Associate Professor Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina

Fields of Research (FoR)

Biomedical Engineering, Biomaterials, Regenerative Medicine (incl. Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering), Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Functional Materials, Cardiovascular Medicine and Haematology


Dr Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina is an Associate Professor and Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering. She completed her doctoral degree in Prof Anthony Weiss' lab at the University of Sydney and postdoctoral training in Prof David Kaplan’s group at Tufts University in Boston prior to joining UNSW in 2014. Her research interests are at the interface of biology and engineering, focusing on the...view more

Dr Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina is an Associate Professor and Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering. She completed her doctoral degree in Prof Anthony Weiss' lab at the University of Sydney and postdoctoral training in Prof David Kaplan’s group at Tufts University in Boston prior to joining UNSW in 2014. Her research interests are at the interface of biology and engineering, focusing on the development of novel, biomimetic biomaterial platforms with tuneable physical and biological features that direct cellular behaviour and function. She develops biomaterial platforms to study the effects of physical and biological cues on the vascularisation of bioengineered tissues and the biological mechanisms underpinning this process, as well novel functional cardiovascular implant devices, including vascular grafts and cardiac patches.




My Grants

  •  NSW Cardiovascular Research Capacity Program EMCR Grant (lead CI)- ‘Novel strategy for chronic wound healing’ (2022-2024)
  • ARC Future Fellowship (CI-A) - ‘Engineering biomaterials that actively promote blood vessel growth’ (06/2022-2025)
  • NSW Health/Cardiovascular Research Capacity Program - Investigator Development Grants (lead CI), ‘Engineering vascular microenvironments on silk biomaterials for advanced medical implants’, 2020
  • Australia-Germany Joint Research Cooperation Scheme (DAAD) (lead CI), ‘Application of advanced scaffold fabrication technologies toward functional cardiac patches’, 2020-2021
  • ARC Linkage Project (co-CI), ‘Engineering a physiologically-relevant blood vessel in vitro’, 2019-2022
  • Innovative Manufacturing CRC (co-CI), ‘Engineering an advanced, high value bioreactor system for research and clinical applications’, 2019-2022
  • HRC Project Grant (PI), ‘Smart delivery of growth factors for treating osteonecrosis of the femoral head’, 2021-2022
  • HRC Sir Charles Hercules Health Research Fellowship (AI), ‘HRC Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship’, 2020-2022
  • MARSDEN Fast start (PI), ‘Harnessing macromolecular chemistry to mimic vascular developmental biology’, 2020-2021
  • NHMRC Project Grant (co-CI), ‘New Synthetic Conduits for Arterial Revascularisation’ 2019-2021, Marshall and Warren Award for the most innovative and potentially transformative project grant
  • Diabetes Australia (co-CI), ‘Bioengineered growth factor binding scaffolds for improved diabetic wound healing’, 2019
  • Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellowship (lead CI), ‘Biomaterial-directed vascularisation of bioengineered cardiac patches’, 2018-2022
  • ARC Discovery Project (DP150104242) (lead CI), ‘Novel biomimetic vascular biomaterials using extracellular matrix molecules’, 2015-2019;
  • UNSW Engineering Faculty Major Research Equipment Funding (lead CI), 'Medical device characterisation', 2018
  • UNSW Infrastructure Fund (AI), ‘Dynamic Mechanical Testing-ElectroForce’, 2017
  • UNSW Infrastructure Fund (AI), ‘High throughput Flash Purification System for Small Molecule and Polymer Separations’, 2017;
  • UNSW Network Lab Project (AI), ‘Molecular Surface Interaction Network Lab’, 2017-2018;
  • UNSW Faculty of Engineering Startup award (lead CI), 2016-2017;
  • UNSW Career Advancement Fund (lead CI), 2017-2018;
  • UNSW Minor Equipment Grants (lead CI), 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017;
  • UNSW Faculty of Engineering Early Career Researcher Award (lead CI), 2014.

My Qualifications

Education & Training

Postdoctoral scholar- Department of Biomedical Engineering, Tufts University, Boston, USA, 2011-2013

Research area: Development of novel silk-based biomaterials for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, Supervisor: Prof David Kaplan

Doctor of Philosophy, School of Molecular Bioscience, University of Sydney, 2011

Research area: Development of human elastin-based dermal substitutes for the treatment of severe burn injuries, Supervisor: Prof Antony Weiss

Bachelor of Science (Molecular Biology & Genetics) (Honours I) (University Medal),University of Sydney, 2007

My Awards


  • UNSW Faculty of Engineering Leadership Award, 2021
  • NSW Early Career Researcher of the Year (Physical Sciences), NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering, 2020
  • Emerging Leader Award, Australasian Society for Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering (ABSTE), 2019
  • Travel award- NSW CVRN Travel Scholarship application, 2018
  • NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award, Australian Institute of Policy & Science, 2018
  • Bob Fraser New Investigator Award, Matrix Biology Society of Australia & NZ, 2016
  • Fresh Science NSW, 2016
  • Finalist (Top 19) in the L’Oreal Women in Science Fellowship, 2015
  • Research featured in the American Chemical Society (ACS) Headline Science video series, 2015
  • Travel Award- Contributing to Australian Scholarship and Science (CASS) Foundation, 2015
  • Travel Award- Australasian Society for Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering (ASBTE), 2015
  • American Chemical Society (ACS) Editors’ Choice article, 2015
  • Best Early Career Researcher Oral Presentation Award- ASBTE, 2013
  • Best poster prize- ASBTE, 2009;
  • Best poster prize- 34th Lorne Conference on Protein Structure & Function, 2009
  • University Medal, University of Sydney, 2006.             



