Interview with Dr. Nicole Black: 3D-Printed Biomimetic Eardrum Grafts

Dr. Nicole Black is the Vice President of Biomaterials and Innovation for Desktop Health. Nicole grew up in Michigan before moving to Boston to attend Boston University as a Trustee Scholar. There, she studied Biomedical Engineering with a minor in Mechanical Engineering and a concentration in Nanotechnology. Following graduation, Nicole worked briefly at a startup company developing drug-eluting implants for the treatment of epilepsy. In 2014, Nicole started her PhD work at Harvard University in the lab of Professor Jennifer Lewis. During graduate school, Nicole worked on interdisciplinary projects between the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Mass Eye and Ear Hospital, alongside Dr. Aaron Remenschneider and Dr. Elliott Kozin. Specifically, she focused on developing biomimetic eardrum grafts using novel materials and 3D printing technologies. Nicole graduated with her Ph.D. in 2020 and started a postdoctoral fellowship as a Gliklich Healthcare Innovation Scholar. During this time, Nicole co-founded Beacon Bio, a startup company developing 3D-printed regenerative tissue grafts. Beacon Bio was named the runner-up prize winner in the MassMEDIC IGNITE pitch competition and a $25k prize winner in the Harvard i-Lab President’s Innovation Challenge. As the CEO, Nicole led an early-stage acquisition of Beacon Bio to Desktop Metal in 2021. Nicole currently leads a team at Desktop Health, a healthcare division of Desktop Metal, to bring the PhonoGraft device for eardrum perforation repair to patients. She is also leading partnerships with other medtech companies to help them realize the potential of the 3D-Bioplotter for innovative medical devices. Nicole’s accolades include the Collegiate Inventors Competition Graduate Team Winner (2018), the Baxter Young Investigator Award (2020), the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize (2021), and the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Manufacturing and Industry (2022). Nicole is passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers, and she has led a variety of outreach and mentoring programs for K-12 and undergraduate students. In her free time, Nicole enjoys crafting, reading, kayaking, and spending time with her cat, Merlin. Nicole will be speaking at the upcoming virtual event on Bioink and Biomaterials for 3D Printing.

When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing?

Nicole: My first encounter with 3D printing was through FIRST Robotics, where teams are given a new game that they must design and build a robot to compete in each year. I was lucky to join my school district’s team, the ThunderChickens (Team 217), while I was in high school in Michigan. While I didn’t work with any 3D printers directly, many teams used fused deposition modeling (FDM) as a prototyping method to test out new designs with the game components. Most of the time, the final parts that went into the competition robot were fabricated through traditional manufacturing methods, such as sawing, milling, turning, and drilling. I remember thinking how it was a shame that these 3D-printed parts couldn’t be made from more functional materials. This would remove more complex manufacturing stages from the already complicated design, electrical, and programming work that went into a competitive robot.

I didn’t have a chance to work with a 3D printer in a hands-on capacity until I joined Professor Jennifer Lewis’s lab at Harvard University for graduate school in 2014. Many people assume that if you want to join a 3D printing research lab, you must be a 3D printing hobbyist with your own FDM 3D printer. The unique thing about Jennifer’s lab is that most of the research projects use 3D printing more as a tool to explore deeper questions about the behavior of materials and biology in different microstructural arrangements. Almost no one comes in as a 3D printing wizard—most people come in with a deep understanding of a different engineering field and want to use 3D printing to push the boundaries of what variables you can control in a system. For example, her lab has used 3D printing to pattern different cell types adjacent to channels, to create soft robots with programmable dimensions of movement, and to guide the direction of filler materials for enhanced structural stability or for shape-change. While there are a lot of incredible 3D printing technologies developed as part of this work (this multimaterial multinozzle work is very cool), the core question is not “Can we 3D print this?” but rather “What new features can we achieve by 3D printing this?”

This latter question was the major thing I asked myself when I thought about the field that I wanted to make an impact on— medical devices. When most people think of the value of 3D printing for medical devices, they think about customizing a device for a specific patient’s anatomy. While this is certainly one benefit, I was curious about exploring what microstructural benefits we might be able to achieve with 3D printing that can lead to unique benefits for patients that cannot be achieved through traditional manufacturing methods.

