In fall 2015, ASCB awarded the first-ever ASCB-Gibco Emerging Leader Prizes to three cell biology researchers. ASCB introduced the prizes to honor not-yet-tenured independent investigators with outstanding scientific accomplishments and strong publication track records. The prizes were underwritten by Gibco, a brand of Thermo Fisher Scientific.
ASCB President Peter Walter invited each of the prize winners and each of the seven additional finalists to contribute an essay to the ASCB Newsletter. The writers were encouraged to provide a personal statement that articulates who they are, their science, and how they got into it; to describe their major scientific accomplishments; and to discuss their “dream results” and where they see themselves in the next five years.
This issue of the Newsletter features the essay of finalist Melissa Gardner.
The Gardner laboratory applies physical engineering principles to dissect molecular mechanisms for how cells divide and for how cell division can be controlled to
prevent genetic diseases and cancer. Our overarching goal is to improve human health by developing a better mechanistic understanding for how cells divide. This is important because rapid cell division is central to the spread of cancer.
I have followed a nontraditional path to a research career. While working as a product development engineer in the medical device industry, I decided to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering on a part-time basis. My reason for returning to graduate school was that I found that the development of medical devices was focused around the mechanics of the device itself, with little attention given to cellular mechanics or to the response of the cell to the injury caused by a medical device. The lack of knowledge in these areas would at times undermine the intended purpose of even the most carefully designed medical device. So I developed a passion for cell biology and for basic science research that could contribute to a better understanding of cellular processes.
Because of my background, my approach to cell biological questions is also nontraditional in that my laboratory applies engineering principles in an effort to better understand the inner workings of the cell. My engineering background combined with dual appointments in Cell Biology and the Medical School has allowed for the strong integration of both computational (modeling, analysis) and experimental (in vitro, in vivo) methods in my laboratory. As an example of this integration, we have developed a new live-cell assay, based on physical principles and advanced microscopy, that allows us to measure chromosome mechanical properties in real-time during mitosis, at different points in the cell cycle, and for different cell types. Thus, we are poised to evaluate the role of chromosome mechanics in the fidelity of chromosome segregation during mitosis, to understand how this may be defective in cancer cells, and also to determine whether new or ongoing cancer therapeutics may affect this process. Our approach could ultimately allow us to study patient cell lines to provide more individualized insights into the role of chromosome mechanics in cancer.
This approach would not be possible without a strong vertical integration of computational and experimental methods. In part, my laboratory’s research approach represents an integration of the skills I obtained during my training, as we use the computational modeling skills that I learned in my thesis work with David Odde and the biophysical in vitro reconstitution skills that I learned during my postdoctoral training with Joe Howard. However, by learning from colleagues in my new, tenured home at the University of Minnesota, I have extended these skills to include yeast cell culture and genetics, protein purification and biochemical analysis, tissue culture, and mammalian cell imaging. This has allowed my laboratory to vertically integrate our studies from the molecular scale to the cellular scale, using both experiments and computational modeling. Therefore I feel that we are positioned to make contributions toward dissecting the molecular mechanisms of mitosis in the years to come.