Awards Database

Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2014

Dinah Loerke

Dinah Loerke

Assistant Professor of Physics, University of Denver

Toward a Mechanistic Understanding of Cell lntercalation in Germ-Band Extension

How do cells, the incredibly tiny building blocks of all living organisms, coordinate their growth and development billions of times over to produce something as fantastically complex and yet wholly unified as a human, with only minor “architectural” variations among individuals?

Loerke is investigating one small but significant aspect of that very complicated question.

She is studying embryos of Drosophilia melanogaster, the common fruit fly, focusing on the process by which the segmented trunk of the insect develops in about 90 minutes. Specifically Loerke wants to learn precisely how embryonic Drosphilia cells coordinate their motion to weave together as the embryo’s trunk elongates, and how they use internal forces or adhesion among cells to direct this motion.

Her work requires observing the initial elongation of the body in many embryos over very short snippets of time using such research tools as fluorescence live-cell microscopy, computational image processing, and quantitative and statistical data analysis.

The Cottrell Scholar Award will also fund Loerke‘s innovative undergraduate teaching efforts. She has designed a project using the metaphor of player motion and coordination in soccer to convey the spirit of her detailed observation of the dynamics of cells and subcellular particles as she attempts to gain insight into a specific biological mechanism.

“When talking about my research to lay audiences, I often use the comparison to ballgames,” Loerke said. “If you have no prior knowledge of a particular game, what conclusions can you draw about the game's rules based on the motion of the players and the ball on the field; and what are the small-scale interactions among different players, and between a single player and the ball, that create large-scale dynamics like the 'flow' of the game, or outcomes like wins or losses?”

Among other things, this approach allows her to discuss techniques for trajectory analysis - the analysis of localization, motion, and motion correlation – which are independent of scale and apply equally to players on the field, cells within a tissue, or stars within a galaxy, she said.

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