Everyday, I spend a good amount of time thinking about the stuff I depend on. This stuff includes my phone (with a newly cracked screen), my clothes, my computer, and other things. This summer made me realize I have been taking for granted some very important stuff I depend on and interact with every day, or perhaps they interact with me: the approximately 30 trillion cells in my body.
Professor Qiong Yang in the Biophysics department gave me the privilege of interning under her as an undergraduate research assistant. Prof. Yang studies cells, and she alongside her research team have helped me understand how important researching our cells can be, as well as how much there is to learn.
We know what is inside our cells, more or less (including but not limited to mitochondria). There is also a tremendous amount of scientific literature on the processes by which our cells proliferate, via the cell cycle. In more recent history, biophysicists have made significant advances in our understanding of what initiates and drives these processes behind cell duplication and differentiation.
It is the underlying mechanisms which drive and sustain each stage of the cell cycle which Qiong Yang wants to probe. She is doing a great job, might I add, by developing an artificial cell system using cell-sized microfluidic chambers and adding Xenopus egg cytoplasm. This is the first artificial cell system which can sustain processes relevant to the cell cycle long enough for us researchers to reliably study them.
This is where physics comes into play. The data that I, along with other researchers, am in charge of making sense of is reflective of what are called biological oscillations. The word oscillations might ring a bell from 1st year physics, and in the case of Qiong’s research it refers to the oscillations between different phases of the cell cycle. Right now, we are analyzing data that deals with the mitotic cycle specifically, or the part of the cell cycle where the cell actually divides into a copy of itself.
So far, conducting research under Professor Yang has been humbling not only because I am working alongside very intelligent and competent people, but also because this research has made me more aware of just how incredible the living body is. Moreover, it has been inspiring to see just how much remains unanswered regarding how our cells operate.