We should be opening Matthew’s story with a joke. A fan of stand-up comedy, he’s in the midst of writing some bits for an open mike night at a local comedy club. “I’m working on some jokes, but they’re not funny yet.” Hopefully he’s having more success in the lab as a biophysics doctoral candidate researching interactions between cell membranes and immune receptors.
He describes, “We’re building special fluorescence microscopy techniques to locate and track individual proteins and lipids simultaneously in the cell membrane. This allows us to determine if two objects are interacting by seeing if their positions and movements are correlated or otherwise nonrandom.” The goal of this research is to understand a novel mechanism in which the cell plasma membrane influences how B cells work and hopefully down the road use that understanding to alter cellular behavior, especially in autoimmune diseases. Matthew describes, “The basis for what we study is not well proven yet – there are no drugs that target these mechanisms. Some researchers think anesthesia works along similar lines as the mechanism we study to depress the nervous system. It is possible that the immune system acts in similar ways and we can influence it with anesthetics as well. We are first determining the extent that plasma membrane structure is doing things in cells by using advanced microscopy techniques to observe how proteins and lipids cluster together.” Matthew suffers from Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease, which can at times be debilitating. He says, “The research focus on novel mechanisms in Immunology is one of the reasons I joined this lab.”
It was physics professor Dr. Pu Chun Ke at Clemson University who spoke highly of U-M, got Matthew involved in nanoparticle research, and encouraged him to apply to grad programs. “When I joined the Biophysics department here, I rotated through the labs of three professors in Immunology, Chemistry and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. Those were my three rotations and I wasn’t supposed to do any more, but I was interested in Assistant Professor Sarah Veatch’s research so I just hung out unofficially in her lab for two weeks and I was hooked. Sarah has been very supportive when problems arose in my personal life as well as in the lab. I am very glad that I ended up doing my dissertation research with her.”
Matthew will complete and defend his dissertation in the spring and he’s excited to have the Predoctoral Fellowship to finish up the research he’s doing now and undertake some exploratory research before beginning to write in earnest. He’s been writing, though. Matthew recently published a paper on a cutting edge super-resolution microscopy analysis technique he and Sarah developed and he’s completing another first author paper focused on B cells and lipids in the near future. He says, “The goal for my dissertation is to make a document that can help other people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I want it to be read by other people as a primer on why we’re interested in B cells and immune cells and create an accessible summary to our research. I want to do something important and make a useful document for others.”
In terms of future research topics, Matthew’s interests are shifting away from lipids and cell membranes to microbiota, the commensal flora in our bodies, and how they influence our physiology. He says, “Biophysics is very interdisciplinary, and there is generally a lot of ground to be gained by examining the spaces between different fields. I’d like to take things I’ve learned in Biophysics and explore questions related to our microbiota. Later on, my research might end up incorporating what we have learned from lipids into the microbiome story. If we understand how the body interacts with the bugs we host inside of us, maybe we can use them to manipulate our health.”
Matthew is grateful for the support from Rackham travel grants that allowed him to attend annual Biophysical Society conferences and a unique conference in Paris that was highly specific to his research. He describes, “It was a really small meeting, but it was so amazing. I got the chance to meet all these people whose publications I read. I couldn’t have done that without Rackham support.”