My Research Activities

Research themes/projects 

Currently recruiting PhD and Honours students 

Bioengineered vascularised cardiac patches (Heart Foundation)- There are currently no effective treatments for the damage to the heart tissue caused by a heart attack, meaning this event often leads to complete heart failure. Cardiac patches are living tissues developed in the laboratory by growing human cells on biomaterials or materials designed to interact with the human body. These patches can perform a range of functions that are done by a ‘real’ organ, but their use is currently limited by the lack of a vascular (blood) supply. In the human body, cell survival across very thick layers of tissue is maintained via an extensive network of blood vessels, which deliver oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body and take away harmful waste products, but this is yet to be effectively replicated in the laboratory. The aim of this project is to develop the next generation of cardiac patches by develop novel biomaterials that support vascular regeneration and therefore extend the utility of cardiac patches for the treatment of heart damage following myocardial infarction.

Collaborators: A/Prof James Chong (Westmead Institute for Medical Research)


Bioengineered tissue vascularisation strategies (ARC Discovery Project)- Bioengineered tissues offer an alternative for the replacement and regeneration of organs and tissues damaged through injury or disease, but they currently have little clinical utility due to the lack of an adequate vascular supply, making vascularisation one of the biggest obstacles in translating biomaterials and tissue engineering research to the clinic.This project aims to understand the physical and biological cues that drive tissue vascularisation and replicate them in biomimetic silk-based biomaterial platforms. This involves (1) development of novel silk biomaterials with tuneable physical/architectural features, (2) silk functionalisation strategies, (3) bioengineering molecules of the vascular niche with specific features using recombinant DNA technology and protein expression and (4) establishment of appropriate assays and imaging modalities to assess vascularisation of 3D biomaterials. 

Collaborators: Prof John Whitelock & A/Prof Megan Lord (UNSW), Prof Marcela Bilek (University of Sydney), Dr Khoon Lim & A/Prof Tim Woodfield (University of Otago, Christchurch)


Next-generation vascular devices- The aim of this project is to develop next-generation biomaterial platforms for use in blood-contacting vascular devices, such as vascular grafts and stents. The focus in particular is on silk-based vascular grafts as they have the potential to overcome the physical, mechanical and biological shortcomings of the current clinical synthetic grafts. In collaboration with Dr Steven Wise at the Heart Research Institute, Dr Rnjak-Kovacina developed a silk-based small-diameter vascular graft with very promising performance in pre-clinical trials. 

Collaborators: Dr Steven Wise (HRI, University of Sydney), Dr Anna Waterhouse (HRI, University of Sydney) 


Professional Activities

  • Member of the Bioengineering Flagship Advisory Board, Australian Cardiovascular Alliance (ACvA) (2020-current)
  • Member of the Centre for Commercialisation of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) Australia Advisory Board (2018-current)
  • Australasian Society for Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering, Treasurer & Secretary (2017-present), member (2008-present)    
  • Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR), member (2018-present) 
  • American Chemical Society (ACS), member (2015-present)
  • Matrix Biology Society of Australia and New Zealand, member (2014-present)
  • International Society for Matrix Biology, member (2014-present)
  • Tissue Engineering & Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS), member (2012-present)
  • NIH Tissue Engineering Resource Centre, member (2011-2014)                                                                                                                                                          

My Research Supervision

Supervision keywords

Areas of supervision

Current research staff/students

Postdoctoral research fellows

  • Dr Fatemeh Karimi 

Research assistants

  • Marija Kordanovski
  • Zac Och

PhD candidates 

  • Anne-Marie Vuong
  • Hien (Henry) Tran
  • Shouyuan (Amy) Jiang
  • Habib Joukhdar

Honours/Masters students 

  • Max Wallner
  • Scott Hebenton

Past research staff/students

Postdoctoral research fellows

  • Dr Fengying (Sally) Tang

PhD candidates

  • Kieran Lau
  • Joanna Ng (co-supervisor) 
  • Xiaoting Lin (co-supervisor)
  • Jane Li (co-supervisor) 


Lectures/ Courses taught

Course coordinator 

BIOM9332- Biocompatibility (2017-current) 

BIOM9432- Chemistry & Physics of Synthetic and Biological Polymers (2016-2017)

BIOM9410- Regulatory Requirements of Medical Technology (2015-2017)

Guest lecturer 

BIOM 9333- Cellular & Tissue Engineering

BIOM 9420- Clinical Laboratory Sciences

BIOM1010- Engineering in Medicine and Biology   

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Samuels Building F25
Level 5, Room 507
Sydney NSW 2052


Dr Rnjak-Kovacina's silk biomaterial research featured in ACS Headline Science