• Wound – a short film

    Wound – a short film


    Two immigrants recount the changes brought about by their journeys to the U.S., paralleling that of cells migrating in response to a wound.


    In 2020, I joined Symbiosis, an annual film competition that pairs six scientists with six filmmakers to conceptualize and produce an original short film in just one week. I was paired with the Mexican-Cuban cinematographer and video artist Luis Gutiérrez Arias. As it was the peak of the pandemic, our collaboration was purely virtual, with Luis staying in California and myself in New York.

    That year’s theme, “Crisis through the Lens of Migration”, made me think about both my research and life experiences.

    While cells differentiate and diversify during development, their identities become fixed by the time our bodies reach adulthood. However, in times of crisis, cells from adjacent sites have the ability to migrate into an injury site, change their identities, and assimilate into their new homes. For example, when you get a wound in your skin, cells from nearby hair follicles (or pores) move into the wound bed and participate in tissue repair. In this new environment at the skin surface, they adapt their function and eventually transform into bona fide skin cells.

    The parallels between cellular and human behaviors are astounding, and to me, it is personally so. As a foreign scholar in the United States (and before, a foreign student in Singapore), I am aware of how much my own history of migration has shaped my identity, much like how the migrating cells I study are shaped by their environment. Luis, being an immigrant himself, resonated with this idea.

    Our film “Wound” draws three concepts (below) from wounding at a cellular level, and zooms them out to a personal level through interviews of two immigrants, one from Luis’s home country, Cuba, and one from my own, the Philippines.

    1. WOUND: In a healthy organism, most cells live out their lives staying at home. But under crisis, like in a wound, cells migrate in order to heal the injury. 
    2. PLASTICITY: As certain cells migrate, they acquire the ability to change their identities to that of resident cells. This way, they can perform the cellular functions required in their new homes.  
    3. MEMORY: Cells harbor a memory of their past, encoded as chemical marks in their DNA. As such, migrant cells never really become the same as resident cells.

    In the film commentary by Jonathan Galka, a Ph.D. student in the History of Science, he says that “Biology has often been used in a dominating social mode to classify, racialize, or gender bodies. How then can the biology of the body help us rethink cultural and social issues in helpful ways?” This is indeed what we hoped with this short: to use and reimagine science to create awareness on the problems of today’s political landscape.

    I hope you enjoy.

  • City of Firsts

    City of Firsts

    My anticipation of the unknown had turned last night restless, with visions of a mad cloud thundering a typhoon of steel down the earth. I tried to run, to seek shelter from the iron rain, but my feet were somehow frozen, congealed to the ground. Overwhelmed, my eyes pried open. The October fog was hiding the sun, and through the few blades of light I dragged myself to pick up the last of my possessions in the now-spacious room. My trusty olive backpack. My hard-shell suitcase. They weighed heavy like my memories–memories that I had to carry out of that room, to leave it as it was when I, full of excitement to conquer the first place I could call mine and mine alone, first entered it five years ago. I took my things and I took my leave; only an echo left behind the door. A single reverberation, then repeated by every step I took down the stairwell of that ashy brick building – each step a reversed echo of my first time up those stairs, when I did not know which block of that brutal structure I would eventually call home, did not know how to behave in this new city, the farthest possible place from home.

    Outside, the cold northern wind greeted me through the University’s grandiose gates, whose four obelisks each balance a polished marble sphere gleaming behind the fog, gleaming like eyes fogged with tears, like those of my parents when I first brought them through those gates to witness my new life. The University’s sepia walls replayed chronicles of self-discovery: on one hand scientific, for the brilliance of scholars that illuminate her walls also illuminated my path, bringing out my best and guiding me to find my own insight, but on the other personal, for when her walls turned dark, I marched on – blind, bullheaded and straightforward – to become who I am now, still my parents’ son but one who makes them proud. Yes, their eyes fogged with tears but those were tears of pride, making mine do so too as I remembered theirs to the sound of vague chatter and hurried cars, the proud breath of this animate city.

    I brushed a hand over my eyes as I approached my waiting ride. “To the ‘port, please,” I said to the driver. He nodded, then proceeded to jerk his vehicle through the streets with no caution, leaving me with no choice but to look out through the smeared glass to allay my nausea. Pedestrians, in their characteristic brisk pace, seemed to step to the tune of my baggage rattling in the back. The waltz of a suited man. The foxtrot of a feathered lady. The haka of a wide-eyed lad as he struggled to control his restless terrier, making me wonder if mine too is restless in his own journey away from this city, alone, to meet me elsewhere. Is he burdened by the same memories–memories of the time when we first met, him soiled and me stressed because I did not know how the sound of flowing water could instil such fear in those big black eyes, but then right after, the first of countless nights that he would curl up next to me, making the room feel a bit less spacious but a lot more secure, or of the time when he first escaped his leash, running wild onto the cold cement of the freeway, my heart stopping, praying to God that He would send His angels to protect him from the dangers of this apathetic city He has forsaken? The drunk disco of a drifter. The twin tango of two tourists. The folk dance of a lady in a garnet-sequined dress, hips bouncing to the beat of the festival where I first met my closest friends, most of whom have already left this city, but all of whom I shared laughs, secrets and tears with. I wondered if they too felt this way when they left, thinking of the time when we got intoxicated from midnight margaritas and the coconut song, of the first time each of them had approached me for comfort and with each instance the awkward realisation that my only method of consolation is to give harsh advice, and all of the times that we fought, my vision burning red with fury in the heat of the moment but confident that no amount of idiotic anger can incinerate what we have built. 

