SBME researcher and 2022 Allen Distinguished Investigator, Dr. Nika Shakiba, along with collaborators Drs. Gary Bader and Maria Abou Chakra, have been awarded a 2022 Exploration grant to build an ambitious 3D simulator to observe and understand stem cell behaviour.

Dr. Shakiba (Bottom row, second from left) and her lab team

The Federal Research Funding Exploration stream is specifically designed so support high-risk, high-reward interdisciplinary research. The program’s goal is to inspire projects to go beyond traditional approaches and provide research teams with the capacity to explore something new that might fail, but also has the potential for significant impact.

What’s so exciting about this initiative is that it promotes the kind of scientific daring and curiosity that leads to big ideas and beneficial change. One of the main judging criteria for the Exploration Grant competition is to select research that “aims to radically challenge accepted theories and paradigms,” and works to enhance our understanding of complex and challenging issues.

It’s no wonder then that Dr. Shakiba and her collaborators were chosen. “This grant allows us to go outside of the box,” says Dr. Shakiba. “We are proposing to build a simulator to model the behaviour of stem cells in 3D. We like to think of a cell as a mini-computer and the DNA is its ‘processor’, akin to computer circuitry. To make our model, we want to use cell division like a clock and predict how stem cells change over time and space.”

This is all made possible through the benefits of interdisciplinary, inclusive collaboration. Breakthroughs don’t happen in silos, and that’s what this award seeks to underline; it’s a competition designed to remove barriers to cooperative discovery. “This will be in close collaboration with Dr. Gary Bader’s lab at the University of Toronto, with computational efforts led by Dr. Maria Abou Chakra,” Shakiba exclaims. “Ultimately, I believe reliable cell simulators can catalyze the field of cellular engineering, much like simulations of electronic circuits allowed us to build complex computers.”

Biomedical Engineering is a playground for the kind of thinking that takes us, and science, somewhere new. It’s why government funding in the space is so important to our futures, and why it means to so much to the scientists who are trying to build those futures. In Dr. Shakiba’s own words: “Receiving this grant signals to me that our society is still thirsty for big ideas and willing to invest in bringing on new waves of innovation. It excites me to imagine these kinds of “wacky” ideas and see how we can push the boundaries of biology.”

With the goal of making cells a substrate for engineering, work like that of Dr. Shakiba and her collaborators is setting us on an exciting path toward precision medicine that is available to all.

Congratulations from all of us at SBME.