Awards Database

Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2016

Eva-Maria Schoetz Collins

Assistant Professor of Physics, University of California, San Diego

Unraveling the Role of Mechanics for Tissue Self-organization In Vivo

It’s a very big question: Are their certain principles across the animal kingdom, from the simplest creature to the complexity of humans, governing how living organisms grow, develop and age?

Eva-Maria Schoetz Collins,assistant professor ofphysics and cell & developmental biology, University of California, San Diego, is looking for possible answers.

She and her research associates hope to determine the role of mechanical forces for animal development during initial growth stages of tissue organization and body axis formation (front to back, left to right). They also hope to obtain measurements of the forces at play among an organism’s cells and determine if these forces are a factor in cells communicating among themselves during early growth stages.

It will be a major accomplishment if they can obtain accurate data from active cells in a living organism.

To make the task easier, they have chosen to work with a genus of small, fresh-water animals called Hydra because of their fast growth rate and their ability to regenerate quickly when their tissues are damaged. The genus is named after the mythological Greek serpent monster that could regrow its multiple heads as they were chopped off by the greatest of Greek heroes, Hercules. Fortunately, he won that fight.

Today’s non-mythological Hydra aren’t much of a threat. The largest are only a few millimeters in length and shaped more like a cylinder than an egg, with a mouth surrounded by one to a dozen tentacles. They can regenerate after having been dissociated into groups of cells that naturally aggregate – sort themselves out – to play specific roles in the developing organism. These cell aggregates can develop into a functioning animal in less than a week.

Collins is interested in how mechanical interactions among cells are interpreted and may affect gene expression and how these changes affect cell communication and physical properties in the rapidly growing animal. Ultimately, her basic research might have implications not only for the understanding of the growth of organisms but of their aging process as well.

“This study will provide insight into how macroscopic organism-level patterning emerges from physicochemical (relating to physics and chemistry) interactions on the microscopic scale,” she said.

For the education component of the Cottrell Scholar Award, Collins plans to train students to become effective teacher-scholars in biological physics. “It is indispensable to engage them in research and in mentoring and teaching activities as early as possible,” she noted, adding she will develop a novel research-based lab class, a new STEM mentoring program, and provide students with research opportunities her lab.  

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