Michael Sutton

MS’18 PhD’22

In the lab, biomedical engineer Michael Sutton MS’18 PhD’22 works to alleviate debilitating illnesses stemming from low bone mass. In the bigger picture, as both scientist and advocate, he’s striving to build the bones of a more inclusive society.

A native of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a small city outside Pittsburgh, Sutton says his route to Columbia came by way of an “extremely unconventional and by some definitions impossible educational journey.” Starting off in a low-income and largely segregated public school system, at 12 he earned a scholarship to attend a private school and later went on to Duke University, becoming the first in his family to go to college.

Long intrigued with how the human body repairs itself, Sutton considered a career in medicine, but decided that biomedical engineering would enable him to impact more lives—not only in developing treatments for patients but also in opening doors for underutilized talent.

“Ever since the seventh grade, I have attended predominantly white institutions,” he said. “As a black male trying to excel in STEM fields over years of education, I’ve had a teacher or professor who looks like me on only one occasion.”

Drawn to Columbia by its interdisciplinary atmosphere and global reach, Sutton has spent a busy two and a half years conducting cutting-edge research on bone mass disorders while exploring ways to maximize his impact. For instance, he has twice served as a teaching assistant for Katherine Reuther, a lecturer in biomedical engineering, and, as a member of the University Senate, he represents over 3,000 engineering graduate students and has served on its diversity commission as well as helped develop new academic programs.

Addressing imbalanced demographics, he believes, requires systemic change on multiple fronts. On one level, it requires “research universities understanding the need to hire black and brown individuals as tenure-track professors because of the value they add,” he said. At the same time, Sutton appreciates the power of role models and advocates for minorities pursuing advanced degrees to “take up the torch of educating the next generation of aspiring bright minds who might otherwise have no example of someone of their identity accomplishing what they dream of doing.”

In his own work, Sutton aims to reduce bone loss and develop means of generating new tissue for patients suffering from osteoporosis and other forms of low bone mass. He focuses on the mechanisms and makeup of osteoclasts, the type of cell that absorbs bone tissue. Currently, he’s investigating properties of the primary cilium, an antenna-like organelle that allows many cell types to sense and respond to mechanical stress, which many in the field believe could become an important source for therapies capable of slowing or even reversing age-related bone loss.

Until recently, Sutton worked in the late Professor Christopher Jacobs’ Cell and Molecular Biomechanics Lab. As Jacobs’ final graduate student, he’s grateful for the opportunity to have learned from a pioneer in the field of bone mechanotransduction.

“He taught me a lot about how to ask questions and how to start thinking more like a scientist, which has helped me in how I approach new questions that I encounter,” he said.

Sutton will soon transfer to Professor Lance Kam’s Microscale Biocomplexity Lab, bringing his perspective on cells as microscale machines to understanding and harnessing the means by which the immune system responds to threats. Kam taught Sutton’s very first course at Columbia, Quantitative Physiology, and has been an invaluable advisor ever since.

“Cells have the remarkable ability to respond to complex features of their environment, and Dr. Kam focuses on how T-cells recognize these signals,” Sutton said. “His lab’s work on how cells respond to mechanical cues is along the same lines as principles I’ve been learning about bone mechanosensing, albeit in a different cell type and biological network, and osteoclasts are conveniently relevant in both bone and the immune system.”

This past spring, Sutton received the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, one of just 2,000 fellows selected from more than 12,000 applicants. In addition to receiving a three-year annual stipend and additional educational funding, he also got to go to Dublin, Ireland, in July for the eighth World Congress of Biomechanics.

“It was a great experience, and a bit overwhelming, since biomechanics intersects so many different fields on so many different levels,” he said.

Looking ahead, Sutton is contemplating how best to balance his numerous interests, from cellular engineering to reforming public education to improving access to health care in developing nations. After receiving his PhD, he may earn another degree in public health, public policy, or education, with an eye to becoming a professor at a research university with the resources to take on huge challenges. Wherever he goes, mentoring diverse young talent will remain a priority.

by Jesse Adams

Student Spotlight

Prof. Jacobs taught me a lot about how to ask questions and how to start thinking more like a scientist, which has helped me in how I approach new questions that I encounter.

Michael Sutton
MS’18 PhD’22