As a child growing up in Illinois, Melody Swartz, PhD ‘98, peered at the tiniest organisms through her microscope lens. “It was always natural for me to want to find things out and do experiments,” says Swartz, an associate professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a world-renowned science and engineering school in Zurich.
Her childhood passion has morphed into a career that straddles biology and engineering, and she has uncovered a potentially important phenomenon that could help researchers grow tissues in the lab.
In 2006, Popular Science named Swartz one of its “Brilliant 10,” citing her work with currents, or flows, of human intercellular fluid. The currents redistribute proteins called morphogens, which give directional signals to guide cells’ migration or organization into tissues. These signals are useful in understanding tissue regeneration and cancer metastasis, and they provide some of the design principles for tissue engineering.
Swartz’s work, which makes use of in vitro matrices populated by human cells, has shown that slow intercellular flows play an important role in establishing the range of morphogen concentrations that guide the creation of capillary networks, which are necessary to support growing tissue.
“With any luck, that flow will prove to be the long-sought-after key to growing organs in the lab,” says the September 2006 article.
Swartz earned her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Johns Hopkins University and pursued a PhD at MIT so she could work at the forefront of the emerging biomedical-engineering field. “MIT was an exciting place with very few barriers between departments, facilitating new bioengineering research areas,” she says.
The connections Swartz made at MIT continue to support her career. “Several of my MIT colleagues are in academia and have gone through the same tenure process, and so we can commiserate,” says Swartz, who notes that the process of getting tenure made it a struggle to carve out family time with her husband and three-year-old son.
“It’s difficult to juggle both, but I am more efficient now and waste less time at work,” she says. She is happy to be part of the biology revolution. “We’ve come to the limits of what we can learn in simple models,” she says. “Systems biology is helping to bring molecular signaling into a bigger framework of cell dynamics, and tissue engineering is bringing new models to study complex processes like … cancer metastasis.”