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 a Scientia Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow leading a multidisciplinary group at the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, UNSW Sydney in Australia.

Her research interests are at the interface of biology and engineering, focusing on the development of biomimetic materials that direct cellular interactions for enhanced vascularisation and for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. In particular, she...view more

Dr Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina is a Scientia Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow leading a multidisciplinary group at the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, UNSW Sydney in Australia.

Her research interests are at the interface of biology and engineering, focusing on the development of biomimetic materials that direct cellular interactions for enhanced vascularisation and for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. In particular, she develops novel silk-based biomaterials and investigates how biomaterial properties translate to biological outcomes.

She completed her doctoral degree in Anthony Weiss' lab at the University of Sydney and her postdoctoral training in David Kaplan’s group at Tufts University in Boston. She joined UNSW in 2014 where her research has been supported by funding from the Australian Research Council, the National Heart Foundation, the National Health & Medical Research Council, and NSW Health. She is the recipient of multiple awards, including most recently, the NSW Ministerial Award for Rising Stars in Cardiovascular Research and the Early Career Researcher of the Year (Physical Sciences) in the NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering.

She is actively involved in the Australasian MedTech sector, including as Vice President of the Australasian Society for Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering (ASBTE), board member of the Australian Cardiovascular Alliance (ACvA) Bioengineering flagship, Fellow of the Tissue Engineering & Regenerative Medicine International Society, and through editorial roles for multiple journals. She is passionate about research training and communication.




My Grants

  • UNSW Faculty of Engineering Infrastructure Fund (lead CI) ‘Mechanical testing equipment for soft and anisotropic materials’, $270K, 2023
  • NSW Health Cardiovascular Research Capacity Program Collaborative Grants (lead CI)- ‘Engineering next generation aortic valve replacement materials’, $950K, 2023-2024
  •  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 

Novel silk biomaterials for cardiovascular & wound healing applications (ARC Future Fellowship, NSW Health)- The ability to reverse engineer the silkworm fiber has led to tremendous advancements in the field of silk materials over the last several decades, with silk fibroin materials applied to biomedical, food, and high technology industries. This progress is largely due to the ability to process silk into a regenerated silk fibroin solution that can be engineered into various material formats and stabilised by reintroducing the non-covalent native β-sheet protein structure. The next revolution in silk materials involves stabilising silk fibroin through covalent crosslinking using di-tyrosine bonds. These approaches have transformed silk into a material that is not only strong, but also elastic and flexible, making it compatible with modern fabrication approaches. This has significantly broadened silk material fabrication strategies to include photolithography, digital light processing, and extrusion-based 3D printing. We offer a range of projects to fabricate novel silk hydrogels and porous scaffolds based on this novel crosslinking approach for cardiovascular and wound healing applications. 

Collaborators: Prof David Kaplan (Tufts University), A/Prof Khoon Lim (University of Sydney)


Bioengineered tissue vascularisation strategies (ARC Future Fellowship)- 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: A/Prof Khoon Lim (University of Sydney), Dr Tomasz Juengst (University of Wuerzburg), Prof Juergen Groll (University of Wuerzburg), Prof John Whitelock & A/Prof Megan Lord (UNSW), Prof Marcela Bilek (University of Sydney)

More info: Webinar: Novel Biofabrication Approaches Enabled By Di-tyrosine Crosslinking Of Silk Fibroin ( 


Next-generation vascular devices (NSW Health)- The aim of this project is to develop next-generation biomaterial platforms for use in blood-contacting vascular devices, such as vascular grafts and heart valve leaflets. Silk-based vascular grafts and heart valve leaflets have the potential to overcome the physical, mechanical and biological shortcomings of the current clinical options by mimicking the morphological and mechanical structures found in the native tissue. This project also involves bioengineering models of healthy and atherosclerosis vessels in vitro. 

Collaborators: Prof Steven Wise (University of Sydney), Dr Anna Waterhouse (University of Sydney), A/Prof Khoon Lim (University of Sydney), A/Prof Bernd Gludovatz (UNSW), Dr Nona Farbehi (UNSW), Prof Martin Ng (RPA), Dr Michael Stevens (UNSW)


Professional Activities

  • Scientific Advisory Board, Australian Cardiovascular Alliance (ACvA) (2023-present)
  • Member of the Bioengineering Flagship Advisory Board, Australian Cardiovascular Alliance (ACvA) (2020-present)
  • Member of the Centre for Commercialisation of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) Australia Advisory Board (2018-present)
  • Australasian Society for Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering, Vice President (2023-present), Treasurer & Secretary (2017-2023), 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 Nona Farbehi
  • Dr Gagan Jalandhra

Research assistants

  • Marija Kordanovski
  • Sandra Spoa

PhD candidates 

  • Anton Maraldo 
  • Mahsa Haghighattalab

  • Trinh (Judy) Ho
  • Zac Och
  • Anne-Marie Vuong
  • Hien (Henry) Tran


Past research staff/students

Postdoctoral research fellows

  • Dr Fatemeh Karimi 
  • Dr Fengying (Sally) Tang

PhD candidates

  • Habib Joukhdar
  • Shouyuan (Amy) Jiang
  • 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   

View less


Samuels Building F25
Level 5, Room 507
Sydney NSW 2052


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