This week everyone in BSURF gave quick presentations to the rest of the program, essentially summarizing our work so far this summer in our respective labs. Specifically, I wanted to highlight Ben Johns’ chalk talk about his work on the cell-cell interactions underlying collective cell migration in the Hoffman lab. Ben’s research focuses on a protein called “vinculin,” which basically forms part of a larger scaffold connecting the actin cytoskeletons of neighboring cells, allowing them to coordinate their individual movements into a larger-scale phenomenon called “collective cell migration,” or CCM for short. With a palpable and contagious excitement, Ben explained to us how CCM is an integral part of essential processes like wound healing (regeneration) and morphogenesis, plus how his work in elucidating the localization and function of vinculin can enhance our understanding of CCM in general. This research particularly stuck out to me since my research this summer also focuses on development (albeit in sea urchins) and I find the whole field of regeneration fascinating, but hadn’t explored much how mechanobiology might play a role in either of these systems. He drew me in further, though, when he offhandedly mentioned the presence of alpha-catenin in CCM, because earlier this week my mentor had mentioned the role of beta-catenin in initiating movement during a developmental process our lab studies, and it was listed as a central element in the GRNs our lab has helped construct over the years. During the break after his presentation, we got to talking and found some pretty great connections between our work that might’ve gone undiscovered had Ben never mentioned it.
While these connections between Ben’s work and my own struck me as incredibly unexpected at the time, I’ve since come to realize they’re completely natural and, in fact, fully expected. It can be easy to fall into a rigid mindset sometimes, where you feel like you’re studying this specific field and nothing else, but Ben’s presentation reminded me of the intrinsic harmony across biological research. His project focuses on protein-protein interactions and a much more mechanical/physical model than the transcriptional GRNs of my work, and yet we’ve found this commonality where mechanobiology plays a role in development, and developmental GRNs play a role in operating and creating mechanical systems. Further, this symbiosis between our research interests has helped us both begin to understand each other’s fields of research better, which could alter the way each of us conducts research and think about problems that are archetypal to each of our fields which may require interdisciplinary solutions. Overall, Ben’s presentation helped energize me to continue looking into research that may just seem cool, if not completely unrelated to anything I’m working on, because sometimes that’s where the best and most valuable connections lie. Ben’s contagious enthusiasm for his work in mechanobiology, combined with these unexpected but awesome insights into our shared interests, meant that his presentation was a particular highlight of my week, and not one I’ll soon forget.