    The rattling continued as I shifted my gaze up to feats of architecture, unified in their permanence, in contrast to the raucous rumba of the people below. And with the rattling, my memories continued to rush. A prismatic tower punctuated by a needle sticking through the fog, and I thought of the mechanical blood draws in the infirmary, where I first stared death in the eye and felt that, alas, I am not young anymore. A constellation of limestone spires surrounding a sunken square of ice, and I thought of my first time on ice, only to remember that this city is where I also first rowed a boat, first climbed a wall, first ran a race, and really, first lived my life. A pair of mirror monoliths united glass-to-glass by a warm skybridge, and the thought of my first warm awakening descends, crust-to-crust with another – the ecstasy that came with exposition and the emptiness that came with emanation. And an embroidered ivory arch pulpitted by rock pillars that stand strong despite their cracks–cracks that if followed connect to the cracks of my rock-crusted heart, formed by my first romance. I swear that those pillars had eyes. They watched inertly, passing judgement as that first kiss whisked me into an infinite loop of infatuation around the fountain where the arch’s south face looms over, where I hurt myself over and over again, tripping over the same raised cobblestone of rejection, never getting over it, never learning. Inscribed in one of the pillars is Exitus Acta Probat. “The end justifies the deed.” Apt only if I have finally learned, which would also be a first. 

    The edge of the city was fast approaching, and soon, everything would just be a memory, still crisp against the moving blur outside, but which time would inevitably make rusty, just like it did to the crabbed sign overhead, which in bold uninspired letters heralded the entrance to the submerged steelbound tunnel leading elsewhere. The vehicle coughed as it entered – its loud metallic clank killing the trunk’s relentless rattle, forcing my consciousness back to the present, to the hush melody of water coming from all directions. This is it. My final moment in the city, immersed in the adagio of the waves, their rhythmic pressure crashing against the concrete-covered steel, their back-and-forth motion echoing a wound incessantly trying to heal. These are the same waves that first washed ashore the creativity hidden within my rigid discipline, something that I didn’t know I had, but something that I now use to write. And in this moment, I write, not to daguerreotype the moment in silver, but to try to clear the mad cloud brewing in my chest – its silver sheen mocking as it thunders two-ton bolts of iron down my gut, torrenting shockwaves to my feet, which now quake free from the ground they were rooted in for the past five years. 

    There may have been more firsts if I stayed, but firsts are not owned by the city of firsts. Anywhere can be a city of firsts.

  • For a Future Immune to Cancer

    For a Future Immune to Cancer

    As the CRI-Carson Family Fellow, I became involved in efforts for fundraising and promoting cancer immunotherapy research.

    The CRI Postdoctoral Fellowship Program funded my research for the third to fifth years of my postdoctoral training—a crucial time that prepared me for the transition to become an independent scientist. The full financial support that the fellowship provided allowed me to focus on developing my scientific ideas and executing the crucial experiments to complete my postdoctoral research, especially during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    CRI, with their many initiatives, had also given me many outreach opportunities to be involved in. For their annual awareness day, CRI uses the hashtag #Immune2Cancer to campaign for the lifesaving potential of immunotherapy, where we wear white in honor of cancer-fighting white blood cells. 

    As a CRI-funded scientist, I also had the unique opportunity to share a day in my life as a scientist via Instagram Takeover. This included sharing stories of my daily activities, explaining my research on how chronic wounds predispose tissues to cancer and most importantly, showcasing the models we use in the laboratory that make our studies possible. 

    For Through the Kitchen, CRI’s most significant annual fundraising event where all contributions are earmarked for the CRI Irvington Fellowship Program, I recorded a short promotional clip about my research and its parallels with cooking to match the kitchen-themed event.

    Delicious meals, like healthy bodies, depend on a variety of elements working together. In food, sweet, salty, sour, and savory ingredients are balanced to tickle our taste buds. In the same way, our bodies also rely on a balanced interplay to protect us, most notably between the immune system’s power to eliminate and stem cells’ potential to regenerate. And just as a bad recipe can ruin a meal, certain stresses can disrupt the dynamic between stem cells and immune cells, allowing for cancer to thrive. With funding from CRI, I’m investigating how this happens, so we might discover ways to prevent it.

    All in all, I am very grateful to have been a CRI fellow. Their generous support for the past three years has made me confident to proceed and contribute further in the advancement of science against cancer.

  • My Introspection on Brenner’s Scientific Philosophy

    My Introspection on Brenner’s Scientific Philosophy

    A Book Review of

    My Life in Science

    Book by SYDNEY BRENNER (as told to LEWIS WOLPERT)

    In Singapore, where my own life in science began, Sydney Brenner is a prominent name. His pivotal role in establishing biotechnology as one of Singapore’s economic pillars earned him the first honorary citizenship ever awarded by the city-state. In 1984, he advised then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to build a research institute to train young molecular biologists. Lee had doubts, remarking that Singapore was a nation of technicians, not scientists. But Brenner candidly retorted, “Prime minister, if you don’t do something like this, you will remain a nation of technicians.” Thirty years after, I was spending the majority of my time as a Ph.D. student in Biopolis, Singapore’s hub of biomedical research institutes that Brenner himself named. Eight more years later, I reconnected with Brenner by reading his personal account “My Life in Science”. 

