At the precipice of regenerative medicine – Being a STEM major

STEM fields have been advancing at an unprecedented rate in recent years. And with so many breakthroughs in every single field – from the creation of new cancer drugs to the discovery of gravitational waves – there are so many exciting paths for students to take. For me, I could not be happier with my choice of a STEM major.

I am studying Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology (HDRB). Briefly, this field seeks to understand the underlying mechanisms of human development and to recapitulate these processes to benefit the human population. All humans begin as a single cell – the zygote – that is capable of giving rise to every single cell of the developed human body. Knowledge of how this process occurs will allow us to study disease in an unparalleled manner and not simply treat disease, but reverse it altogether.

For example, scientists may now generate almost any type of cell in the human body from only the skin cells of patients. A few years ago, researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute finalized a method to create pancreas cells from stem cells. These cells are capable of producing insulin and may be transplanted into diabetic patients to completely reverse the disease. Such a discovery could save our healthcare system billions of dollars and could better the lives of millions.

Last summer, I took part in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute Internship Program and discovered so much more about the HDRB world. My project took place at the Macklis Laboratory and I studied the mechanisms that underlie how the developing central nervous system (CNS) specifies and targets different regions of the spinal cord. The intersection of neuroscience and regenerative medicine is a particular interest of mine; the CNS is so incredibly intricate yet delicate. Within each of us, our 100 billion neurons allow us to formulate thoughts, execute movements and feel emotions. However, when things go wrong in the CNS, patients are frequently robbed of these basic abilities. This reality is what drives me to get out of bed in the morning. It is so exciting and gratifying to be working in a field that seeks to reverse injuries of the CNS – diseases that rob individuals of their personhood and humanity. In the future, I hope to build a career at the bench-to-bed interface that will allow me to establish regenerative therapies of the CNS and deliver them to patients as well.

The field of HDRB may seem esoteric and insular at first, but in reality, it will have consequences for everyone. All of our lives will be touched in some way by these new discoveries. For instance, we are already capable of creating artificial embryos and screening them to ensure that children do not suffer from certain catastrophic diseases. However, genetic engineering in the developing human will allow us to go beyond this and select for any traits within our offspring (e.g. eye color, intelligence, fitness, etc.). We already have all the tools and knowledge to create such “designer babies”. Is this ethical? Do we have the right to interfere with nature in such a manner? And where do we draw the line between treatment and enhancement? The answers to all these questions will involve the entire human population and this conversation has to be facilitated by those with a background in HDRB.

As evidenced above, the field of stem cell biology is connected profoundly to the human experience and allows for so many intersections with other fields of study. Obviously, this science presents an enormous number of opportunities for scientists and clinicians to explore questions that will better the human condition.  Moreover, politicians, ethicists and sociologists will also benefit greatly from understanding HDRB because the next generation of policymakers will be heavily involved in drafting policies that regulate the progress and dissemination of stem cell-based interventions.

As such, studying HDRB does not necessarily confine you into a STEM career. There are so many opportunities that tailor to everyone, no matter where your interests lie on the academic spectrum. Alumni of the HDRB program have gone on to medical school, law school, graduate school, business school and many go on to work directly at consulting, management and nonprofit firms alike. I am so excited to see where the field will go in the next few years and I hope you’ll consider joining us too!

Michael LiuHaving enjoyed the privilege of an extraordinary education throughout his life, Michael can attest to the transformative potential of education on both personal and public dimensions. He is particularly passionate about innovative, personalized, and diverse avenues of teaching, serving as a music instructor, peer tutor, and facilitator for the largest Life Science course at Harvard. Furthermore, his direct and indirect experiences with the increasingly stressful and competitive milieu of education have prompted him to advocate for student well-being, positive mental health, and collaborative learning environments. On campus, Michael is a volunteer EMT, a Student Mental Health Liaison and a Health Peer Advisor.

Outside of education, Michael is excited about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. He is currently the Research and Drug Development manager of WntRx-Pharmaceuticals and his own research at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute aims to understand how our brains wire themselves so intricately during human development. In 2015, he was designated as one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 for his past research in developing novel HIV diagnostics. In his spare time, Michael enjoys cross-fitness, indie/EDM music, spoken word poetry, and too many smoothies. He loves exchanging stories with others, so feel free to reach out to him!

 

2 Comments

  1. Victoria Bankowski 2 months ago

    What a remarkable young man you are. i am also amazed with science. I am so impressed by our ability to articulate your words so profoundly.

  2. Katie L 2 months ago

    That’s awesome! Way to go Michael!

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