Tubular belle: Q&A with Dr Helen Weavers
In March, Helen Weavers was awarded the 2013 Beddington Medal for the best developmental biology thesis, which she produced at the end of her Trust-funded PhD. I asked her about her research and plans for the future….
Congratulations, Helen! Can you tell us what your prize-winning PhD research was about?
I was studying the way tubes develop in organs. Most organs, including human organs, are essentially made of tubes that have to be very precisely arranged in three dimensions for that organ to work. And the organs themselves have to be properly arranged spatially in relation to each other. My PhD was about how a fly’s organs develop to be in the right place and with the right organisation of tubes.
We study these processes using the renal system of the fruit fly – the Malpighian tubules – which are considered to be simple kidney-like organs. They are a good model for research because they also have to have a precise architecture.
So what did you find out?
Many organs have special cells at their ends called tip cells, which are often thought to act as master regulators during organ development. They control many different events, including cell division, and also guide outgrowth of the organ. You find them in the lungs, salivary glands, blood vessels and so on.
I found that tip cells have a slightly different role in the renal system. Rather than leading outgrowth, they anchor themselves to other tissues. This seems to be because Malpighian tubules have to form loops – like the loops found in human kidneys – to work. So they are anchored at either end and growth in between generates the loop. Without the anchorage, tubules would lose their characteristic looped shape and form a simple linear tube. So the behaviour of the tip cells determines the resulting structure of the organ.
You did this work in Helen Skaer’s lab in Cambridge – how did you end up there?
I did a research project in Helen’s lab in the final year of my Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge. It was my first taste of independent research – not doing something that had been pre-planned for you, but devising my own experiments and looking at questions no one else had ever looked at before.
That project was so enjoyable that I stayed on as a Research Assistant in the lab for a year after I graduated. I gained so much experience from doing that – I learned skills and the confidence to develop my own ideas.
And you won a prize for your undergraduate project as well, didn’t you?
Yes, I won the Zoological Society of London’s 2007 Charles Darwin Award for best zoological undergraduate research project in Britain.
Where did this obvious affinity for research come from?
I liked all the sciences at school but particularly the more practical side of biology – I loved dissections! And one of my favourite things we studied at school was the kidney: I had no idea I would study the kidney in flies for my PhD.
Do you have any scientific heroes?
Maybe not quite what you’re thinking of, but I admire Helen Skaer a lot, as does everyone in the cell and developmental biology community. She was a fantastic supervisor, has a successful research career, is great at lecturing and teaching, and has a fabulous family life. She’s a great role model.
So what’s next for you?
I’ve got a five-year postdoctoral research position in Bristol with Professor Paul Martin and [Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow] Professor Will Wood in Bath. I’m still using flies and the techniques I used in my PhD, but now I’m going to be looking at wound healing, with particular emphasis on how this is medically translatable, and the lab I’ve joined uses lots of different models – not just the fly – which will complement what I’m doing.
The processes in wound healing are similar to those in embryonic development, so my work is still based in developmental biology. The common theme is morphogenesis – the way cells are organised and change. In a wound, you essentially have a group of leading cells (not quite tip cells but similar) that have to migrate together to seal the wound. There are similar signals and interactions between the various parts of the cellular architecture.
I’m already thinking about where I’m going to be in five years’ time, though. I am in a position now to spend some time and think about my own project, and hopefully I will find something really exciting and new that I can establish as a system in my own lab in the future.
And finally, what do you like to do outside the lab?
From a young age, I’ve loved art, and I’ve taken up pottery since moving to Bristol. In my new lab, quite a few people are involved in setting up competitions to get people thinking about art in science, which I think is interesting and something I would like to get involved with in the future.
Art is a good way in to a complicated subject like developmental biology, which can be difficult to explain and difficult to understand. It was challenging to explain why I was studying flies’ kidneys, for example, although what I discovered is fundamental to many processes in the body and could be medically relevant. People often relate more easily to things they have experienced first-hand, like wounds and how they heal.
Weavers, H., Prieto-Sánchez, S., Grawe, F., Garcia-López, A., Artero, R., Wilsch-Bräuninger, M., Ruiz-Gómez, M., Skaer, H., & Denholm, B. (2008). “The insect nephrocyte is a podocyte-like cell with a filtration slit diaphragm” Nature, 457 (7227), 322-326 DOI: 10.1038/nature07526
Note: The Beddington Medal is awarded by the British Society for Developmental Biology. It is awarded for the best PhD thesis in developmental biology submitted in the previous year.