Marissa Wechsler: Biomedical engineer returns to alma mater to teach next generation of aspiring engineers and scientists

February 16, 2024
Marissa Wechsler: Biomedical engineer returns to alma mater to teach next generation of aspiring engineers and scientists

Returning to her hometown to join the UTSA faculty in 2021 was a full circle moment for Marissa Wechsler ’15. The biomedical engineering (BME) assistant professor was the first student to enroll in UTSA’s undergraduate BME program when it was introduced a decade prior.

Wechsler was part of the program’s first graduating class in 2015, along with 19 of her peers. Today, the department boasts nearly 300 undergraduate students.

“It was fun and challenging at times to be the first class, but also really rewarding,” Wechsler said. “Now, seeing the other side as a professor, I can see that the department has grown so much.”

Although she now leads a team of students in her own biomaterials and cell engineering research lab at UTSA, when Wechsler first started college, she had no idea that research could be a viable career option, or what the field even entailed. 

“I didn't know what research was. I didn't really know anything about pursuing a Ph.D. or higher education,” Wechsler said. “It was the programs at UTSA, like the minority-based research programs, and my faculty mentors that really introduced me to research as a career.”

During the second semester of her freshman year at UTSA, Wechsler got a true taste of what research was like as a participant in the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) programs, two federally funded research training programs for underrepresented students.

wechsler-lab-2.jpg     wechsler-lab-1-2.jpg
Wechsler working in a research lab as an undergraduate student.     

 

Equipped with this hands-on research experience and a strong academic foundation, Wechsler was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship during her last semester at UTSA. The fellowship funded part of her master’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. 

While completing her advanced degrees, however, Wechsler was unsure of whether she would follow the academic route, work in industry or choose another career. She decided that becoming a professor was the right path for her upon realizing her love for mentoring and for helping others both in and out of the lab.

“I did not see myself being an educator — I feel like it kind of chose me,” Wechsler said. “It dawned on me that the one thing I enjoyed most about what I did in research was the mentoring aspect. I thought that one career path where I could do this often was being a professor.”

A first-generation Hispanic student, Wechsler also recognized the importance of being on a faculty where she would reflect the student population that she served. This made teaching at UTSA an ideal choice, with 59% of Roadrunners identifying as Hispanic/Latino and 45% being first-gen.

“I felt like when I was a student, I didn't see faculty that looked like me,” she said. “Coming back, it was important to represent the student population at the faculty level.” 

Wechsler credits UTSA’s faculty for their support on her journey toward professorship, especially Rena Bizios, Lutcher Brown Endowed Distinguished University Chair and biomedical engineering pioneer. As one of Wechsler’s most influential professors, Bizios introduced her to the world of research as an undergraduate. Now colleagues, Bizios continues to mentor Wechsler as she navigates her career.

“Dr. Bizios is passionate about mentoring, and she is such an advocate for all. It makes me want to do the same for others,” Wechsler said. “Sometimes, you don't see the potential within yourself, so it takes someone else to pull that out of you.”

Wechsler hopes to have the same impact on students that Bizios had on her as a budding engineer. She currently leads a team of a dozen undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral mentees in her lab, training them in research and helping them hone their writing and presentation skills. She also serves as a mentor with ESTEEMED — a federally funded research training program for undergraduates — and is the faculty advisor for the UTSA chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

In fall 2023, Wechsler was one of 10 founding faculty members for the UTSA chapter of Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honor Society, one of the oldest and most prominent research honor societies in the world. UTSA’s involvement in Sigma Xi, which has nearly 100,000 members and over 500 chapters worldwide, will grant students and faculty access to a global network of accomplished STEM scholars. It will also benefit Roadrunners in the form of grants, conferences and other learning opportunities, and support the recruitment of top-tier faculty by bringing international recognition to the university.

sigma-xi-founders.jpgWechsler (bottom row, second from left) with her colleagues for the founding of UTSA's Sigma Xi chapter.

Wechsler was nominated for Sigma Xi membership as a graduate student because of her achievements as a young engineer. She has since been a recipient of a Grant-in-Aid of Research from Sigma Xi. Due to her active membership in the society and continued contributions to her field, she was the only assistant professor chosen to be a founder for the new UTSA chapter.

“I think it’s really inspiring to be a part of, especially being in this role as part of a younger generation,” Wechsler said. “It's motivating to be a founding member and serve in a new leadership position as president-elect. I'm excited to see the growth of the society at UTSA.”

Wechsler teaches the following courses in the Margie and Bill Klesse College of Engineering and Integrated Design:

  • BME 3211: Biomedical Engineering Lab I
  • BME 4443: Stem Cell Engineering

Read more Faculty Features about other interesting and accomplished faculty at UTSA.