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Bioengineering’s Marcella Estrella reaches career milestone

Manager celebrates 45 years of history and life in the lab

By Shawn Hutchins

Marcella Estrella CropMarcella Estrella surpassed a career milestone this year. She has worked for the Rice University Department of Bioengineering for 45 years.

Estrella started working for the university’s Laboratory for Biomedical Engineering on Valentine’s Day 1966 to help Mike Serrato, a research technician, with lost-wax casting for the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and Rice University project to build the first artificial heart.

The Laboratory for Biomedical Engineering, which was established by Rice emeritus professors William Akers and J. David Hellums, was an interdisciplinary group that collaborated with Dr. Michael E. DeBakey and his Department of Cardiovascular Surgery at BCM on basic research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health that involved the circulatory system, capability and blood flow, and minimizing thrombosis problems that plague prosthetic devices. 

“I was recruited from the University of Texas Dental Branch where I previously worked as a clinical science technician with Mike,” said Estrella. “I had some lab experience, but mostly I learned to help Rice investigators working on the job through direct one-on-one mentorship. It has been really exciting.”

In addition to watching the department’s programs in research and education take root,  Estrella said she has witnessed significant changes in technology. “For example, for Professor Hellums’ blood flow studies, I labored over IBM punch cards; and then by the early 1970s, I helped Professor McIntire’s group analyze experimental data using the first handheld Texas Instruments’ electronic calculators.”

Today, Estrella’s sleek desktop computer holds her own research into companies for the procurement of custom-tailored supplies geared for Professor Jennifer West’s Laboratory for Biofunctional Materials/Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering.

“Through the years Marcella has stuck with us and worked with a lot of different people. Her diverse knowledge gained by decades of hands-on lab management experience has been an invaluable service to the department and hundreds of students. Many have said she is the glue that holds the lab together,” said Jennifer West, Isabel C. Cameron Professor of Bioengineering and chair of the department.

In addition to working as laboratory manager for Professor West, Estrella maintains supplies and equipment for the department’s rapidly growing undergraduate program. 

“Marcella is amazingly good at troubleshooting problems with equipment. She will quickly figure out what’s broken and what to do about it. I’ve never known anyone to be as handy at fixing things as she is,” said Ann Saterbak, professor in the practice of bioengineering education and associate chair for undergraduate affairs.

Estrella, a native Houstonian and member of a large family of Mexican-Filipino descent, said she never imagined working in the same place for so long. “But the years have been great, and I’ve done so many things. My plan is to keep on working as long as I can.”

When she is not in the laboratory, Estrella can be found on a tractor taking care of her four-acre farm in Manvel, TX. And if that isn’t enough, she also likes to Jet Ski.