What inspired you to start your journey?

Nicole: I started my undergraduate studies at Boston University in 2010, having moved from Michigan to become immersed in what I saw as “the city of medicine.” I started off on a pre-medical track, and I was primarily interested in genetic engineering, which is commonly called synthetic biology. I had shadowed a genetic counselor while in high school and became fascinated by how the body programs itself, especially how diseases arise from mutations and how the genetic information of parents combines in their offspring. After coursework and labs in this field, I realized that while synthetic biology still fascinated me, I wanted to be able to see and to touch the things that I was designing. In the summer of 2012, I participated in a summer research program at Columbia University in Helen Lu’s lab developing biodegradable electrospun scaffolds for periodontal ligament regeneration. I discovered that I absolutely loved working with new materials and looking at how they interacted with cells. The interplay of mechanics, chemistry, and biology all together was a fun space in which to innovate, and I realized that rather than going to medical school and impacting one patient at a time, pursuing the design of new materials and devices for tissue regeneration could impact millions of patients at once. Once I was hooked on biofabrication, using 3D printing to control materials, microstructures, and macrostructures seemed like the best way to “move the nozzle in healthcare.”

Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing and bioprinting?

Nicole: My Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Jennifer Lewis, has been the single most influential person who has guided me down this journey in 3D printing, and just being in her lab has given me a keen eye as to what can be truly impactful in the 3D printing space. During my first year of graduate school, two ear surgeons— Dr. Aaron Remenschneider and Dr. Elliott Kozin—reached out to Jennifer after having read an article about her 3D printing work in The New Yorker called Print Thyself. They were inspired to 3D print ossicles, which are the tiny bones in your middle ear. Having a strong interest in medical devices, I took the lead on this effort, and within a week, we 3D-printed ossicles using data from a CT scan. While it was an interesting endeavor, as we talked more, the question of “What new features can we achieve by 3D printing this?” continued to prod at the back of my mind. After many conversations with Aaron and Elliott, we couldn’t identify a function uniquely enabled by 3D printing that could bring value to ossicular chain reconstruction, particularly as ossicles do not vary much patient-to-patient.

However, Dr. Remenschneider talked about his experiences treating and following the outcomes of dozens of patients from the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing that required tympanoplasty procedures to repair their damaged eardrums. As I learned more about the eardrum, also known as the tympanic membrane, from experts such as Prof. John Rosowski and Prof. Jeffrey Tao Cheng, I realized just how important the circular and radial structure in the tympanic membrane’s middle layer is for sound conduction at high and low frequencies. Unfortunately, most tympanoplasty procedures use autologous tissues to graft the perforation, and these tissues do not mimic the structure or thickness of the native eardrum. Additionally, Dr. Remenschneider and Dr. Kozin encouraged me to observe some of these procedures, and I was struck by how invasive these procedures are. They taught me how interesting the ear is from a scientific lens and inspired me to become an engin-ear to design better ear devices.

Jennifer Lewis Lab

What motivates you the most for your work? 

Nicole: Patients with damaged or diseased tissue for whom there is no sufficient grafting solution motivate me. In the case of the PhonoGraft® device that we are currently developing for eardrum repair, I am motivated by the potential to improve healing and hearing outcomes, but I am also strongly motivated by a desire to make these procedures more accessible to patients. A new patient or parent of a patient reaches out to me weekly to relay their story with eardrum perforations—their pain, hearing loss, tinnitus, and often, their desire to return to normal activities like swimming and bathing. However, for many of these patients, accessing a safe and easy procedure is a massive endeavor. Firstly, these procedures are typically performed by fellowship-trained otologists, and so typically they need to travel to major teaching hospitals. This is particularly a challenge for patients in rural areas and in developing countries. Secondly, these procedures can take months or even years to schedule, and the healthcare system still has not caught up after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled and delayed many elective procedures. Finally, even when scheduled, patients need to find someone to accompany them for a full day at the hospital while they undergo general anesthesia. Often, these patients have health conditions that prevent them from undergoing general anesthesia, so tympanoplasty is not even an option. Thus, I am highly motivated to not only create grafts that function better but also to create grafts that can be placed in a less-invasive manner and by a wider population of doctors. 

