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Growing with Purpose: Biomedical Program Strengthened by Addition of Crouch

colleen crouch in white lab coat in labBy David Goddard. 

One of the long-term goals of the department—as well as the Tickle College of Engineering overall—is to continue to strengthen, support, and develop MABE’s biomedical engineering program.

The program got its latest boost before the start of the 2021­­–22 academic year, when Assistant Professor Colleen Crouch joined the team.

Crouch, whose specialties include preclinical ultrasound imaging and mass spectrometry imaging for applications to cardiovascular disease and cardio-oncology, first became involved in heart-related issues due to something that hit close to home.

“My dad had a heart attack when he was 42,” said Crouch. “His ordeal got me interested in medical devices. I started out planning to go to medical school, but I had a professor who knew that I wanted to be a professor myself one day, so he encouraged me to go to graduate school instead.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in polymer and fiber engineering at Georgia Tech before earning her master’s and doctorate, both in mechanical engineering, at the University of Michigan. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in interventional radiology at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

That background in materials, mechanics, and imaging has helped Crouch as a biomedical engineer.

“Cardiovascular issues are all about pumps and pipes, in a sense,” said Crouch. “Also, we can use imaging to see what is changing in the body in real time with ultrasound or see molecular changes in the tissue with mass spectrometry. We are interested in various diseases that cause these alterations in biomechanics or biomolecules. In particular, I want to explore how treatments for cancer can lead to cardiovascular damage.”

She said her lab is focused on developing imaging methodologies related to heart health and cancer. She notes that none of this research would be possible without a great team. She said she currently has four amazing undergraduate biomedical engineering students and is looking forward to two PhD students starting this summer.

Since coming to UT, she has been quick to build partnerships, both within the department and the college and across the university.

Within MABE, she and Assistant Professor Elizabeth Barker have a project that deals with drug delivery systems. She has also established contact with colleagues in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and with the College of Veterinary Medicine.

That willingness to partner across disciplines is something Crouch said she enjoys about UT.

“The collaborative spirit here is amazing, even within my first year here,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m competing with anyone but that we really are on the same team across the university.”

A native of Winchester, Tennessee, Crouch attended Tullahoma High School, just down the road from the UT Space Institute.

When she began looking for faculty positions as her postdoctoral fellowship was ending, she knew she wanted to head back south. She drew a circle around a point in the middle of the region and began seeking out opportunities within that area.

As it turned out, timing was everything.

“I just happened to like the department’s Twitter account at a moment that then-department head Matthew Mench was online,” said Crouch. “He responded, and that started a conversation about my interest. One thing led to another, and here I am.”

She was ecstatic at the prospect—and quick to explain her excitement.

“Because Tennessee is home,” she said. “I came home. I like being here. I like the Volunteer spirit—I like how the campus commits itself to the idea of making things better, of giving back.”

Her brother, Keith, graduated from MABE in 2013 and still lives in Knoxville, but her connections to the area don’t stop there.

Curiously enough, before Crouch could begin working at UT, something entirely coincidental happened that made the opportunity even more special.

Her parents decided to retire and made a prophetic selection of cities.

“My parents bought property in South Knoxville about a week before I got the job,” Crouch said. “They had no idea I might have a job here. It just worked out well for me.”

If her early successes are a sign, it worked out well for the department, too.