tennis Association teams. I like to read when I have time.

What are you most looking forward to now that you’re back at WU?
I’m looking forward to the scientific environment. There are so many people here involved in interesting projects, and my own work will be stimulated by their research.