Editor’s note: Ever wonder why scientists do what they do? Samantha Yammine is a guest blogger performing inspiring science. She routinely goes beyond the bench for public outreach and her story can be found here.
For many, stem cell research is a path of hope for one day finding regenerative therapies for traumatic injuries, degenerative diseases, and some forms of cancer. And while I am proudly one of several passionate scientists who wants to see this type of better future as much as the next person, my interest in pursuing stem cell research for my PhD was born from a slightly different place.
In fact, the regenerative potential of stem cells is only one third of their story! The other aspects of their biology – their contribution to tissue development and homeostasis — are endlessly fascinating to myself and other stem cell researchers.
More often than not our lab meetings boil down to semantic discussions arguing which differences constitute a unique cell fate (like a neuron or skin cell) vs. cell state (eg. proliferative or quiescent). And these arguments about re-defining what I once read about so concretely in a textbook is exactly why I wanted to pursue graduate school.
My research is on an incredibly rare neural stem cell that is quiescent in the adult, thereby making it an incredibly challenging cell type to study from a technical standpoint. With less than a few hundred of these stem cells per brain, every experiment involves culturing a big stack of plates and slicing through hundreds of tissue sections. While this type of technical challenge is by no means unique, it has made me think a lot about what motivates me to do such laborious experiments (and then repeat and repeat and repeat…).
I’ve realized that in those late nights where my upper back is aching and eyelids want to be closing, it’s the gnawing curiosities of unsolved questions leftover from debates during lab meeting … why do we have multiple populations of neural stem cells? Do they exist along a continuum or are there discrete intermediate cell types? … Well, these questions plus my stubbornness with wanting to win a bet with my supervisor about conflicting hypotheses (for the record: I’ve beat him before! But he usually wins…).
Since I thought these were fun and interesting questions to think about, I decided I wanted to share them with more people in a light way through social media. I decided to start an Instagram page to do this, and it’s definitely challenged me to flex my storytelling skills:
For example, I turned a few tubes of stem cell media and growth factors into a “science behind Wolverine” post:
And often use my favourite immunocytochemistry images to demonstrate the beautiful complexity of cells that makes them us who we are:
While it’s not making it to the top of everyone’s newsfeeds, it’s part of a passionate effort to strengthen science culture. Scientists across the globe are contributing more engaging stories about their work, having online discussions with people, busting myths in their field, and answering questions. This increasing presence of scientists on social media helps scientists communicate better with one another as well as with public stakeholders in their research, and has spurred fantastic campaigns with compelling, human-centric stories of research like the monthly #IAmAScientist campaign.
I think by sharing our passions online, scientists can better connect with people everywhere and more easily convey the importance of their research. By showing all of the little questions that fascinate us, we can give more context to why the road to cures is a long and challenging one, but one laced with many stunning intricacies.
For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.