June 24, 2020

Dr. Kristen Maitland (left) and her husband, Dr. Duncan Maitland (right), are colleagues in Texas A&M's Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Interview by Michele Schevikhoven '21

Dr. Kristen Maitland is an associate professor in biomedical engineering and director of Texas A&M’s Microscopy & Imaging Center. Dr. Duncan Maitland is associate department head and holder of the Stewart & Stevenson Professorship in biomedical engineering.


Kristen: I started in electrical engineering, but I wasn’t passionate about the work I was doing. I had arthroscopic surgery on my knee and looking at the video of my surgery, I got excited about the potential to use optical fibers to look inside the body and help solve medical problems using a technology I researched during my master’s. So, I decided to get my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, focusing on high-resolution microendoscopy to look at cells inside the body for early cancer detection.

Duncan: I also started in electrical engineering working at an aerospace company designing plane-based weapons. I didn’t have an intuition for that, so I spoke with my undergrad mentor. He directed me to the Cleveland Clinic, where I observed open heart surgery. The lead cardiologist said to me, “You haven’t passed out yet? This might be the field for you!” That’s when I decided to get my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.

What is the focus of your research?

Kristen: My research focuses on the development of optical instrumentation for improved detection and diagnosis of cancer and bacterial infection. To improve detection of early cancer, my lab developed a multi-scale, multi-modal optical imaging system, and we are developing optical sensing and imaging technologies to enable rapid diagnosis for tuberculosis. As director of the university’s Microscopy & Imaging Center (MIC), I want to enhance interaction between the campus’ core research centers and researchers to create an easy process to complete their work. 

Duncan: I started researching strokes in 1995. To this day, clinicians are lacking the tools to help patients, and many individuals succumb to strokes because of limited resources and technology. I had the idea to create a porous scaffold—a sponge-like material—in the blood vessel to create clots and close off the vessels during hemorrhagic stroke. After creating that material, I developed something called the IMPEDE embolization plug to close off blood vessels in other parts of the body. Now, the device is FDA approved and helping patients all over the world. My goal is to create an infrastructure for medical device manufacturing and translation and apply the same research and devices to pediatric patients.

Why did you choose Texas A&M?

Kristen: As we progressed through the interview process, I became more excited to be at Texas A&M. Learning about the department’s strength in biomedical optics, the great people I would work with, and the university’s focus on family and community made it very attractive. 

Duncan: I was attracted by the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences because it is important to have strong animal research when developing implantable devices like I do. The vascular models that we make are now being used to train veterinary students. I also liked the university’s policies that allowed me to start my own company to produce devices for treating stroke and other vascular diseases. Now, I have three devices approved around the world and hundreds of patients have been treated. It is also possible that the devices can be adapted to treat pets with cardiovascular problems. 

What is it like working together?

Kristen: I love it because you always have a friend and a teammate. Some couples don’t like to talk about work when they’re home, but we’re not like that. It’s great understanding what the other person is dealing with and becoming a supporter by helping each other through challenges.

Duncan: It’s nice to have someone who hears different things and understands the department. Since Kristen directs the MIC, she has multiple interactions with different people and departments across campus, so I also learn many interesting things.

What is your favorite part about your job?

Kristen: I love that I do so many different things. I enjoy working with students and collaborating with intelligent researchers. The university environment is amazing and being around that young energy that students have is motivating. I love the start of a project when I talk to clinicians or scientists and they say, “I wish we could do this.” The evolution of defining the design and coming up with a system is exciting! I’m inspired by opportunities to create something new.

Duncan: The people I work with are wonderful; they help me achieve the goals I set and provide a sense of community that I appreciate. Holding the Stewart & Stevenson Professorship also allows me to fund graduate students’ research and support them as they discover their career interests. I also love hearing stories about patients who have been treated with my devices. We have the potential to help patients who don’t have any alternatives, and that’s so rewarding.  

How do you balance work and homelife?

Kristen: Balancing everything is difficult but having the attitude that you’re doing your best makes it easier. With teaching, I try to understand what the students need and provide the material as best I can. In balancing family, it’s important to be efficient with my time. When I’m at work, I work, but when I’m at home, I try to spend quality time with my children, even if it’s just a few hours a day. 

Duncan: I try not to get over committed and do things with teaching that I enjoy, such as exposing students to situations that mimic or represent what they would be doing on the job or down the road. From the home stand, I strongly believe in outsourcing all jobs you can in order to maximize family time. I haven’t cut the grass in the 12 years that we’ve been here, but I look forward to yardwork again one day!

To learn more about how you can support faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, contact John Bernheim using the form below.