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Bio-X interdisciplinary research presented in ‘plain English’


A Bio-X goal of breaking down barriers to collaboration between researchers from Stanford’s various schools depends upon overcoming the language barrier: Scientists from different disciplines often speak different dialects.

The ongoing interest in stimulating new ways of looking at research questions by having input from different fields has inspired the “Bio-X Talks in English,” a seminar series that samples the diversity of topics included in Bio-X and is presented in a manner accessible to those less-than-fluent in field-specific jargon.

Held Monday afternoon in Gates Auditorium on the main campus, the first lecture attracted a nearly even mix of attendees from arts and humanities, engineering and medicine. The group heard about two basic topics: cellular differentiation and molecular motors, both of which are biological puzzles that may be solved with the help of physical and mathematical tools. Bio-X is the university’s broad-based effort to unite engineering, medicine, biology and other fields in research efforts.

Bio-X faculty members James Spudich (left) and Scott Delp. Photo: Mitzi Baker

Claire Tomlin, PhD, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, presented data from a project in which she has teamed with Jeffery Axelrod, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology.

Tomlin uses her engineering skills to develop mathematical models for solving
a biological problem: how cells, which all initially start out the same, guide one another’s development into different types of cells by delivering messages to each other. The researchers use the fruit fly to explore how cells transmit signals, which may help illustrate the similar processes in humans.

Biochemistry professor James Spudich, PhD, discussed with Scott Delp, PhD, associate professor of bioengineering, the mechanics underlying many types of motion critical to cellular life, including locomotion, cell division and muscle contraction.

He painted a vivid picture of the cell organized as a city plan consisting of filamentous highways, protein construction crews and street signs and molecular motor cars, complete with cellular fuel and exhaust.

“Cells are very clever,” said Spudich, explaining that all of the city planning elements of the cell can change to create the different functions required of various cells.

Combining his efforts with researchers from the departments of mechanical engineering, structural biology and chemistry, Spudich is working on mathematical models to understand the molecular motors vital to cell function.

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