On January 11, we hosted biochemical engineer Dr. Kristi S. Anseth as our first McClintock lecturer of 2018. In her position as Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Associate Faculty Director of the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Anseth works at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and engineering to develop more realistic ways to study biological processes outside the body (in vitro instead of in vivo).

The ability to grow, observe, and manipulate cells in a dish has allowed scientists to perform experiments once only dreamed of and, in doing so, make fundamental discoveries and test disease treatments. However, there are serious limitations to studying plated cells, including the lack of a realistic environment outside of the cell (the extracellular matrix or ECM). Scientists have worked to mimic aspects of the ECM using gel-like substances called hydrogels, but these are usually static materials that, while allowing cells to grow and interact in three dimensions, can’t reflect the dynamic nature of a true ECM. This is a critical problem because it’s becoming increasingly clear that the ECM plays important roles in diverse processes, including the development and spread of cancer.

With her background in chemical engineering (a B.S. from Purdue followed by a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado) Anseth realized that she could develop chemical tools to manipulate these hydrogels to meet the unique needs of each experiment. For example, she has designed hydrogels whose “stiffness” can be fine-tuned (reversibly) using light, as well as customizable scaffolds with pore sizes to mimic various tissue types. In her lecture, “Dynamic Hydrogel Matrices: Cell Biology in the Fourth Dimension,” Anseth showed that she knows how to work a broad audience, including a little something for everyone; cancer researchers hung to her every word while she described how hydrogels could better mimic the tumor microenvironment. Developmental biologists were enthralled as she showed a hydrogel capable of restricting cell lineages. Biochemists’ hearts warmed at the sight of her clever chemical reaction schemes. It was a packed house, but sitting on the floor or standing was well worth it!

Every year, WiSE hosts two women scientists who are pioneers in their field as “McClintock lecturers,” an award given in honor of groundbreaking geneticist and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory alumnus Barbara McClintock. In addition to giving a labwide seminar, McClintock lecturers are wined and dined by WiSE, where we are honored to be able to get to know more about them in a less formal environment. In addition to being named a McClintock lecturer, Anseth’s numerous honors include induction into the National Academies of Engineering, Medicine, Sciences, and Inventors. After hearing her lecture, it’s no surprise that she has also received multiple awards for excellence in teaching. It was a great honor to host her!

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