David Maestas, Biomedical Engineering PhD Student

Everyday Hopkins David Maestos

I am a nontraditional graduate student. In my case that meant that after completing high school, I did not immediately go to college. For me, it took many years before I could. Our family couldn’t afford it and I wasn’t academically ready, so I began working in entry level jobs in fast food. Eventually I worked my way up the ladder and became manager of a training store, supervising crews of over 40 people at a time. While I wouldn’t say I enjoyed every aspect, I really loved working with my colleagues and training them. The higher I rose in that industry, the more I began to approach a glass ceiling because I lacked a formal education. The next promotion offered was to become a district manager, and this position would include a gigantic workload. Realizing that advancement would lock me into this industry, I did some soul-searching and really looked at my life as a whole. I asked myself, “Before my life ends, what are going to be my contributions to the world?” As a fast-food manager, I realized that I was selling things that were convenient, but typically impacted people's health long-term. I’ve seen people in terrible health, going back and forth to the hospital telling me things like, “The doctor says I really shouldn’t be eating this, but I can’t stop.” To me, it started sounding almost like we were selling a drug, not just convenient food.

I had a personal realization that the fast-food business isn’t helping to improve peoples’ lives; it had the danger of making them worse. In contrast, I wanted to make an impact and make people’s lives better. This desire led me to recognize that I wanted to be in the medical field, but not necessarily as a medical doctor. As a problem solver, biomedical engineering was the best option.

I had a lot of fears and doubts about going to college after working for years in industry. I am a first-generation college student. I enrolled at a community college, did well, and was asked to serve as a tutor for almost every subject they had available. I was thriving and realized once again that teaching and training people is what I love. I might have stopped after completing an associate degree, but my professors urged me to transfer to the University of Arizona. At the time, I honestly thought that was a high, lofty goal, but I took a shot and got accepted to their biomedical engineering program.

Around the same time, I saw on the news that there is a special biomaterial powder you can put on people’s wounds that could literally regrow fingertips. Recognizing how many wounded warriors and other people have lost limbs from disease, I knew regenerative medicine was something that truly resonated with me. The healing of tissues and organs and unlocking the body’s potential to do so became my passion.

I participated in an educational pipeline program at the University of Arizona, which helps underrepresented minority students transition to graduate programs. Although we all had the academic merit to attend graduate school, many of us were clueless on how the process works and how to improve our applications. Although I really resisted it, the program leaders encouraged me to apply for various graduate programs at prominent schools such as Johns Hopkins. I applied to other universities that I thought were a more realistic match and Johns Hopkins was more of a ‘reach’ school. To my shock, Johns Hopkins invited me to come in for interviews and now here I am—a Ph.D. student in the top-ranked graduate biomedical engineering program in the country. I love saying that. It was all thanks to those mentors and coaches who supported and encouraged me to apply in the first place.

What’s a day in the life of a Ph.D. student look like? I’m a second year Ph.D. student in the laboratory of Dr. Jennifer Elisseeff, director of the Translational Tissue Engineering Center (TTEC). I’ll start my day in the lab, try to catch up on emails, make plans for the week in terms of experiments, then go to class. Throughout the day it’s often a choice between homework and research. I almost always pick research. There is always something to be done: from isolating RNA from tissue, to figuring out gene expressions of an animal model to see if a particular wound treatment is causing it to heal or regenerate versus scarring, to characterizing immune system cell populations in specific tissues through flow cytometry. There are multiple meetings depending on the day, but I would say things are split among planning and preparing for experiments and performing them.

Of course, I do spend time outside the lab. Alone or with my fiancé, Ashlie, I love to travel, hike, read, write and find creative solutions to problems. This year I am also one of the co-presidents of the BME Ph.D. Student Council. I am a member of several clubs, and a recruiter and mentor for the new P-TECH program that Johns Hopkins works with at Dunbar High School. I tend to keep myself very busy, but I try to make sure to keep things in a healthy balance. Weekends are the best time for this as Baltimore has so many fun festivals and community events going on.

Looking to the future, I have a sincere interest in being a teacher. I feel that it’s my chance to give back. Perfectly in line with this, I was recently awarded a fellowship through the National Science Foundation’s graduate research fellowship program, which supports providing a broader impact to the communities in which our research occurs. When I work with students who come from the community and our undergraduate programs and they learn fast, that sparks my energy and excitement.

Experiences like this make me want to come to the laboratory and do more. I am currently living my dream: I wake up every morning and I love what I do!

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David Maestas, Biomedical Engineering PhD Student, 5.0 out of 5 based on 10 ratings


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }


Frances Bayne September 27, 2017 at 3:48 pm



Godfrey September 26, 2017 at 3:44 pm

You inspire me David, thanks for sharing!


Shirley Summerville, RN September 26, 2017 at 10:24 am

Great inspiritional life story. so many underprivileged young people in Baltimore who need the support and financial backing to see their life dreams and aspirations developed.


Donna G. September 26, 2017 at 8:09 am

Thank you for the share of your journey David. I loved reading your inspirational story!


Jane littleton September 26, 2017 at 6:52 am

Great story.


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