A Focus on our PhD Students – (now Dr) Alessandro Gandin

Since high school, as a young student, I’ve been always fascinated by how engineering approaches for studying and tailoring the properties of materials are fundamental for a variety of application. Following this interest, it was easy for me to choose to study materials engineering at the University of Padova and here, among all the other materials, polymers and ceramics attracted my attention. During my Master thesis I faced the exciting challenge of how to exploit an understanding of the functional and mechanical properties of a material to achieve the fabrication of complex micro- and nano-structures. As a first project, I worked with sol-gel hybrid materials and preceramic polymers using different macro- and micro-fabrication lithographic techniques and the more challenging two-photon lithography, a technique that I had the opportunity to learn during a three months traineeship at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology under the supervision of Professor Klaus Bade. The fabrication parameters are a part of the optimization process, since the study of the correct composition and the design of the geometrical characteristics are all fundamental to obtaining multiscale polymeric structures that, once completely polymerized, can be converted into ceramic materials by pyrolysis with minimum shape distortion.

In 2017, I commenced my PhD with a project focused on a different type of gels, namely hydrogels, that have become the main subject of my work under the supervision of Professor Giovanna Brusatin and in collaboration with Professor Stefano Piccolo. Hydrogels are composed of physically or chemically crosslinked water swollen networks which can be designed and tuned to efficiently mimic the soft tissues of the human body. The main goal of my PhD project has been the synthesis and characterization of natural and synthetic hydrogels that can be tailored in terms of mechanical and biochemical properties. Those materials are crucial to study how the mechanical perception that a cell has of its environment and the mutual interaction between the cell and the material regulate not only the normal homeostasis of the body but also can be the reason behind the onset of several diseases. This new material application placed me in a completely new framework, in which I had to learn the fundamentals of cell biology, work together with researchers with different backgrounds and design materials and protocols that have to fulfill the stringent requirements of living cells. To achieve the goals of my project, I engineered, synthesized, studied and used different natural and synthetic materials, exploited different micro-fabrication methods and used different characterization techniques. In addition, I designed and developed a custom instrument, based on the micro-aspiration of the samples, for characterising my materials.

My dream is that hydrogels can be used in any biological laboratory as a routine cell culture substrate merging the wealth of knowledge coming from the different but complementary materials and biological backgrounds.