    Reading Brenner, to me, was nostalgic. My very first research project (as an undergraduate) was done in the laboratory of Dr. Koh Cheng Gee, who, you see, was a student of Brenner. While Brenner had a firecracker personality, Dr. Koh is quite the opposite. As Lewis Wolpert puts it, Brenner “was an indefatigable talker at every opportunity… with stories he made up as he went along. Generously laced with jokes… he went without a break from one register to another.” Dr. Koh, on the other hand, would speak softly, her energy tranquil, steadfast. But beneath her calm was a fiery interest in discovery that she shared with her mentor. When she asked me to investigate the relationship between cell death and the cell cycle, her bubbling enthusiasm on the topic was infectious. Despite my naivete, she encouraged me to try out my own ideas. I imagine that her mentorship drew from Brenner. “I’m a great believer in the power of ignorance,” Brenner says. “I feel that one of the problems about being an experienced scientist in a particular field is that it can curtail creativity… The best way to prepare for a heroic voyage in science is to just start.” And Dr. Koh pushed me to just start.

    Reading Brenner, to me, was refreshing, not only because it brought me back to my scientific roots, but also because his calculated balance of theory and experimentation, his volatile mixture of logic and creativity made the scientific process electrifying. My favourite instance was when he describes finding C. elegans, the humble worm that Brenner transformed into one of the most influential model organisms in biology. This did not happen by chance, believing that “the choice of an experimental object remains one of the most important things to do in biology… the diversity in the living world is so large, and since everything is connected in some way, let’s find the best one.” Brenner was interested in the intricacy of the brain and wanted to obtain a complete wiring map. “Modellers are always confronted by sceptics,” he says. If they ask: how do you know there isn’t another wire?, “you need to be able to say, there are no more wires. We know all the wires.” Such an exhaustive map required knowing how every cell is physically connected with another. Feasible with the electron microscope, but its tiny observation window required an even tinier organism. Brenner decided that small worms called nematodes were the answer. But among them, he wanted one that could be ‘cut and fixed properly’ for imaging, that has ‘a beautiful sex life’ (hermaphrodite worms can breed with themselves, making genetics easy), that has a rapid life cycle, that could be stored by freezing, and so on. In search of worms, he asked everyone he knew to bring back some soil when they travelled, and by filtering through his newfound collection, he decided on C. elegans, which humorously enough, has elegans in its name! Today, it is the most complex organism whose developmental cell trajectory (from the unicellular egg to all of its 959 somatic cells; Figure 1) and nervous circuitry (all 6,334 neural connections) are both fully mapped1–a true marvel of biological research.

    Figure 1:  Anatomy of the hermaphrodite C. elegans (top) and its complete cell lineage from zygote to adult (below).

    Photo credit: Wormbook.org, the online review of C. elegans biology, and Wormatlas.org, a database featuring behavioral and structural anatomy of C. elegans and other nematodes.

    Brenner’s appreciation and application of the vastness of life returned me to a recent fond memory. Under Maui’s starry sky, after trekking the Mars-like terrain of Haleakalā, three colleagues and I found ourselves discussing: if extraterrestrial life ever were to find us, what would happen? Would they be hostile? If we are seen as competition for resources, then probably yes. This assumes that the ‘selfish gene hypothesis’ applies to them–what if it doesn’t? Let’s say they all come from a primordial soup and, unlike life on Earth, are not driven by the propagation of its species. Souplings, we called them (Figure 2). Maybe their motive does not matter, as their entrance would destroy the ecosystem’s balance and lead to our inevitable demise. This conversation, albeit inebriated, was a fun theoretical exercise that ultimately boiled down to a question larger than us: how would the natural world, governed by Darwin’s survival of the fittest as we know it, react to an organism detached from this evolutionary law? Upon my return home, I wondered why we, as scientists, don’t do this more often? Why not zoom out of our specialised research niches and wander outside? Go crazy. Go stupid. Brenner’s magic circle of colleagues, the RNA tie club, did just that: “The one thing that really characterised our conversations is that we never restrained ourselves in anything we said – even if it sounded completely stupid!”

    Figure 2:  Souplings as depicted by Anita Gola (top-left), Alain Bonny (top-right), Irina Matos (bottom-left) and myself (bottom-right).

    Follow them at @anita__gola and @DrIrinaMatos on Twitter!

    I always thought that if I want to be an independent investigator in today’s academic atmosphere, I must create my own unique bubble, tackle a question that nobody else is answering. I never liked this idea of hyperspecialization. I think that the most exciting questions are the most fundamental ones, and Brenner built a career focusing on just that. Molecular biology “really crystallised all the problems, all the issues, into the following question. How does the DNA structure map onto the amino acid sequence? That is, what is the genetic code?” This fundamental question was initially hindered by the revelation of the double helix – DNA structure of intertwined strands – which made unwinding the chains seem impossible. On this, Brenner formulated what he called a ‘don’t worry hypothesis’: there must be enzymes that do it. This powerful tool allowed him “not of course to ignore facts, but to deal with what seem to be difficulties later, rather than rejecting the hypothesis out of hand as being impossible.” His idea turned out to be right in the form of DNA helicases. For protein folding, he simply jested, “It’s done with no hands!”. 

    What made Brenner carefree made him successful. In his ease in navigating science’s sphere, instead of creating his own unique bubble, he invited the best minds he knew to share one. Throughout the book, he anecdotes both serious conversations and silly encounters with friends and colleagues as they together crack the genetic code, whether at work or at a seaside holiday. Brenner spoke of them fondly, especially of Seymour Benzer and Francis Crick, who, of course, like Brenner, end up becoming legends that shaped modern biology (Benzer for describing the structure of the gene with his studies in phage, Crick for the famous double helix). “Science has to operate as a group, as a social unit,” Brenner states, acknowledging the value of sharing ideas, of conversation. “When an idea forms in my mind it’s usually at least fifty percent wrong,” he says, but with “the social interaction, the companionship that comes from two people’s minds playing on each other,” you can refine it into the right idea. 

