Idse Heemskerk will use five-year grant to advance study of embryonic development via stem cells
Rice University postdoctoral research associate Idse Heemskerk has been named one of this year’s winners of the prestigious Society in Science Branco Weiss Fellowship administered by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH).
The award will support up to five years of research by Heemskerk, who works in the Rice lab of bioscientist Aryeh Warmflash. Heemskerk is among nine winners named from among more than 400 applicants.
The award announced by the Society in Science fellowship program at ETH is intended to allow fellows to pursue “unconventional projects” in new areas of science, engineering and the social sciences.
Heemskerk, a native of the Netherlands, will receive about $500,000 to pursue his research into the mechanisms of stem cell organization anywhere in the world for the next five years. He plans to spend the first two years pursuing current projects and planning new ones in the Warmflash lab, where he is working to understand early embryonic development quantitatively at the cellular level.
“We have very broad questions about embryonic development that are not accessible in animal models, but we can access them with stem cells because it is easier to image them and manipulate their environment,” Heemskerk said. “The first step in making a human body out of pluripotent cells in the embryo — cells that can become anything — is the differentiation of the cells into lineages that organize themselves into three different layers, a process called gastrulation. Surprisingly, we can mimic this process using stem cells in a dish when we create the right conditions.”
He said gastrulation is thought to be controlled by a protein called Nodal, and Nodal forms a concentration gradient across the stem cell colony. “Cells are thought to turn into different types according to the local concentration,” he said. “The reason people believe this is that it works like that in flies, but it hasn’t been tested in mammals very well. There’s some evidence, but it’s thin and doesn’t exclude alternative possibilities.”
To test these alternatives, Heemskerk and undergraduate students in the Warmflash lab built a device to make fast and accurate changes in the concentration of Nodal protein to which stem cells are exposed. Combined with cells expressing fluorescent cell fate and signaling reporters, they are then able to track the cell’s response in real time and relate it to changes in protein concentration.
Heemskerk switched his research focus while earning his doctorate in theoretical physics at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he studied string theory but was enticed by bioscience.
“I became interested in doing something that involved theory but was testable by small-scale experiments, at least compared to particle physics,” he said. He was offered a postdoctoral position at the Santa Barbara-based Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, “where I ended up doing more data analysis than equation-solving. And working with the data, I started to think of experiments I wanted to do myself and ways to get better data.”
He joined Warmflash’s Laboratory of Systems Stem Cell and Developmental Biology at Rice in 2015.
“Idse has made the transition from a theory background to testing that theory with stem cells remarkably quickly,” Warmflash said. “He is now poised to attack long-standing questions in developmental biology with these systems, and this award recognizes the promise of that research as well as Idse’s really strong accomplishments in theoretical biology in the past.”
In the long term, Heemskerk sees the possibility of founding his own lab combining experimental and theoretical approaches to biology. “The work I’ve proposed for this fellowship has a clear theoretical part to it in every stage as well, and I want to keep doing things that way,” he said.
The fellowship is named for Swiss entrepreneur Branco Weiss, who founded Society in Science in 2003. Not including this year’s winners, the society has awarded 34 fellowships since the program began in 2011.