News

Untangling the Wires

2/28/2013

Untangling the Wires

2/28/2013

Investigator: Dr. Hana El-Samad
Position: Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics
Institution: University of California-San Francisco
Project title: "Untangling the Wires: an Integrated Framework for Probing Signal Encoding and Decoding in Cellular Circuits."
Award amount: $1.43 million

What is it like to be a pioneering scientist?
I wake up every day with the thought that today holds the potential of a small discovery that might help demystify a disease or remedy our struggling environment. Evidently, this might or might not happen. But the idea that at the end of that day, there will be a question that would have been answered or some piece of knowledge that was uncovered, however small these might be, continues to fill me with great joy. This is an experience that differentiates a scientist from most other professionals: the unwavering optimism and pure thrill of discovery.

How did you wind up in this particular area of research?
I am a control engineer by training, and I studied how to design robustly operating man-made technologies. I am fascinated by the idea that nature might have evolved robust systems whose principles are still unknown to us. At the same time, I want to explore the notion that the mathematical and engineering frameworks that underlie our current technologies could be put to use in unraveling the cellular networks that make life possible. The idea of operating at the interface of many disciplines and weaving together their seemingly disparate conceptual frameworks is a permanent source of excitement for my research team and me.

How might your research "move the needle" in the field of biology?
We hope to understand how information travels through cellular circuits, what the information transmission bottlenecks are, and what patterns of distortions in this information lead to breakdown and disease. The last few decades have documented the wires through which signals flow in cells. We will attempt to trace signal flow through these wires. Such an understanding might shift our therapeutic interventions towards drugs that can restore homeostasis to a cellular circuit by rectifying its signaling pathologies.

What are some of the challenges you and other pioneering researchers come across?
Two main hurdles hinder high-risk and high reward research. First, in times of scarce resources, investment becomes risk-averse. The same applies to science today: paradigm shifting ideas are difficult to fund and pursue. At the same time, pioneering research routinely emerges from the coalescence of ideas and approaches from many walks of science. Over-specialization and the restricted flow of information and expertise between different branches of science delays breakthroughs. Conversely, lowering disciplinary boundaries and training budding scientists to be conversant in a broad range of topics accelerates discovery.

What are you aiming to achieve by the end of your ADI grant cycle?
Cellular circuits are much like the phone network. Multiple signals, encoding information from different sources, travel through the same wires. Yet, the appropriate information precisely reaches the suitable set of target genes. We want to trace such signal flow in an important cellular pathway that constitutes the first line of defense of cells against fluctuations of environmental variables (such as nutrients). We aim to develop a systematic understanding of how this cellular circuit encodes, decodes, and multiplexes the different types of information it receives from its environment.

"With this funding, we hope to unravel the array of solutions and salient organizational principles used by cells to encode and decode the complex landscape of signals generated by their environment. This requires a forward-looking multidisciplinary approach, in addition to a continuously evolving suite of computational and experimental innovations. Support that encourages risk-taking is crucial for bringing this ambitious project to fruition." Dr. Hana El-Samad