    Is this still possible today, when success is individualistic, self-interest is encouraged – ideas are kept secret so as to not get ‘scooped’? Brenner comments about this too: about the scientist’s motivation being “to win a lot of prizes and get a lot of money”, about sensationalism, such that you can’t publish a paper unless you do science the trendy way, about the narrow-minded nature of the research funding system that forces scientists to endlessly justify their work, about the scientist who falls in love with an idea and will do anything to prove it, even when it might be wrong. These grievances are palpable in the current academic atmosphere and for me, suck all the joy out of research. They leave a bitter taste, but Brenner’s book offers a chaser. In it, he says, “I’ve always felt that science makes completely contradictory demands on the people who work in it. It asks you to be highly imaginative, yet it asks you to put on blinders and drive through brick walls if necessary… It asks you to be passionate about invention, but it also asks you to be ruthless and cut off your own hand if it comes to that… But really, the great thing about science is that you can actually solve a problem. You can take something which is confused, a mess, and not only find a solution, but prove it’s the right one.“ 

    Reading Brenner, to me, was finding solace. It reminded me of why I chose science in the first place, and why I still do it to this day. 

    1Numbers are for the hermaphrodite worm. Numbers for males (also fully mapped) are even higher.

  • Basic Research: Innovation’s Driver

    Basic Research: Innovation’s Driver

    A copyedited version of this article was originally posted in Stem Cells in Focus on August 2020

    Biomedical research, the science of investigating the mechanisms and causes of disease, has been the driving force for many of the greatest medical advances in history: from drugs like penicillin to fight bacterial infections, to medications like insulin to control diabetes. Its importance feels even more pertinent nowadays amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While the wait for treatments might feel long, vaccine development is moving forward at an exceptional pace. Such rapid progress can be achieved because scientists are armed with the knowledge from earlier discoveries that laid the groundwork for today’s progress.

    Research falls under two broad categories: applied and basic. Applied research solves practical questions, for instance, “What is the cure for COVID-19?”. Basic research answers curiosity-driven questions about fundamental principles, like “How do you get RNA molecules into living cells?”. The gravity of drug discovery makes the question of RNA delivery sound impertinent, but it is only because of the latter that we now have vaccines against COVID-19, protecting individuals from COVID-19 contraction by at least 2X, and death by at least 6X.

    When the body encounters a pathogen, the immune system is trained to attack the next time it sees the same pathogen. Vaccinations exploit this by injecting just a small chunk of protein from the pathogen that can provide protection without causing disease. While it sounds simple, making a protein vaccine is a long and grueling process. But for RNA, it is indeed simpler. Once the genetic sequence of COVID-19 was published in January 2020, RNA that can instruct cells to make the pathogenic protein chunk was designed within a couple days. The answer to “How do you get RNA molecules into living cells?” enabled scientists to turn this RNA into a vaccine – the fastest vaccine ever developed.

    Solving basic scientific questions allows us to comprehend the elementary processes of the world around us, without which, the innovation of new tools, technologies or cures would not be possible. Stem cell biology is no exception; its contributions to regenerative medicine took flight riding the winds of basic research. For example, decades of basic research have recently led to a cure for the fatal skin disease known as junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB) through the development of stem cell therapy.

    With JEB, the skin’s attachment to the body is severely weakened. Blisters and wounds appear from the slightest amount of friction: from wearing a shirt, laying on bed, or receiving what should be a warming hug. This disease is so devastating that patients rarely survive beyond childhood. They are dubbed “butterfly children,” with skin as fragile as butterfly wings.

    In June 2015, this cruel genetic disease endangered a 7-year old boy named Hassan by leaving only 20% of his skin intact. Hassan was hospitalized at the brink of death, weighing a mere 17 kilograms (37 pounds) and suffering from multiple life-threatening bacterial infections. With no cure available, doctors turned to scientists, who came up with an idea: cultivate the boy’s skin stem cells in the laboratory, repair the mutation that causes the disease, grow skin with the corrected gene, and transplant this healthy skin onto his body.

    This experimental treatment was not conceived by chance; rather, it was a completed puzzle, pieced together from knowledge obtained by asking questions about how biological systems operate.

    Can stem cells survive outside the body? After numerous failed attempts and rigorous optimization, scientists in 1975 succeeded in growing the first human stem cells in a dish from skin tissue. Decades later, Hassan’s skin stem cells were grown from a small skin biopsy using the same technology.

    What anchors the skin to our bodies? To appreciate why our skin remains attached to our bodies, molecular biologists in the early 1990s examined the proteins that sit under the skin’s bottommost layer. They identified a protein called laminin-332, which plays a critical role in adhesion. Scientists later determined that JEB patients have a mutation in the laminin-332 gene, identifying the error in Hassan’s stem cells that needed to be corrected.

    How can a virus cause cancer in chickens? Basic research from a different field provided another critical step. Virologists from the 1960s hoped to understand cancer better by investigating what exactly a tumor-causing virus does inside chicken cells. While they did not unlock the secrets of cancer (we’re still trying to figure that out!), they instead observed that the virus can permanently write genetic information onto the chicken cells’ DNA. This unexpected discovery led geneticists to meticulously refashion those viruses to deliver nearly any gene without any inherent detrimental effects on humans. In Hassan’s case, a virus modified to contain a functional version of laminin-332 gene was sufficient to repair his stem cells.

    All that was left was to grow these genetically-corected stem cells to the sufficient quantity (almost 1 square meter) and graft them back as sheets of skin. The process was rapid. By October 2015, doctors had already started transplantation, and within a month, almost all of Hassan’s open lesions have been covered by the lab-grown skin. Hassan was discharged only four months since the therapy started, and today, he is living not as a butterfly child but as a normal 12-year-old boy, attending school and playing soccer.

