By Jeanie Chung
Margaret Gardel, the Horace B. Horton Professor in the Department of Physics [at the University of Chicago], found her area of study through a series of serendipitous events. Her graduate research at Harvard focused on filamentous actin, a polymer found within cells in multicellular organisms.
In living cells actin drives cell motion and is essential in building multicellular tissue. Gardel was interested in the ways actin (as part of a polymer network inside cells) deforms in response to external mechanical stress, but in a physics lab the approaches used to study those types of properties had been developed for traditional polymeric materials—think of Jell-O or Silly Putty. Those materials don’t spontaneously move or build complex multicellular organisms.
Near the end of graduate school, Gardel was increasingly bothered by this gap. How can we make measurements to understand the materials that living cells use to support their physiology?
Through a chance exchange with a collaborator, Gardel attended [The Physiology course] at the Marine Biological Laboratory after she finished her PhD. There she met cell biologists willing to teach a physicist about the inner workings of cells. She also met Clare Waterman, who convinced her to leave her postdoc position and move across the country to join her cell biology lab at the Scripps Research Institute, where she learned how to image the polymer networks inside cells while they crawled and built adhesions with the external matrix and each other.
Since Gardel had taken only one biology course as an undergraduate, her time with Waterman proved critical. Read more …
Photo caption: A migrating fibroblast shows myosin in purple and actin in blue. Image courtesy Patrick Oakes