Return to News

The lab whiz

Ellie Shinby Greg St. Martin

Ellie Shin was deter­mined to find a co-​​op working in a wet lab on campus.

She enrolled at North­eastern as a his­tory major but took sci­ence courses during her freshman year, set­ting her sights on a pre-​​dental track to explore her pas­sion for working in health­care. After her first year, Shin inquired about co-​​op oppor­tu­ni­ties with some of the university’s newest fac­ulty mem­bers and caught the atten­tion of Jon Tilly, the new chair of the Depart­ment of Biology. Tilly arrived at North­eastern in July of 2013 and together with Dori Woods, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Biology, estab­lished the Lab­o­ra­tory for Aging and Infer­tility Research (also called the LAIR) as a cutting-​​edge and multi-​​investigator research space.

Shin started working with Tilly and Woods in the LAIR as a vol­un­teer, turned that oppor­tu­nity into a co-​​op from July to December 2014, and has con­tinued working there through a directed study this semester. The third-​​year stu­dent has also bol­stered her aca­d­emic resumé, adding a biology major and a math­e­matics minor.

The LAIR focuses on women’s health, with a par­tic­ular interest in infer­tility and healthy aging. Tilly and Woods have pro­duced ground­breaking research on the appli­ca­tion of regen­er­a­tive med­i­cine in repro­duc­tive biology, leading to sev­eral issued patents that are cur­rently in clin­ical study.

It’s been very exciting,” Shin, SSH/S’16, said of working in the lab. “Pro­fes­sors Tilly and Woods have given me a lot of respon­si­bility in designing my own exper­i­ments and writing my own protocols.”

Shin’s work focuses on two projects, one being a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort with other LAIR team mem­bers that builds upon Tilly and Woods’ research on mito­chon­dria, which are tiny struc­tures within all cells that per­form a range of impor­tant tasks. “Without mito­chon­dria,” Tilly said, “we wouldn’t be here.”

Tilly and Woods want to better under­stand mito­chon­dria and their regen­er­a­tive abil­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly because of their impor­tant impli­ca­tions for both fer­tility and healthy aging. Knowing that when mito­chon­dria respire they make energy, they devel­oped a novel process to sep­a­rate out single mito­chon­dria by attaching probes that flu­o­resce when this energy is made. Shin, for her part, devel­oped a new method for using a scan­ning elec­tron micro­scope to take a 3-​​D image of a mito­chon­drion, which is about one microm­eter in diameter.

I was in charge of visu­al­izing mito­chon­dria using a tech­nique called scan­ning elec­tron microscopy,” Shin explained. “The more con­ven­tional tech­nique is TEM (trans­mis­sion elec­tron microscopy), where you’re cut­ting the sample into slices. But these are only two-​​dimensional images, and we felt SEM would offer more robust images of the sam­ples we’re working with and a better look at the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the mito­chon­dria we’re collecting.”

This is a very tedious tech­nique that requires a great deal of trial and error, but in December Shin pro­duced the group’s first high-​​quality images. Prior to her efforts, many sci­en­tists who study mito­chon­dria ques­tioned if what Shin accom­plished was even tech­ni­cally feasible.

Shin’s other project, which she has worked on inde­pen­dently in the LAIR, involves repli­cating the pro­to­cols and find­ings of Mar­iusz Rata­jczak of the Uni­ver­sity of Louisville, whose team sev­eral years ago dis­cov­ered new very small embryonic-​​like cells in bone marrow that have sig­nif­i­cant regen­er­a­tive prop­er­ties apart from cre­ating blood cells. Rata­jczak reported that these VSELcells were pluripo­tent, meaning that they can give rise to any cell type. This is impor­tant, Shin said, because they could poten­tially be used as an alter­na­tive to human embry­onic stem cells in research and med­i­cine, which is controversial.

But sev­eral notable sci­en­tists have refuted Ratajczak’s work, so Shin aims to help settle an impor­tant debate in stem cell biology: whether these VSEL cells exist. She is pre­senting her work to date on this project at a poster ses­sion during the 2015 Exper­i­mental Biology con­fer­ence in Boston on March 28–April 1.

Both research projects require a high-​​tech piece of equip­ment that enables flu­o­res­cence acti­vating cell sorting, or FACS. Here’s how it works: you feed a mix of cells or organelles, each type of which is labeled with a dis­tinct flu­o­res­cent probe, into the machine. Next, the machine marches them single-​​file down a tube. Lasers then read each one and indi­vid­u­ally sort those that flu­o­resce the same, so you can sep­a­rate out and study the ones you want. The rest are col­lected sep­a­rately for com­par­a­tive analysis.

Tilly and Woods  spe­cially engi­neered the FACS machine in the LAIR to enable detec­tion of a single mito­chon­drion, and Shin has quickly become the res­i­dent expert. “It’s been such a joy to watch her learn and grow in the lab,” Tilly said. “She’s now a gifted FACS technician.”

Shin earned the annual Schafer Med­ical Research Schol­ar­ship, which is named after dis­tin­guished alumnus Andrew Schafer, LA’69, and sup­ports stu­dents’ co-​​op expe­ri­ences con­ducting lab­o­ra­tory med­ical research under the guid­ance of a fac­ulty mentor for six-​​months. Stu­dents also receive men­tor­ship from Schafer, who is pro­fessor of med­i­cine in hematology-​​oncology and director of the Richard T. Silver Center for Myelo­pro­lif­er­a­tive Neo­plasms at Weill Cor­nell Med­ical College.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on March 31, 2015.

« »