    This transgenic stem cell therapy, COVID-19 vaccines, and many other clinical breakthroughs are now reality thanks to basic researchers and their sense of wonder about how the world and our bodies work. So stay curious. No question is meaningless in science. Because later down the road, many lives, including yours, might be saved simply because the right question had already been answered.

  • I’ll Take My Burger with a Side of Sustainability

    I’ll Take My Burger with a Side of Sustainability

    A copyedited version of this article was originally posted in Stem Cells in Focus on June 2021

    Imagine yourself sitting in your favorite burger joint. The smell of sizzling beef in the air, ketchup and mustard classics on your table. The chef comes and personally asks you to taste a new burger recipe. It comes medium rare as requested, has a satisfying texture, and most importantly, it tastes delightfully meaty. What if they tell you that the burger was not made from a cow, but rather, from stem cells in a lab. Does that change the way you feel about your meal?

    Every year, 77 billion land animals are butchered for human consumption, which has far-reaching consequences on the environment. Farm cows alone account for more than 90% of the world’s terrestrial animal biomass (excluding humans). The sheer size of the animal agriculture industry requires half of all habitable land and the majority of the planet’s freshwater supply, all while producing greenhouse gases and water pollution. This makes factory farming the single most dangerous enemy of the environment! If this wasn’t enough, meat also threatens human health. Most manufactured antibiotics are used for livestock, propelling the growing public health problem of antibiotic resistance. Furthermore, 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are estimated to originate from animals, and most of them, like the recent swine and avian flus (possibly COVID-19 too), are from farm animals.

    But even with an awareness of the harm to our environment, the majority of meat consumers (including myself) are not yet ready to entirely abstain from meat. So, what else can we put on our plates?  

    From the perspective of the customer’s palate, meat has three important attributes: taste, texture, and appearance. Thus, to recreate meat, we do not necessarily require a living breathing animal, but rather a source of protein that looks like meat, tastes like meat, and has the same or better nutritional profile. This is where stem cells enter the fray. It turns out that, over decades of research, scientists have discovered a lot about how muscle tissue, the main component of meat, develops in animals. Using this knowledge, researchers learned how to coax muscle stem cells, which can be isolated from a painless cow biopsy, to develop into muscle. By immersing a muscle stem cell in a liquid broth optimized for growth, it can expand one quadrillion times (that’s 15 zeros) in less than two months. The expanded cells can be fostered to form muscle fibers, which in three weeks, are ready to be amassed into free-form meat, such as meatballs or burger patties. In theory, just a single stem cell can make more than 50,000 burger patties (assuming a quarter pound each) in less than three months. Compare that with raising a cow for one and a half years for a maximum of 2,000 burgers.

    These numbers are astounding, but they are not the only advantage of stem-cell based meat, or as it is more commonly called, “clean meat” or cultured meat. On top of obviating the environmental and ethical dilemma of relying on animal agriculture, cultured meat also provides an easy route for enhancing nutritional content by adding vitamins or other nutritional components during the culture process. Additional cell types added to the meat can also enhance the taste and texture. Stem cells from accompanying tissues, such as fat, can be grown alongside muscle, and cells can be 3D-printed or grown in scaffolds to replicate the taste and texture of structured meats, such as fillets and steaks. Cultured meat therefore offers the potential for a more enjoyable, nutritious, ecological, and humane way to be a carnivore.

    Obstacles, including that of public perception, however, remains. While anything new may come across as unnatural, untrustworthy, and ultimately unappetizing, this is mostly a psychological hurdle. If you think about it, we already consume cultured products like cheese and yogurt; the only difference is the starting cells used. Taste-tests by food critics and scientists have even determined that cultured meat is almost indistinguishable from its regular counterparts, and in one study, learning about its societal and personal benefits actually led to a higher taste rating and a willingness to pay more for the meat. Thus, given public education, proper framing and some time, cultured meat can become a competitive alternative to regular meat.

    In recent years, the public’s appetite has grown for another type of meat alternative, plant-based meats, which is already competing in the market – ever heard of Beyond or Impossible Burgers? Cultured meat is closely following this trajectory, having come a long way in terms of increasing production and lowering costs since the first proof-of-concept cultured burger back in 2013. In fact, the first cultured meat for commercial sale is now available in a restaurant called 1880 in Singapore, if you are curious to give it a taste.

    Back to our burger joint scenario, now that you know that the new burger recipe you just ate was better for animals, the environment, and your health. How do you feel about it now?

  • Mentorship: From Science to Film

    Mentorship: From Science to Film

    Write-up originally published by RockEDU Science Outreach, the Rockefeller University’s collective outreach program

    In June 2022, BIOME hosted biologist and filmmaker Alexis Gambis for an interview tackling the intersection between science and popular media and the role of mentorship within these spaces.

    Alexis earned his Ph.D. at the Rockefeller University, where he studied the role of oxidative stress in photoreceptor integrity in the Drosophila eye. Thereafter, Alexis decided to focus on portraying science and its many facets through film. He has written, directed and produced several films exploring topics from the birth of modern genetics at the turn of the 20th century to the exploration of humanity’s future through the embodiment of evolving creatures. As founder of initiatives like the Imagine Science Film Festival and Labocine, he strives to promote the intersection between science and film, and now acts as a mentor in this unique space.

