Linda Dahlgren, professor of large animal surgery at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM), was awarded the 2021 Zoetis Award for Veterinary Research Excellence, which acknowledges researchers whose innovative studies have advanced the scientific standing of veterinary medicine.

The award recognizes her work in comparative musculoskeletal research investigating regenerative medicine therapies for tendon, ligament, and joint disease in horses and the translation of these findings to human medicine.  

In her nearly 19 years at the VMCVM, Dahlgren has maintained a successful independent research program and has developed several productive collaborations both inside the college and with other Virginia Tech researchers. Her expertise in tendon biology and healing in horses led to ligament engineering projects with Associate Professor Aaron Goldstein of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Achilles’ tendon rehabilitation with Associate Professor Vincent Wang of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics.

Dahlgren uses her equine background to advance the health of horses while applying what she learns in horses to advance human medicine.

Dahlgren's position at the VMCVM encompasses clinical practice in large animal surgery, DVM and graduate student teaching, and her research. However, her early-career goal as a surgical resident was focused on starting her own private practice."I'd never done anything in the lab, but I had a mentor who researched mycoplasma. He taught me how to grow some tendon cells and design a project, and I discovered that I enjoyed it. There are many similarities between the problem-solving in research and the diagnostic work we do in the hospital. It's a similar thought process, and I like the problem-solving aspect of it," Dahlgren said.

Her clinical background has served Dahlgren well in her research, enabling her to combine her medical expertise and clinical perspective with her research training to design rigorous and widely cited studies. "I always thought of myself as a surgeon first and a researcher second, and I think the combination of being a clinician and doing research is special. I'm grateful that I have those two pieces that I can pull together and use."

This passion and skillset led Dahlgren to the work that won her the Zoetis Award for Veterinary Research Excellence. Dahlgren's research primarily focuses on regenerative medicine approaches to treating musculoskeletal injuries.

She is a founding member and co-director of the Regenerative Medicine Interdisciplinary Graduate Research Program. Her early work focused on investigating the mechanisms by which adult stem cells derived from adipose tissue improve tendon healing in horses. Through her tissue engineering work with Goldstein, Dahlgren developed an interest in how mechanical force and the transcription factor scleraxis influence the differentiation of adult stem cells into tendon fibroblasts.

Most recently, Dahlgren's focus turned to using macrophage progenitor cells from bone marrow to restore joint homeostasis in horses and people with osteoarthritis. This work is ongoing in collaboration with her former Ph.D. student, Bruno Menarim, now at the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky. This work has generated four publications, with another two in progress.

In addition to winning awards such as the 2021 Zoetis Award for Veterinary Research Excellence, Dahlgren says teaching and mentoring have been the highlight of her career. She has dedicated herself to sharing her research expertise with others to raise discovery across the VMCVM and Virginia Tech.

"One thing that I would like to emphasize about my research that I'm most proud of are the students that I have trained. VMCVM has provided an avenue for training young people, and seeing the light come on as a student begins to connect the dots has been the most gratifying thing to me. We've developed long relationships, and I love to see what students are successfully doing now using the tools that I was able to pass along to them as part of the training program," Dahlgren said. "My goal has been to produce early-career scientists that can take their discoveries beyond what I have achieved."

Dahlgren was recognized in 2021 for her efforts with the VMCVM Outstanding Mentor Award from the Virginia Tech graduate school for her role in supporting, encouraging, and promoting a positive and inclusive scholarly and teaching environment and for contributing to the professional and personal development of graduate students.

 

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