Tools for Discovery is a monthly profile series that inspects the computer programs, gadgets and methods behind WID’s ideas and discoveries.
What do you work on at WID?
We’re trying to engineer stem cells into new mature tissues. Molecularly, what are the ways that we can manipulate the inside of the cell — the genome and signaling molecules — as well as the outside of the cell? What surfaces or scaffolds can we engineer as well?
My lab is interested in coordinating these processes in new ways. In other words, having the inside of the cell talk in new ways, productively, with the outside of the cell. We’re looking to make mature cells from embryonic cells so that we can see disease in new ways.
I’m also interested in the ethics of using individuals’ cells to see disease in these new ways. What is the role of the human and donor in biomedical research? How does that conversation get started and resolved? I see ethics as an experimental space as well.
Tools for analysis?
I do a lot of flow cytometry (a type of cell counting), immunostaining (to measure the presence of certain proteins), gene expression studies, live microscopy, PCR (polymerase chain reaction), molecular biology and polymer synthesis. In addition, there are all sorts of functional tests in model organisms for the cells that we make.
“An interesting tool I borrow from [STS] is to not think about “technology” as only circumscribed artifacts and things you make, but also as forms of organizing social structure such as laws and ethical bodies.”
I also use other tools for my ethical work — from ethnography and science and technology studies (STS) that blend methods from anthropology, sociology and philosophy. They have their own specialized types of analytical techniques to look at newspaper articles, media, court rulings, other policy documents as well as interviews. An interesting tool I borrow from that domain is to not think about “technology” as only circumscribed artifacts and things you make, but also as forms of organizing social structure such as laws and ethical bodies.
Tools for writing?
Really blocking off time to write is the most effective tool for me. Coffee does not work. Procrastination for me is productive because I mull over the idea longer.
A lot of the writing for young professors is writing grants. Grants are challenging because at these earliest stages of planning experiments, your ideas change so frequently or are refined so iteratively. If I get a new exciting finding from a student, I’m going to want to put it into the grant. I find that my ideas can shift quite a bit up until the deadline. I see different ways of putting it down — I write notes, I’m very bad at organizing papers as you can see [points to stacks of paper], so I do a lot of things electronically. I use Evernote — I really like that I can file away a certain article in one click, and it’s searchable. For texts, that’s very useful for me.
Tools for collaboration?
I very much prefer face-to-face meetings at Aldo’s Café downstairs, in my office or in conference rooms. Being face-to-face allows us to find a common language. You can quickly iterate through questions. Email is fine for manuscript edits, but really before that step — where you’re conceiving ideas, brainstorming and talking about the core questions you want to answer and how to design experiments around it — I don’t think there’s a replacement for doing it in person.
In certain ways — people in my lab are tools for collaboration in that they’re the real people who connect the labs and the projects.
Your ultimate tool for discovery?
It might be cliché, but it’s listening to others. I get a lot out of going to talks. Historically, even in my undergraduate days, I went to as many talks as possible that I found interesting. Many interesting questions I’ve formulated germinate from hearing an interesting idea that others have at least posed, maybe in a different context or maybe even framed very differently and I think should be revised in a different context. It’s also made me reflect and judge my own assumptions about biology, engineering and the world.