PhonoGraft by Desktop Health

What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions? 

Nicole: Part of my role as VP of Biomaterials and Innovation for Desktop Health is forming partnerships with medical device companies to show them the value of 3D printing for new device markets. However, many of these companies are hesitant to adopt new manufacturing methods, particularly as the regulatory processes for new devices can be long and cumbersome. Thus, one of the largest obstacles I face is convincing these partners that now is the time to start adopting high-quality 3D printing systems for end-use medical devices.

One way to conquer this fear of 3D printing is by showing potential partners how 3D printed medical devices are already making an impact on patients, such as Dimension Inx’s CMFlex™. This device is manufactured on the 3D-Bioplotter and recently received 510(k) clearance from the FDA for the repair of oral and maxillofacial defects. Additionally, our team can act as an R&D leg for these partners to lower the barrier of entry for exploring the 3D printing of their devices. 

PhonoGraft by Desktop Health

What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Nicole: One of the biggest challenges in the 3D printing of medical devices is verifying the batch-to-batch consistency of printed devices. Consistency is key in the medical world, and even a few microns of difference in the size or resolution of a part can make a world of difference in patient outcomes. Believe it or not, many medical device manufacturers still employ manual techniques such as cutting, gluing, and sewing in the production of final devices. 3D printing is no different from other conventional manufacturing methods. The solution to verifying that a 3D printed part has been manufactured correctly is to use similar methods that one would use when verifying devices manufactured by other methods, such as by utilizing high-resolution cameras during 3D printing, by taking surface roughness and layer height measurements with a profilometer after 3D printing, and by collecting software log files from the 3D printer. These techniques can help you to verify that your device has been manufactured correctly and to justify to regulatory bodies that your 3D printing process is consistent. 

Our team is proud to work with the 3D-Bioplotter, which is made to the highest of quality standards by an ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certified manufacturer in Switzerland. The Manufacturer Series 3D-Biopotter was truly designed for end-use manufacturing, with features including an integrated high-definition camera for high-accuracy calibration, parameter tuning, and mid-print measurement of 3D printed strand dimensions. Additionally, the software generates log files after project completion, and layer-by-layer photographic logs of the full part enable verification that the device’s interior does not contain defects due to unexpected printing errors. 

Sometimes seeing is believing, and we like to welcome potential customers to visit our Desktop Health Biofabrication Innovation Office in Boston, MA to see the printers in action and watch demos of implantation-quality medical devices being manufactured. Often, customers remark that the resolution and quality of parts created on the 3D-Bioplotter are even better than that of devices that are created through traditional manufacturing methods, such as injection molding. I believe that as verification technologies become standardized, people will begin to see 3D printing not just as a prototyping or customization method, but as a reliable manufacturing method suitable for most end-use medical devices.

PhonoGraft by Desktop Health

If you were granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be? 


  1. Everyone has an opportunity to attain their educational goals, without the burden of cost or sacrificing lost income. 
  2. World climate stabilizes.
  3. Every chemical and material can be produced and disposed of without environmental harm.

PhonoGraft by Desktop Health

What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore? 

Nicole: Take advantage of all opportunities that excite you. If your heart is racing just thinking about it, use that energy to make it happen. For college students, I encourage you to study abroad, spend at least one summer conducting full-time research in your field of interest, and lead a project outside of your field for a cause that is important to you. 

The worst advice that I’ve heard is “Never give up.” Of course, if you encounter challenges but your heart still believes it’s the right pathway, perseverance will pay off. However, sometimes you need to break things to make them better. Use failures as an opportunity to rethink your path and chart a course toward an even more exciting future.

Related Links:

Interview with Dr. Rao Bezwada: Absorbable Polymers for 3D Printing

Interview with Julien Barthes: Silicone 3D Printing

Interview with Craig Rosenblum: 3D Printing Post Processing

Biomaterials for 3D Printing (On Demand, 2022)

Biomaterials for 3D Printing (On Demand, 2021)

The Ultimate Resource Center for Healthcare 3D Printing