Ruth Marisol Herrera Perez, PhD, Receives Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2021 Career Awards at the Scientific Interface

Jul 20 2021

The Columbia University Department of Mechanical Engineering congratulates Ruth Marisol Herrera Perez, PhD, for receiving the Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2021 Career Awards at the Scientific Interface (CASI), a postdoc-faculty bridging award for researchers conducting biological research through interdisciplinary approaches. Dr. Herrera Perez received the award for her novel approach to engineering models that can control cell communication in self-organizing systems.

“The formation of structures like tissues and organs, and the whole body of an animal, is achieved through very basic cellular behaviors, but when those simple behaviors are coordinated among multiple cells, they give rise to new enhanced collective responses with higher complexity and capabilities beyond those exhibited by individual cells,” explains Dr. Herrera Perez.

“I’m interested in the coordinated relationships among cells and between cells and the environment that drive organization and function in multicellular systems,” she continues. “By understanding those principles and recreating them in the lab, we can better understand what might go wrong during certain diseases processes. We can also use such understanding to generate tissues that better resemble human tissues for medical applications.”

In the Kasza Living Materials Lab at Columbia University, Dr. Herrera Perez is combining optogenetics and mechanobiology to manipulate contractility and mechanical forces in developing tissues with the goal of understanding how patterns of forces control cell deformations that give rise to complex structures like tissues and organs.

“A central approach to my research is the use of optogenetic tools for a precise spatial-temporal control of gene expression or protein activity using light,” she explains. “Such precision allows us to target specific groups of cells in a collective and establish direct effects in the way the multicellular system organizes and cell communicates among themselves and with the environment.”

“Marisol has developed very powerful optogenetic tools to manipulate the mechanical forces generated by cells within tissues with high spatial and temporal precision,” says Karen Kasza, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University. “Being able to precisely manipulate these forces and then analyze the effects on cells will greatly accelerate our ability to dissect the complex mechanisms that regulate cell and tissue behaviors in multicellular systems, from tissue development in the embryo to homeostasis and disease in adult tissues.”

“The Burroughs Wellcome Fund CASI is one of the most prestigious awards granted to postdoctoral researchers working at the interface of the biological and physical sciences in the US and Canada,” adds Dr. Kasza.  “Marisol is one of only eleven awardees selected this year to receive $500,000 over five years to support their research. I am so excited to see the amazing research that Marisol does with this tremendous support from this award!”

The CASI award gives Dr. Herrera Perez the funding security to support her last year of postdoctoral training in the Kasza lab and launch her own interdisciplinary research group. “I am very grateful and happy to receive this award,” says Dr. Herrera Perez. “It gives me the opportunity to continue working on this project and the freedom to begin exploring research ideas that I plan to pursue in my own lab.”

“Future steps will use optogenetic tools together with in vitro models to explore the mechanisms by which multicellular systems self-organize to create 3D structures with specialized form and function,” she continues. “My hope is that one day these insights will help us generate organized and functional living structures with designed functionalities to improve human health and wellbeing.”

Optogenetically-induced shape change in the fruit fly ovary.