A little bit of intrigue has gone a long way in pushing The
University of Memphis to the forefront of research that is
for the faint of heart.
Biomedical engineering associate professor Semahat Demir
was settled into a lucrative career as a research engineer
training doctors and staff how to use medical devices when
an interest surfaced from deep within.
"I also wanted to understand what is happening in the
human body," says Dr. Demir. "I had seen the clinical
aspect, but I also wanted to see the other side."
So Demir returned to school in her native Turkey and later
in the United States to study basic science. Now she is recognized
internationally for her research that ultimately leads to
better drug treatments for cardiac diseases, and for her computational
biomedical engineering research, which has drawn interest
from all over the world.
Demir provides physiology, biophysics and neuroscience research
labs and ultimately pharmacologists with a better understanding
of the effects disease, aging and gender have on cardiac cells.
This allows them to develop better drug treatments to combat
congestive heart- failure, hypertension, hormonal changes
and other heart related problems.
Demir doesn't haggle with experiments requiring lab animals
or test tubes. She uses a non-conventional research method
that provides accurate results. Using equations put into a
computer, she simulates cardiac cells that might be found
in the human body by building a virtual cell model. By changing
the variables and parameters of the equations, Demir is able
to "experiment" on the virtual cell through the
computer. She uses different test data from labs all over
the world to manipulate the cell model to see how aging, gender
differences and diseases may affect it.
"Labs can guide their research with the predictions
the model makes," says Demir. "They can design new
protocols for their animal experiments or predict results
with the model and maybe not have to do the experiment.
"Using results from the computational cell model is
less expensive than doing animal testing much of the time,"
Demir's research is termed computational bioengineering -
she emphasizes mathematical modeling and computer simulations.
Specifically, Demir studies the bioelectric activity of ion
channels that are part of a mammalian cell. Ion channels are
pores in the membrane of a cell wall that elicit electrical
activity. By studying this bioelectric activity under normal
and disease conditions, Demir can provide a better overall
understanding of a cell's physiological function. And new
drugs can be designed to combat cardiac diseases because of
the research. The gap between the research in a cell's physiological
function and in genetics will soon be bridged, notes the associate
Demir works in the Joint Program in Biomedical Engineering
shared by The U of M and the University of Tennessee Health
Science Center-Memphis. "What I do is very interdisciplinary,"
she says. "UT has the medical aspect and we have the
engineering program. This brings together the strengths of
two universities." Demir worked on the UT campus for
four years before transferring to The U of M a year ago.
Those using Demir's research are recognized as heavy-hitters
in the medical world. Labs in medical schools and in physiology
and biophysics departments at Texas Tech, the University of
Calgary in Canada, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard and Rice
University are among those relying on her research.
A major thrust of her program includes developing interactive
software for use on the Internet. Labs, educators or students
anywhere in the world can visit
her "iCell" interactive cell modeling Web site
to learn the latest information on cardiac cell function as
it relates to bioelectric activity.
Demir says that education is another important aspect of
her work. "The biomedical program here is growing, and
we are trying to get more students - they are the future researchers
who will carry on this work."
Demir holds a bachelor of science degree in electronics and
telecommunications engineering from Istanbul Technical University
(ITU) and a master's of science in biomedical engineering
from Bosphorus University in Turkey. At ITU, she was mentored
by her father in clinical and basic science. She also holds
a second master's of science and a doctorate in electrical
and computer engineering from Rice University, and a post-doctoral
fellow certificate in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins
Demir has secured grants from the Whitaker Foundation, the
Turkish National Foundation and the American Heart Association.
She plans to continue building her lab to expand her research
to further educate students.
"I am very proud of The University of Memphis,"
says Demir. "The environment here is very encouraging
and very nurturing. This research is known around the world,
and it reflects well on our school."