Lisa Volpatti loves helping people. She also loves a challenge. That’s part of the reason why she’s working to improve insulin therapies for diabetic patients.
A PhD student in chemical engineering, Volpatti is researching avenues for a self-regulating insulin treatment that people with diabetes could take once a day. The insulin would be released from an implanted reservoir when a person’s blood sugar levels are high. Manual insulin administration doesn’t always mimic the function of a healthy pancreas, and it’s a burden for patients to give themselves regular injections. Volpatti hopes a self-regulating insulin system could help keep patients’ blood sugar at therapeutic levels for longer periods of time.
One in 11 people across the globe have diabetes, and so the potential reach of Volpatti’s research is massive.
“I get really excited about working on something that could potentially help so many people across the globe and give them a higher quality of life,” she says. “And it’s a really challenging problem, so that’s also exciting from a scientific standpoint.”
Dispelling imposter syndrome
Before coming to MIT, Volpatti studied chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. During her senior year, she applied to the graduate program in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE). She didn’t get in, but that didn’t dissuade her from trying a second time. After going abroad and earning a master’s degree in chemistry from Cambridge University, Volpatti applied to MIT again and was accepted.
“I was really embarrassed to share that with people because I felt like I didn’t really belong. But now, I think that I’ve had a lot of success here, and I’m more willing to share that with people who are also struggling with imposter syndrome, or who think that they can’t do it, or that if they get a rejection it’s the end. It’s never the end,” Volpatti says.
At Cambridge University, her research involved looking at amyloid fibrils, proteins that are typically associated with neurodegenerative disorders, and investigating possible uses for them in biotechnology, specifically in drug delivery. As a fifth-year doctoral student at MIT, working in the labs of Daniel Anderson and Robert Langer, Volpatti continues to work with drug-delivery applications, now for insulin therapies.
Caring for her community
Volpatti’s passion for helping others is reflected in her community service at the Institute, especially in the department where she makes her academic home.
“It’s always been my goal, broadly, to help people. Since I was really excited about chemistry, I thought medicine would be a great place to do that. Throughout my undergrad and grad careers, I try to be involved in other things [in addition to academics] so I can give back, because I also have gotten a lot of help,” explains Volpatti.
She is the co-founder of the Institute’s Graduate Women in Chemical Engineering group that provides support for female graduate students in the department. The group is relatively new — it was established last fall — and Volpatti is excited to see where the initiative will go. When the Department of Chemical Engineering received a 2019 Change-maker award for this effort, they asked Volpatti to accept the award on the department’s behalf. She also recently received a 2019 PKG award.
“I’ve had a lot of really important mentors that have helped me make my decisions, so I try to be a mentor for other people as well,” she says.
Volpatti is also a fellow in the ChemE Communication Lab, where she helps students and postdocs with their communication needs. From dissertation help to resume workshopping, Volpatti tries to help her peers effectively translate their work outside of the department.
She is also active in Resources for Easing Friction and Stress (REFS), a confidential peer-to-peer counseling service that serves as a mental health resource for graduate students. In addition to being a peer counselor, Volpatti and her colleagues organize stress-reducing activities such as free ice cream events and mindfulness workshops.
“Anyone can learn”
Volpatti and her colleagues haven’t created the perfect self-regulating insulin system quite yet, but they have made good progress. For example, they have made headway in the kinetics of insulin release. In mouse models, they have minimized the lag in the self-regulating insulin’s response to high glucose levels.
She will finish her degree in December, and will pursue a postdoc in immunology, specifically in cancer immunotherapy, which involves similar materials and delivery principles as her work with insulin, but with a focus on the immune system.
To take a break from her research, Volpatti loves taking runs down to the esplanade along the Charles River. She also enjoys hiking and camping, and staying in touch with her family. She video-chats with her sister and niece on a daily basis, often showing them her experiments in the lab.
Something that not many people know about Volpatti is that she is an adept juggler — a skill she acquired with her signature determination and persistence.
“One summer I just practiced with a friend who knew how and finally figured it out. I now believe that anyone can learn how to juggle,” she says. “You think ‘no I can’t, I’m not coordinated enough’ but you can. Anyone can learn.”