Valerie Tutwiler, assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers University, runs the Biomechanics of Blood Lab. She is active in ASCB’s Public Policy Committee and Mentor Match, served on an ASCB professional development taskforce, and has co-chaired the career subcommittee for the Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS). You’ve probably seen her hosting one of our many webinars. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the ASCB Post.
How did you become interested in cell biology? Who/what inspired you?
I have been interested in science for as long as I can remember. However, I became particularly intrigued by the idea of cell biology during my co-op research in my undergraduate education. We were working on immune-mediated model of a blood clotting disorder. I found it fascinating how the functionality of these cells could influence the development of disease. This experience fundamentally altered my career path and ignited my interest in scientific research.
What is your overall research focus and what are some current discoveries that you are excited about?
My research focuses on better understanding the fundamental mechanisms that regulate blood clotting and how a dysregulation can lead to excessive clotting (thrombosis) or excessive bleeding. When there is excessive blood clotting within a vessel it can block blood flow to downstream organs resulting in ischemic strokes, heart attacks, venous thromboembolisms, etc. On the other hand, excessive bleeding, such as can occur following traumatic injury, is the leading cause of death among young people. We hope that by gaining a better understanding of the regulation of these processes in the future we will be able to develop more targeted therapeutics and more accurate diagnostic tools. In support of this goal, we take a multidisciplinary approach to study the structure and mechanics of blood clots through the application of cell biology, biophysics, biomedical engineering, and mathematical modeling.
Recently, we have been investigating how the structure of blood clots changes during the process of clot contraction (volume shrinkage of the clot). Clot contraction is driven by these amazing little cells, platelets, that can generate contractile forces like muscle cells. Platelets bind to fibrin, which is a polymeric network that gives blood clots their structural and mechanical stability. When platelets contract, they will pull on the fibrin network and compress the red blood cells. Ultimately, the energy minimization of the system results in the movement of the platelet-fibrin network to the exterior of the clot and the compression of red blood cells into the core of the clot. This has intriguing implications for bleeding, thrombosis, and more broadly cell biology.
How has your involvement with ASCB played a role in your career journey?
My involvement with ASCB has had a tremendous impact on my career trajectory. During graduate school I became involved with COMPASS, where I served as co-chair of the career subcommittee for four years. In this role I had the opportunity to organize more than 50 sessions for the annual meetings and over 15 webinars, meet with people from countless different career pathways, and lead a team of committee members. First and foremost, this gave me management and leadership experience that I would not have gotten in my graduate and postdoc training alone. These skills have proved invaluable as I have started my own laboratory over the past eight months.
Moreover, during my involvement with COMPASS and specifically the career subcommittee I was able to learn about and explore the variety of careers that are available to graduate level researchers. This made me confident that I was making a well-informed career choice that aligned with my passions.
Over the last year my involvement as a member of the Public Policy Committee has highlighted the importance of raising awareness about science research and issues that impact us as scientists. This knowledge is something that I am now trying to incorporate into my own research, mentoring, and teaching.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as a scientist and how did you overcome it?
So far, the biggest challenge that I have had as a scientist is starting my laboratory in the middle of a pandemic. There are numerous challenges associated with working and training students largely remotely, ordering/supply delays, teaching in a virtual environment, etc. While this has been a huge challenge it has also been exceptionally rewarding. This is still an ongoing challenge but as we approach the one-year anniversary of the lab I am exceptionally grateful for my supportive colleagues and mentors and inquisitive students who were excited to join a new lab.
Why is it important for scientists to be involved in shaping public policy?
At the 2019 ASCB|EMBO Meeting I had the amazing opportunity to participate in Hill Day, which was the first time that I had primary exposure to the intersection between science and public policy. Going to Capitol Hill and meeting with policymakers was really eye opening in terms of what we as scientists can do to inform policies. It is critical that the people who are making policies understand the implications for sustained science funding, dissemination of research findings, training of future scientists, and even the type of research that is being done.
Tell us something fun and interesting about you such as a cool hobby or pastime.
I enjoy crocheting, baking, and playing tennis.
About the Author:
Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.