Microscopy and tailor-made micrometre-wide channels are some of the cornerstones of biologist Caroline Beck Adiels’ research. With their help she can study individual cells to understand more about the origins of various diseases and, by extension, what their clinical progression will be.
“We don’t know what we’re going to find, so perhaps we don’t yet even have a question for the answers we will obtain.”
An hour in Beck Adiels’ company goes quickly. She moves seamlessly from explaining the research that she and her research team are conducting, to demonstrating the microfluidic systems they have designed, to reminiscing about her thesis defence (“The opponent broke his leg so he had to attend by video link from the US”), to narrating the action in the Lego video that she and her six-year-old daughter Ester are currently making.
“I always get like this when I’ve had coffee,” she explains with a laugh. “But my life is kind of like that – it’s everything at once.”
Last autumn, it became a bit more of everything at once than it previously had been. Her application to the Swedish Research Council having received the green light, she was awarded a five-year grant to continue her research on developing microfluidic systems for drug testing and single-cell analyses. Carrying out studies on individual cells is one of the keys to her research.
“These cell populations exhibit the same average value in their response even though they are made up of sub-populations,” she says, pointing to an illustration showing three totally different types of populations. “A single-cell analysis enables us to study the behaviour of each individual cell and track it over time.”
The microfluidic systems consist of extremely narrow channels, usually between 10 and 500 micrometres wide. The researchers inject various solutions into the channels to stress the cells and control the environment at the point at which the cells are located. Using microscopy, they then study the cells’ response on the single-cell level. This could involve studying the quantity and location of a particular protein in the cell or how an entire cell looks — how it divides and how it moves.
“The goal is to obtain greater basic understanding of the cells’ responses to different environments and substances, and how they interact with each other. Much of this is also linked to the cell’s metabolism. We hope this will enable us to better understand the clinical progression of different diseases. These might be, say, prostate or sarcoma-type cancer, or Type 2 diabetes, which are some of the ongoing collaborative projects to which my application refers.”
Beck Adiels heads the research team for biological physics in cooperation with her colleague, Mattias Goksör. Given that she is a biologist and he a physicist, the team operates as an interdisciplinary research group within the department. They have spent a lot of time studying glycolytic oscillations. This refers to fluctuations in the concentration of degradation products that can arise in the cell when it breaks down glucose, something that may be connected to how the body excretes insulin.
“Earlier in this project, we used only yeast cells. Now, we are also able to use mammalian cells, that is, cells from diurnal animals. As a biologist, this makes me happy: I’m thinking ‘mammalian cells — I understand that’,” she says with a laugh.
While the team provides the physical techniques, they are applicable in biology or the life sciences, resulting in numerous collaborations. For example, the team was recently contacted by a French researcher who wanted to carry out analyses of diatoms, single-celled organisms that have demonstrated a potential as a future source of energy.
Beck Adiels defended her doctoral thesis in 2008 and applied for an interdisciplinary postdoc position in the Department of Physics. The department hired her as a senior researcher in 2012 when Mattias Goksör became department head and needed support for his team’s research development and for the doctoral students on the team. With her background as a biologist, she acts as a bridge between her colleagues in the department and other biologists.
“I like the idea of the team’s members coming from different backgrounds. The research areas meet each other and the topics are approached from different perspectives. There is no such thing as a stupid question.”
Being a biologist in a pure physics department is not always easy, but Beck Adiels is not afraid of challenges. Like when she was interviewed for her postdoc position and was asked if she would dare to take apart a microscope.
“Of course I could take it apart, but I couldn’t promise I’d be able to put it back together again,” I answered. “I believe you have to take chances and assume you can solve the problem. You have to have a look in your toolbox and work accordingly. Just deal with it!”
Caroline Beck Adiels
Occupation: Researcher in the Department of Physics, in Biological Physics
Family: Martin and two children, Ester and Tage
Hobbies and interests: “Right now I’m doing a lot of renovation to my 1960s house and physical labour in the garden; beyond that, I put any extra energy into all kinds of outdoor activities and socialising with friends and family”.
Role models: “Oh boy...I have lots of names. I’ve had different role models in different contexts. I haven’t met anyone who represents ‘the whole package’ — I’ve had to accept trade-offs on various levels – but I am always open to being inspired.”