    Science as a springboard to art

    Alexis’s graduate research on the fruit fly involved the use of visually-based techniques like immunofluorescence microscopy and live imaging, which fueled his passion for visual communication. While performing research on the identity, life and death of cells, he envisioned using these concepts and connecting them with personal, political and social issues as a way to express himself and his science. This inspired him to pursue filmmaking, taking scientific imagery to create a story that transcends the typical research article. 

    The Rockefeller University (RU) played a large role in jumpstarting Alexis’s filmmaking career. His Ph.D. advisor Dr. Herman Steller and Dr. Paul Nurse, RU’s president at the time, were extremely supportive of his ideas. RU’s longstanding patronage of the synergy between science and art provided a very conducive environment to create initiatives, most notably the Imagine Science Film Festival (ISFF), which started as a simple film series on campus. When Alexis took the helm of ISFF, he morphed it to focus on science – showcasing science films and bringing experts to talk about the science on screen – until it grew into the international film festival now celebrating its 15th year. Support for Alexis’s filmmaking came from all levels; the administration, his labmates, and other trainees at RU. This proved to himself and others that the academic environment and the mentors within it can nurture careers outside academia as well.

    Filmmaking as a form of research

    Bringing his scientific background to the forefront of his artistry, Alexis argues that filmmaking is not all that different from research, and as such, scientists are already well-equipped to dive into the world of cinema. 

    He discussed how in his films, he often had to run actual scientific experiments to produce scenes, whether it be imaging a butterfly using a confocal microscope, or recreating a fly bithorax for the big screen. He furthermore advocates for experimentation in film to facilitate different forms of storytelling, disrupting the stereotypes propagated by Hollywood or National Geographic on how science ‘should be’ cinematically portrayed. His latest project, called Science New Wave, is a manifesto that encourages scientists and filmmakers to explore the gray zone by incorporating science into film in non-traditional ways. 

    Alexis also believes in creating communities and environments where scientists can interact with artists and collaborate on an equal level. This is bolstered by his conviction that scientists can be more than just advisers to art and that experimentation in film requires active participation from professional scientists both behind and in front of the camera. In addition to creating events like the Symbiosis Film Competition where such interactions can occur, Alexis also launched HABITAT, a social media platform that allows people to connect based on their interests in the intersection of science and media.

    On navigating the intersection of science and film

    Now as a mentor in this unique space, Alexis tells scientists that filmmaking “does not have to be a leap, but can be gradually incorporated.” As an Assistant Professor in the Sciences, Arts & Humanities at New York University in Abu Dhabi, he teaches his students to be fearless and creative in portraying science in film. 

    “No one is ever happy with how science is communicated in film. But the controversy is interesting – people say ‘I don’t agree with how science is portrayed’ or ‘This doesn’t strike me as a science film’. It plays with people’s pre-conceived ideas of what has scientific value on screen.” 

    But Alexis believes that portraying different angles of science in cinema is invaluable. This could be by mixing scientific fact with fiction to create a compelling story for a wider audience or by presenting science in its technical unaltered form, without rationalization or explanation, but simply for its raw beauty and awe. 

    An ongoing challenge remains on how to get more scientists engaged in filmmaking. Scientists tend to stay in their research spheres and communicating science beyond journals is still seen as volunteerism in the outreach space. However, Alexis believes that scientists can do way more. Visual language is becoming increasingly prominent and visual storytelling as an extension of one’s research can have a huge impact on science. His advice to scientists of all levels: “Always have in the back of your mind: how can the data we amass and the experiments we do be treated as cinema?”

    Learn more about Alexis and his work on alexisgambis.com. Follow Alexis on Twitter: @alexisgambis. Links to resources below:

  • Can Stem Cell Research Save Endangered Species?

    Can Stem Cell Research Save Endangered Species?

    “It’s like witnessing a funeral,” a spectator whispers as the Tasmanian artist Lucienne Rickard chafes a rubber eraser against a pencil portrait of the swift parrot, a critically endangered bird that seasonally migrates from mainland Australia to Tasmania. In her series “Extinction Studies”, Rickard was drawing and then erasing meticulous replicas of extinct and threatened species to alert her viewers of the ongoing assault on Earth’s biodiversity (Figure 1). Even the loss of a single species like the swift parrot can leave a large void in nature. Beyond their majestic beauty, migratory birds have been shown to promote biodiversity by transporting nutrients and other organisms, by coupling otherwise disparate communities, and by influencing the genetic mixing of resident populations. If nothing is done, the swift parrot’s foreseeable extinction will upset the balance of the forest ecosystem in which it dwells.

    Figure 1: In the series “Extinction Studies,” Lucienne Rickard draws realistic, large-scale images of endangered and extinct species, and then erases them to represent their loss. Using the same piece of paper, the remnants and impressions of the previous species can be seen under the new sketch. Shown here is the Caribbean Monk Seal, now extinct after humans exploited them for their skins and oil and decimated their food source by overfishing.

    Photo credit: Lucienne Rickard, Extinction Studies project at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, supported by Detached Cultural Organisation. For more information, please see the artist’s Instagram account: @luciennerickard.

    Many other animals are facing eradication as the Earth undergoes its sixth mass extinction. In the past century alone, we have lost the same number of species that would typically go extinct over the course of 10,000 years. This calamitous decline in biodiversity is mainly caused by humans, through habitat degradation, pollution, factory farming and animal exploitation. Nevertheless, we can still slow down the annihilation of species through conscious environmental preservation, and remarkably, stem cell research.

