Dr. Lucy Shapiro comes to CMU

On Wednesday, May 5, Carnegie Mellon University awarded Dr. Lucy Shapiro the Dickson Prize in Science and hosted a lecture from her over Zoom. Shapiro is a professor of developmental biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She has worked extensively in understanding cellular mechanics and also received the National Medal of Science in 2011 from President Barack Obama.

Shapiro’s lecture began with an introduction by Provost Jim Garrett, Dr. Luisa Hiller, Dr. Jonathan Minden, and Dr. Veronica Hinman, who all expressed their congratulations to Shapiro on the work that she has done throughout her career.

After the introductions, Shapiro began her talk about the complex systems that underlie processes like cell division. Central to the cell’s behavior is a cascading series of regulatory systems that control gene expressions. Since most of her work has been with the bacterial strain Caulobacter, Shapiro talked extensively about the different processes and regulators within bacterial cells. For example, Shapiro explained in-depth the role that the transcription factor CtrA plays in regulating other enzymes like DNA methyltransferase.

One of the biggest takeaways from her research that Shapiro emphasized was that the core logic of the cell regulatory network is conserved, while the peripheral logic is flexible. As a result, the fundamental operations of cells remain consistent across different cell types, but other systems are adapted to cells' specific environments and functions. Shapiro also discussed the various experiments that she and her collaborators performed and how these studies provided insights into how DNA methylation controlled the timing of cell cycle transcription factors, and what the architecture of the cell’s regulatory system looks like.

At the end of her talk, Shapiro summarized the importance of understanding these integrated cellular subsystems since, she said, this idea of system logic applies to nearly every domain of life. Afterward, the floor was opened for questions.

Many of the questions asked focused on the viability of an inherently stochastic system since the complex chemical reactions that happen in a cell happen randomly. In response to this, Shapiro explained that stochastic cellular processes are viable due to the many levels of regulatory systems in place to ensure that the system survives. Such systems act as a check on the randomness so that the mechanisms which keep the cell alive have fail-safes.

Another audience member asked if it was possible to model these cellular systems and to predict their behaviors. To this, Shapiro responded that it was possible and that she and her collaborators have conducted interdisciplinary research in this area using computer simulations in place of wet-lab experiments. She went on to emphasize the importance of having an interdisciplinary education, as scientific advancements often come from the intersection of different fields.

The last question from the audience asked Shapiro what she would like to say to the next generation of scientists. Shapiro began by expressing her pride and gratitude for the cohorts of students that she has worked with. She reminded the audience of the importance of scientists being not only researchers but also effective communicators. Shapiro asserted that scientists need to ensure that the knowledge that is created in the laboratory can be used to benefit all of society, especially during times of political and social upheaval.