I recently co-authored a chapter entitled “Cell and matrix dynamics in branching Morphogenesis”for the fifth edition of Principles of Tissue Engineering, edited by Robert Lanza, Robert Langer, Joseph P. Vacanti, and Anthony Atala.
The chapter focuses on branching morphogenesis, a process that occurs during embryonic development where organs like the salivary glands, lung, and kidney form intricate tree-like structures that serve to increase epithelial surface area and achieve tissue complexity, and how this process is mediated by constant remodeling of the extracellular matrix. We also discuss how multiple cells, microenvironments and signaling contribute to this dynamic remodeling and highlight how these processes are different across organs. The striking differences in how these tissues develop are helping define organ-specific strategies for regenerative medicine.
This chapter publication is very important to me since I’ve known since childhood that I wanted to be a chemical engineer or bioengineer. Science and engineering played a big role in my life growing up. My father studied biological and animal sciences, while my aunt and uncles were physicists and mechanical, civil, and industrial engineers.
Biology served as a connection for me and my father. He is not very communicative except when he is talking about science and animals and my interest in science started as a way to bond with him. My other family members were also important in developing my interests. I studied physics and mathematics with my uncle. In middle school, I competed in mathematics at the regional and national levels. When I turned 18, I worked on a chemical engineering project at my uncle’s company.
Naturally, my aunt and uncles wanted me to study a different engineering field than the ones they studied. Chemical engineering brought together everything I liked from biology, chemistry, and engineering so as a high school student I took all my science electives in chemistry.
Unfortunately, I was not accepted into this program and ended up in biology. I was crushed. I felt lost because I had always geared my classes and training towards chemical engineering. For a while, I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I discovered developmental biology while taking an evolution class. Something clicked, and I realized that this was the path I needed to pursue to combine all of the areas that influenced me as a child: chemistry, biology, physics and engineering. Having my chapter published in one of the most important and prestigious books in bioengineering gives me validation that I do belong in these fields. I just found a different way to arrive at the same finish line.
Working with both of my mentors, I was able to design a project that focuses on signaling pathways important during lung branching that become aberrantly activated during lung cancer. I believe that a better understanding of developmental genetics is imperative to understand how our tissues and organs work and how disruption of their function leads to different pathologies.
In addition to my research, I am developing my computational biology skills to be better equipped for the bioengineering field and advocating for individuals with disability in academia. In the future, I would love to continue studying lung development from a bioengineering and/or chemical engineering perspective— either looking at mechanical signal integration or at tissue engineering and regeneration.
About The Author
Shaimar González Morales, M.S is a student in the Cell Biology, Genetics, and Molecular Medicine discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program. She works at the interface between developmental biology and cancer biology and established a collaboration between the Pertsemlidis Lab at UT Health San Antonio and the Yamada Lab at NIDCR/NIH, facilitated by the NIH Graduate Partnerships Program. Her research focuses on miRNA-mediated interaction between cells and the extracellular matrix in lung development and disease with the goal of understanding the mechanisms underlying cancer progression. The insights obtained from the processes critical for development that can be aberrantly activated in adult tissues will give us new approaches to treat, and possibly prevent, lung diseases that currently lack efficient therapeutic strategies.