    The role of stem cell research in species conservation is best exemplified by efforts to save the beloved rhino, whose populations have been driven to the brink of extinction by illegal poaching. Loss of the rhinoceros would jeopardize the grassland habitats of Africa and Asia where these megaherbivores play key roles in shaping the earth and vegetation upon which many other species depend. The most pressing case is that of the Northern White Rhino, which at present, has only two known living individuals left in the entire world, both infertile females (Figure 2). Because previous attempts at breeding this species in captivity were unsuccessful, researchers are currently using assisted reproductive technology and novel stem cell techniques to try to save the rhinos.

    Figure 2: Nola, the last Northern White Rhino in the United States, died in 2015 but her cells live on in the form of induced pluripotent stem cells made by researchers from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, USA in collaboration with the Scripps Research Institute, USA.

    Photo credit: San Diego Zoo Global.

    In anticipation, scientists have collected sperm and eggs from the last few surviving Northern White Rhinos, which they used to successfully produce five Northern White Rhino embryos through in vitro fertilization (IVF). The researchers are now hoping that the closely-related Southern White Rhino can function as a surrogate mother for these embryos and bear healthy Northern White Rhino calves. However, the remaining supply of eggs is very limited and collecting more would put the health of the last remaining females at risk. Scientists have hence turned to stem cell research to try to create additional Northern White Rhino embryos, which could eventually help create a self-sustaining population.

    In a landmark study in 2006, Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka developed a method to revert a skin cell back to an embryonic stem cell state by cellular reprogramming. This creates what are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can give rise to all of the cell types in an organism. The first Northern White Rhino iPSCs were reprogrammed in 2011, and today, there are iPSCs from 12 Northern White Rhinos, 8 of which are not familially related. This last point is important because to establish a healthy population, sufficient genetic diversity must be present. The successful creation of iPSCs from the Northern White Rhino jumpstarted efforts to preserve other endangered species using stem cells, including the Sumatran Rhino, estimated at fewer than 80 in existence.

    The next step in this conservation effort is to figure out how iPSCs can be grown into a live healthy organism. Scientists reckon that this can be done in two ways. First is to induce iPSCs to develop and mature into a full embryo. To date, this feat has been successfully performed in mice, but iPSC-derived embryos often end up with developmental defects. The second option is to coax iPSCs to produce mature sperm and eggs for IVF. This process requires a complex multi-step differentiation protocol that while yet to be accomplished, is very well-studied in mouse cells. Further research is thus required not only to improve and fully realize these techniques, but also to extend these discoveries to other species like the rhino, which might not necessarily be responsive to the same protocols used for mice. Until then, Northern White Rhino iPSCs are being maintained safely in the laboratory where they will be available once science advances.

    Cellular reprogramming can be performed on virtually any cell from any species. This technology is therefore as applicable to extinct species as it is to endangered ones, as long as a viable cell is still available. Fortunately, this actually is the case for many recently extinct species, thanks to frozen tissue banks such as The Frozen Zoo in San Diego, CA, USA, which has already preserved cells from more than 10,000 individuals representing 1,000+ species. With this in mind, scientists have begun research on reviving ecologically important extinct animals such as the passenger pigeon (a migratory bird like the swift parrot) and the wooly mammoth (a megaherbivore like the rhino).

    As a final note, it is important to remember that even with stem cells, the preservation and revival of species still relies on the perpetuation of habitats in which they can thrive. So let’s do our part in protecting planet Earth. It’s our only home, and saving the creatures that make it wondrous means saving ourselves, too.  

  • Postdoc Buddy System

    Postdoc Buddy System

    Write-up originally published by RockEDU Science Outreach, the Rockefeller University’s collective outreach program

    The Postdoc Buddy System was a piloted peer-mentorship program implemented through BIOME (stands for Building Interactive Opportunities for Mentorship Education, a mentorship learning community at RockEDU) advisory board member and postdoctoral fellow, Kevin Gonzales. This was built in partnership with Adriane Otopalik from The Rockefeller University’s Postdoctoral Association, and RockEDU Mentorship and Outreach Specialist, Lizzie Krisch. 

    Inspiration. The Postdoc Buddy System was born out of a desire to build a peer mentorship program for postdocs. The program was specifically designed to help postdocs settle into the larger Rockefeller community and gain professional and social support.   

    Logistics. The Postdoc Buddy System program was first piloted in March 2022. In the hopes of connecting senior postdocs and junior postdocs from different labs, we sent out a survey to gauge needs and general interest. To accommodate the interest for the program, particularly from junior postdocs, we created six “pods” where one senior postdoc was paired with three junior postdocs. All ”buddies” were added to the BIOME Slack space, where they were placed in a common channel for the program and in pod-specific channels for easy coordination and mingling. The senior postdoc was responsible for scheduling four pre-planned activities, impromptu Slack conversations and in-person gatherings. The coordinators of the Postdoc Buddy System, Kevin Gonzales, Adriane Otopalik, and Lizzie Krisch were responsible for creating activities, and checking in with two pods each through regular surveying and 1-1 conversations with senior postdocs. 

    Orientation and Meet and Greet. Following the survey signup, we held orientation sessions to lay out the details of the program to participants. A separate session was held for senior and junior postdocs, and after, postdocs were made to confirm their participation in the program. 

    Postdocs were matched into pods based on their answers to the interest survey, ensuring as much as possible that 1) overlapping professional needs and social interests are present within each pod and 2) all postdocs within a pod are from different labs. The matchings were revealed to participants in a meet and greet mixer held at the Rockefeller University’s Faculty Club at the beginning of the program.  

    Members of the PDA Buddy System during our kickoff “Meet and Greet” event.

    Activity 1: Icebreaker.  The first planned activity was an informal icebreaker session for podmates to get to know each other and open lines of communication regarding professional and personal interests. A guide was provided to senior postdocs to help facilitate the session. This session was also used to plan and lead up to the second activity.

