As the first chair, Danielle Benoit looks to build the next phase of UO’s Department of Bioengineering at the Knight Campus
If there’s one thing engineers love to do, it’s build things. And what could be more fun to help build than the very first engineering department at the University of Oregon?
Danielle Benoit, an expert in therapeutic biomaterials, was recruited to the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact as the inaugural Lorry Lokey Chair of the Department of Bioengineering as the department embarks upon its next phase of growth.
“It’s pretty rare that you get to build a department – not starting from scratch by any stretch – but there’s an incredible number of resources at the Knight Campus and opportunity to really have an imprint on the department,” Benoit said. “The Knight Campus is invested in cutting-edge, highly impactful research. When you combine that with emphasis placed on the holistic training of graduate students, which is embedded in the fabric of the program, I feel like I’ve really found my people here.”
An award-winning teacher and mentor who previously served as the William R. Kennan Professor in the University of Rochester Department of Biomedical Engineering, Benoit is the Knight Campus’ first formal chair for the Department of Bioengineering. She is also, incidentally, the featured speaker at this year’s Science Knight Out community science talk. Prior to Benoit’s arrival, the academic and research interests of the Knight Campus were led by James E. Hutchison, senior associate vice president and the Lorry Lokey Chair in Chemistry.
“Since day one, we’ve been focused on forging new academic programs and establishing a culture of excellence and novel education strategies throughout the Knight Campus,” Hutchison said. “Danielle has taken the baton and is off and running with it. It’s clear she has what it takes to win.”
In detailing her goals for the academic program, Benoit credits Hutchison for his work during the inception years of the program.
“Jim has laid the groundwork for our students to receive outstanding technical training, career development, and the entrepreneurship and communication skills they need to succeed,” Benoit said. “I look forward to building on that strong foundation and expanding the possibilities for our next-generation bioengineers.”
The Knight Campus culture and approach to research and teaching were big draws for Benoit.
“They really care about the process of discovery here,” Benoit said. “I’m very devoted to highly impactful research. They saw my research as an asset rather than a secondary focus as chair.”
An NIH- and NSF-funded researcher, Benoit specializes in the design of materials to improve disease treatments and expedite recovery from injuries. Her work has provided insights into the translation of tissue engineering strategies for bone healing and development of tissue models to discover new drugs and drug delivery systems.
This work has led to ten patents and direct impact in several applications. In bone regeneration, Benoit has discovered new ways to control key interactions responsible for recreating bone and ensuring that critical processes happen at the correct times. In drug delivery, she has worked in tissue targeting approaches that zero in on target areas without affecting surrounding tissues, including for chemotherapy.
“Chemotherapies are notoriously challenging. You’re always walking a fine line between harming your patients and getting rid of the cancer cells,” she said. “We are developing our drug delivery systems so you don’t have to be so close to that line, where you can precisely deliver drugs to the tumor.”
Benoit calls herself “a quintessential engineer” who would spend rainy days as a child in her native Maine using duct tape, cardboard, and old encyclopedias to build racetracks for her Matchbox cars. Bioengineering was a natural outlet for her desire to make things and to help society, which aligns well with the mission and vision of the Knight Campus.
“I’m a tinkerer. I love taking things apart and putting them back together and I was really drawn to applying that type of tinkerer approach in biomedical applications in my career,” she said. “Trying to improve society and society’s health is highly significant and very motivating for one’s life’s work.”
Benoit is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering and is currently on the editorial boards of The Journal of Biomedical Materials Research, Science Advances, and Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington in the Department of Bioengineering. She holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a B.S. from the University of Maine, Orono, in Biological Engineering.
Benoit was a popular teacher and researcher at the University of Rochester and continues to mentor her students and postdocs, including those new to her lab at Knight Campus, those transitioning from Rochester, and also those who have chosen to remain in Rochester. Guilherme Rocha, a postdoctoral scholar in Benoit’s lab whose research is focused on drug screening for new topical dental treatments, worked with Benoit in 2020 as a visiting Ph.D. student and rejoined her group as a postdoc in 2022. He says there is no place he’d rather be than in her lab.
“The Benoit Lab is a worldwide leader in drug delivery systems, offering me my best opportunity to develop new projects with high impact in this field,” Rocha said. “Being a member of the lab and the Knight Campus, I am part of a community of researchers that do the best work possible. We are limited only by the technology available on the present day. This is the best place to continuously learn and challenge myself and achieve personal and professional growth.”
For Benoit, the transition from the Northeast to the Pacific Northwest has been a relatively seamless one. Having grown up in Maine, she found one particular scent in Eugene to be a surprisingly sentimental one. While standing on the Knight Campus terrace after arriving at the UO, she and Knight Campus Executive Director Bob Guldberg were talking, and he asked what the smell was in the air that day. Without missing a beat, Benoit answered like a local, “That’s the paper mill.”
“The town I grew up in had a paper mill,” Benoit said. “I keep noticing these similarities in Eugene to my hometown in Maine, but I am happy the winters are not nearly as bad here.”
Benoit is joined in Eugene by her husband of 20 years, Patrick, and children Raymond, 10, and Katherine, 7.
To learn more about Benoit and her research at the Knight Campus, visit the Benoit Lab for Therapeutic Biomaterials website.
More from the Benoit Lab for Therapeutic Biomaterials
Science Knight Out
Danielle Benoit is the keynote speaker for Science Knight Out 2023 with her talk titled "Precision Medicine for Better Bones" on April 11 at The Shedd Institute.
Read more about Danielle's research projects at her lab at the Knight Campus.