By Steve Lewis
CLEVELAND – It’s no coincidence that Jeff Capadona, PhD, has chosen a career dedicated to bettering the lives of veterans.
But while his father, uncle and grandparents all served in the military, fate apparently had other plans for him.
“At one point I wanted to go to a military academy, but I got into a baseball school instead,” he shares. “Then I thought I’d go back and maybe be a Navy SEAL, but I hurt my back, which ruled out service itself.”
Still, says Capadona, he had the urge to give back — to show his deep appreciation for what servicemembers do. “When I see someone in uniform I say ‘Thank you,’” he says.
Ultimately, his expertise and training as a chemist led him to a career as a VA researcher.
“I’ve been with VA since I graduated from Georgia Tech in 2005,” says Capadona, a research health scientist with the Cleveland VAMC and the Advanced Platform Technology Center — one of VA’s research Centers of Excellence — and an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University.
In addition to his desire to give back, Capadona says he was drawn to VA because its career-development program is “far superior” to others he had considered.
“I had other offers for traditional post-doc positions, but VA offers opportunities for growth and development in new areas, with the understanding that they wanted to keep me here and enable me to grow,” he explains.
Specifically, he continues, VA has a very structured program for career development awards. “The first is two years in someone else’s lab and project; then if it’s successful you compete for another grant, and get startup funds for your own project,” he explains. “It’s a very nurturing program – they develop talent within to keep you there.”
In addition, he says, the benefits are more than academic. “I can see patients in the hallway; I walk past them on a daily basis,” he notes.
Capadona’s significant contributions to research at a relatively young age were formally recognized when he became one of four VA researchers and 96 total recipients of the 2011 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE is the highest honor conferred by the U.S. government on federal researchers in the early stages of their careers.
The criteria for the award are promise and early success.
“I’d like to say it’s built on where we’re going or the trajectory of where we’re going,” he says. “I give a lot more credit to my mentors than to me.”
Capadona’s PhD focus area had been controlling the body’s response to medical devices (specifically orthopedic devices) and how to design them so they did not harm human tissue, enabling them to work longer and better.
“When I was recruited, it was for a joint-collaboration project between VA and Case Western to make probes that go deep into the brain and disappear mechanically from the inflammatory and immune system so that the body does not recognize them and they will, hopefully, work longer,” he explains, noting that the goal is to develop small electrodes in the outer layers of the brain and cortex and record what the nerve cells are doing. “They could be used to restore function in areas of the spine, for example, or for brain prosthetic devices, advanced ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) — which is a high veteran population —- or to control computers using thought,” Capadona notes.
The team already has published a couple of papers. “We designed a new class of materials never seen before that can change its mechanical properties based on two mechanisms we designed that respond to the environment of the brain; it starts out as stiff as a CD case, but once in the brain it softens to a thick gel that closely matches brain tissue, thus not causing much damage,” he explains. “This helped propel an early career name for myself within and outside VA.”
While still desiring to get back into orthopedic implants, Capadona says he has found the veteran population to be in much more dire need of this area of research and sees it as one where his expertise can help play a role.
“In the neurological field, a relatively small number of devices implanted in the brain can function and restore critical life-saving processes. And modest advances in the lab can mean major advances for human health, so I want to stay in this area and do what I can to make a difference,” he declares.
Capadona says he would “love” to stay with VA for his entire career, adding, “That’s the plan; to help others get started in VA the same way I did. Helping grow more scientists would be great.