    Activity 2: Social Activity. This activity was designed to encourage bonding between postdocs in the same pod and make them feel comfortable with each other. Planning for the activity was left to each pod to accommodate pod-specific interests. Postdocs decided to go for a dinner in the city or a visit to Little Island.  

    Activity 3: Meet an HOL.  The third activity, Meet an HOL, was to provide postdocs an opportunity to interact with Heads of Labs (HOLs) that are not their direct supervisors. We reached out to a few HOLs that have previously shown interest in mentorship and career development, and Profs. Daniel Kronauer, Shixin Liu, Gaby Maimon, Luciano Maraffini, Viviana Risca and Agata Smogorzewska met with the postdocs for a casual conversation about life in science, academia and mentorship. Despite the narrow common availabilities between postdocs and HOLs, pods were successfully matched with each HOL. Senior postdocs were also provided with a guide for this activity to facilitate the discussion if needed.

    Activity 4: Creating an Individual Development Plan.  The fourth activity was scheduled with RU’s career development advisor, Dr. Andrea Morris. This activity was meant to incorporate professional development as a main aspect of the program. During this meeting, postdocs were encouraged to explore career options and were provided resources to pursue various professional paths.

    Coffee Sessions and Closing Activity. In addition to the four structured activities, pods were encouraged to meet up casually for sponsored coffee sessions which was supported by the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship grant for Diversity and Inclusion obtained by the Kronauer Lab. At the end of the program in June 2022, all participants were invited for one final gathering over BBQ and drinks at the Faculty Club.

    Feedback Survey. A final survey was administered to both junior and senior postdoc participants to assess the program’s effectiveness and find points for improvement. The program was met with very positive feedback from all postdoc participants. Most participants found that connecting and interacting with fellow postdocs through the program’s social activities to be most beneficial, and were excited for more activities that encouraged interaction across pods. The Meet an HOL event was also met very positively, and several postdocs even wanted to meet a second HOL. As a testament to the program’s success, all participants expressed that they would highly recommend joining future iterations of the program to other postdocs.

    As the pilot for the Postdoc Buddy System had come to a close, we sincerely thank all the postdocs who have participated, and all the individuals who have been essential in making all the activities possible. With the feedback from participants and contributors, we plan to improve the program and launch it again in the near future!

  • What Kind Of Threat Is The Wound That Does Not Heal?

    What Kind Of Threat Is The Wound That Does Not Heal?

    Jonathan Galka‘s Commentary on



    I have to start with a disclaimer: I don’t academically study the body or migration, nor am I obviously a film critic. But I know immigration and airports and missing places, and I think a lot about biology and sociality, so the film was deeply resonant. I’d like to raise some questions, on one hand, around themes that we historians of science might be thinking about, while also raising some questions around form and narrative content.

    The film is structured by mixing the concern of human migration with one of cellular biology of the innate and adaptive immune systems. Shots of stained cells meeting, joining, and swimming apart from one another set to the sound of waves on a shore, are vivid and fluid. Cells have encoded (but always mutable) features; so do migrants’ accents. Anonymous human faces in shots taken from mapping programs are blurred, liable to change identity at any moment.

    An article about the war in Ukraine says that when you leave your home behind, you are not a person, but a bundle of needs. This particular mixture of concerns is one that I think a lot of us (in our own history of science mode) think about – around uneasy but compelling meetings of biological social experiences. I’m thinking for example of the efflorescence of epigenetic work concerned with the shared and inherited experience of trauma over historical time. I’ve also often thought of cellular memory, especially of memory B and T cells, and the embodiment of experience. As a gay person, I’ve thought about how the resistance profiles of HIV+ people cycling through treatment, and the shared and transposed elements of their resistomes, might open an alternative telling of the social history of HIV/AIDS.

    A question the film provokes is one always on our minds: Biology has often been used in a dominating social mode to classify, racialize, or gender bodies. How then can the biology of the body help us rethink cultural and social issues in helpful ways? Relating the biological to the social can be, in turns, alienating or comforting. But why? In what ways can thinking with our biology engender liberation?

    The film opens with petals falling upward. The world is off kilter, unsettled–a notion that the film conveys in its manipulation of tempo and scale. I was reminded of the last line of a book written by a Quechan nobleman right after the Spanish invasion of Incan Peru; Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, lamenting the state of things in a letter to the Spanish king, simply concluded, “El mundo esta al revés”, the world is upside down. In an upside-down world, leaves will fall up. When, and for whom, is movement an invasion, or an incursion? What kinds of migration across what kinds of borders are wounding?

    Thinking about what it means to wound with movement, and who is wounded in the process, provide access to what are, for me, more familiar kinds of questions asked by the narrators of the film–questions for which I’ve never had any good answers. If I’m all of that, what does it mean for my identity? How do choices made at the border mean we’ll live this future and not that one? What kind of wound is wanting to leave the racism and corruption of the United States? The film conveys a sense of never healing, and of never arriving. America reveals itself to be neither a healing nor an arrival. This is a wrenching realization when the sacrifice has been so great, and the wounding has occurred over such a length of time. What kind of threat is the wound that does not heal?

    This reminds me of one last thing: Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow”, in which a young pregnant woman far away in a foreign place cuts her finger almost imperceptibly on a wedding rose and pays it no mind, but bleeds out from it nevertheless over the course of several days, which is enough time to drive her new husband to insanity.

    Jonathan Galka is a Ph.D. student in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard. He studies the history of biology, technology and speculative futures, focusing on the life and resources of the deep ocean.

    This discussion primer was written for the Science New Wave Film Fest @Harvard in March 2022.

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