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UW Faculty Members Receive Research Awards to Study Cell Division

February 25, 2015
man standing in front of a computer screen
Jay Gatlin, a UW assistant professor of molecular biology, recently received a $30,000 Nikon Award to conduct summer research at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass. (UW Photo)

Together, Jay Gatlin and John Oakey worked on mitotic spindle assembly research that resulted in a paper published in Science in 2013. The two University of Wyoming faculty members will team up again to continue similar work on a more advanced level this summer.

Each recently received 2015 Whitman Center Research Award to conduct summer research at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass.

Gatlin, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology, received a $30,000 Nikon Award that will be used to cover his lab space and housing fees from June 1-Aug. 15. Oakey, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, received a $17,070 award, which will cover his costs for lab space and housing during the same period.

“The focus of our research is to better understand how cells regulate the size and position of their internal components (called organelles), specifically in the context of cell division,” Gatlin says.

Gatlin has spent the last two summers conducting research at the MBL as part of a collaborative group that includes students and postdoctoral researchers from his own lab as well as Tim Mitchison’s lab from Harvard Medical School.

“We will each be taking students to Woods Hole with us,” says Oakey, who joined the research effort last summer. “This experience is extremely valuable for the students. It provides them the opportunity to collaborate with top scientists from all over the country and, in fact, the world, and to interact with the vibrant scientific community that materializes in Woods Hole every summer. Beyond the experience, the exposure that they receive is valuable for their careers.”

During 2013, Gatlin and Oakey teamed up for a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project that explored how the mitotic spindle scales with changes in cell size. Mitotic spindles, shaped similar to the American football, are responsible for correctly segregating or separating chromosomes during cell division.

Gatlin’s research incorporated Oakey’s expertise in microfluidics. To help answer the spindle size scaling question, Oakey created a T-junction microfluidic device to encapsulate isolated cytoplasm -- the gel-like substance inside the enclosed membrane of a biological cell -- in small droplets. Oakey customized the droplet generators so that the fluids used -- chemicals and oils -- did not affect what occurs inside the droplets. Oakey’s emulsions were unique, in that droplets could be created with controlled shape and size.

The technology allowed for reductions in cytoplasmic volume that were sufficient to artificially repeat spindle scaling observed in the frog embryos during development. This was the basis of the work published in Science, an international scientific journal, during November 2013.

“His (Oakey’s) expertise, microfluidics, has enabled us to confine extract in discrete volumes or droplets,” Gatlin explains. “This summer, we hope to refine this technology to create droplets that more accurately resemble real cells.”

No strangers to recognition

This recent honor adds to Gatlin’s growing accolades. He previously was among 22 Pew Scholars in 2014, receiving a four-year grant award of $240,000. The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences woman working on an experiment while man looks on provides funding to young investigators of outstanding promise in science relevant to the advancement of human health. Launched in 1985, the program makes grants to selected academic institutions to support the independent research of outstanding individuals who are in their first few years of their appointment at the assistant professor level.

In 2012, he received a National Institutes of Health grant totaling more than $1.3 million and was co-investigator on another ($300,000) awarded to Oakey. Gatlin was awarded Whitman Research Fellowships in 2012 and 2013. The award paid for Gatlin and doctoral student James Hazel to conduct summer research at the Whitman Center.

Gatlin received his doctorate in cell and molecular biology from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in 2005 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill until 2010, when he joined UW.

“The Whitman program attracts some of the world’s best cell biologists. During the summer, the campus plays host to several renowned and prestigious educational courses,” Gatlin says. “It’s truly sort of a life scientist’s nirvana. The effect of time spent at the MBL on my career is immeasurable.”

In 2013, Oakey received an NSF CAREER Award worth slightly more than $400,000. He is using the award to make tissue engineering and regenerative medicine more effective and widespread for applications such as rebuilding damaged knee cartilage.

Oakey received his Ph.D. and master’s degree in chemical engineering from Colorado School of Mines and his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Penn State University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Engineering in Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School from 2007-2010.

Like Gatlin, Oakey sees the MBL experience as a game changer.

“Beyond our planned work, the MBL is a hive of activity and new ideas,” Oakey says. “Many collaborations are formed there and the bases for many exciting projects are nucleated. Returning to Woods Hole each summer allows us to develop those relationships and continue that work. These relationships and interactions are probably the highest value return for my career.”

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