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Erika Matunis of Cell Biology describes how a profound scientific question can be fodder for a life's work:
Why did you choose your particular area of biology?
MATUNIS: I was lucky enough to start before stem cells were as popular as they are now. I figured I wanted to pick a really interesting question and choose a system people hadn’t used to study that question. So I applied for a postdoc at Rockefeller University, where I could focus on the question of asymmetric cell division—the fundamental question of how a cell divides during embryogenesis to give rise to two different cells. And I chose the fly testis; it hadn’t been used much to study stem cells. Scientists had studied meiosis in this tissue, but they hadn’t studied the stem cells that give rise to sperm.
And you’ve been studying this now for 15 years?
MATUNIS: After Rockefeller, I continued in the same field at the Carnegie Institution and then at Hopkins. If you pick a big enough question, you’ll be exploring it for a lifetime. The question was broad enough to be interesting for a really long time, and it has been. And it’s been fun to work in a system where there wasn’t much known.
So how much progress have you made?
MATUNIS: I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. Every answer precipitates a whole new set of questions.
What are some areas you’d like to pursue in the future?
MATUNIS: We’re interested in systemic signals. For example, what do hormones do to these stem cells? New questions have emerged since we began. We have gained insight into how very local signaling within the tissue regulates stem cells, but we know much less about how signals from outside the tissue affect them. Both types of signaling are important in our bodies and can undergo changes with age, but the mechanisms are not well understood.
How do you view your own scientific process?
MATUNIS: Science isn’t linear. Research is about asking solid questions and then looking at what you see. Every observation presents a choice, a fork in the road. And some of those choices are unexpected. Our job is to navigate the journey, to decide which path to take. That’s the fun of it and the challenge.
Matunis on how she uses genetics to study stem cells: