Curiosity can pull scientists in any number of directions, and it’s in their biological makeup to respond. Melissa Gardner, a McKnight Land-Grant professor who specializes in genetics and cell biology, surrendered to her curiosity as a graduate student and returned to academia after beginning her career in the medical device industry.
Today, she uses mathematical and computational modeling to learn how cells divide and how that division is controlled.
Measuring mysterious forces
From microscopic organisms to massive mammals, all life forms begin with cell division and rely on it to develop and grow. When cells divide, miniscule forces pull the chromosomes apart and ensure that they go to the appropriate cells. But when the controls that regulate cell division go haywire, it can cause cancer and other problems.
Gardner is using new imaging technology to better understand how these forces work. Her research could lead to more effective chemotherapy drugs, which treat cancer by manipulating microtubule dynamics. In addition, her work holds promise for any harmful phenomenon caused by unregulated cell division.
“We’re trying to measure the forces inside of actively dividing cells without mechanically perturbing the cell, which has never been done before,” says Gardner. “For years, researchers have predicted that this tension is important, but nobody has ever measured these forces to make sure they’re actually there.”
Physics meets biology
In her short time as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, Gardner has come to find academic research more intellectually stimulating than designing and testing medical devices at a health sciences company.
Although she was welcomed by her colleagues in the biology department, they weren’t sure what to make of her hire in the beginning: her background in chemical engineering and experience in the medical device industry made her an unlikely biologist.
But her natural tendency to apply finite laws to biological problems brought a fresh perspective to her team’s research.
“There are laws of physics — energy is consumed inside of cells to produce forces whose magnitude is unknown,” she says. “That’s what we aim to figure out.”
When asked about the future of cell biology, Gardner points to the following trends:
Computational methods: Computational modeling will help biologists do more with the data they collect, while offering new perspectives on familiar processes.
Interdisciplinary collaboration: Biologists have been hesitant to reach out to experts in other scientific fields in the past. But from Gardner’s perspective, they are now realizing that the days of one person working in a lab using a single technique are gone. Researchers are taking advantage of experts in other disciplines to examine a problem from many perspectives.