Melissa Kinney likes solving puzzles so much that she’s decided to make a career out of piecing together a dizzyingly complex one.
“To me, biology is the biggest, kind of craziest, most interesting puzzle you could possibly solve,” says Kinney, who joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in January 2019. “We know little bits and pieces about how biology works in terms of cells working with other cells, in terms of how things go wrong in disease and so on. But we just don’t understand how it all works together, honestly.”
Therein lies the challenge in the field of systems biology, one of Kinney’s areas of specialization. By analyzing gene expression in stem cells on large scales and studying the behavior and communication among those cells, Kinney hopes to learn more about how the human body’s different systems function and develop models to guide tissue engineering.
Her work is fundamental in nature, but it could help inform disease modeling for more precise drug testing or, eventually, for stem-cell-based therapies.
For now, Kinney primarily focuses on blood cells, an area she delved into as a postdoctoral research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School from 2014 to 2018.
“The blood is a really interesting system because it’s one of the only systems in your body that still has very active stem cells in it,” says Kinney, who got into laboratory research as a high school student in Phoenix. “If we could make a hematopoietic stem cell, which is the blood stem cell, in a lab, then we can think about things like actually replacing a bone marrow transplant or being able to have a real impact on patient populations with incredibly long donor lists.”
Kinney says UW-Madison’s long history of pioneering stem cell research was a major draw, along with the number of relationships she had already established with College of Engineering faculty members during her PhD at Georgia Tech and postdoctoral work. Though she hadn’t visited campus before interviewing, she already knew future biomedical engineering colleagues William Murphy, Randolph Ashton and Krishanu Saha, as well as chemical and biological engineering Professor Sean Palecek.
“When I sat back and looked at my network and the people that I really respected, this was a place that really stood out,” she says. “It felt very familiar from the time that I stepped foot on campus.”
Now that she’s here, Kinney is eager to interact with students. In the near term, she’ll teach part of the biomedical engineering department’s undergraduate design sequence. Longer term, she aims to educate students in analytical and computational techniques that will allow them to handle the growing deluge of biological data that’s now available.
“Computer scientists don’t often have training in biology, and biologists are just completely intimidated by the level of data that’s being produced. So my goal is to be able to produce bioengineers who work at the interface of these different disciplines,” she says. “If I can put out cohorts of students who go out into the world and apply this and teach other people, then that’s what I would see as the biggest success of my career.”
Author: Tom Ziemer