October 31, 2018

Students and faculty of the Department of Biology heard from a leading voice in the field of cellular biology this month, during a keynote lecture from Rick Horwitz, the inaugural director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science. A nonprofit medical research organization based in Seattle, The Allen Institute is dedicated to promoting research at the cutting-edge of science with the help of interdisciplinary collaboration and open science data sharing.

During his lecture, Horwitz spoke about a major initiative of the Allen Institute for Cell Science: the Allen Cell Explorer, a data portal where members of the public can explore all of the institute's publicly available data, tools, and models related to cell science.

The project, Horwitz said, has origins dating back to the earliest days of cell science in the 19th century when the natural philosopher Robert Hooke first discovered cells. In the generations to follow, biologists have further classified cells into varying cell states and types. As part of the Cell Explorer, Horwitz said, the goal is to build a kind of “periodic table of cells” or a “cell atlas.” By scrolling through the explorer, users will be able to see high-quality images of hundreds of cell types in various states.

“We want to be able to look at a cell and determine what it’s doing, what it has done, and what it’s going to do,” Horwitz said. “We are going to understand cells in a way we haven’t before.”

To do this, Howritz and a team of scientists and engineers have been working on observing and capturing images of a great number of cells. In the future, Horwitz hopes the cell science team will continue to make advances related to live-cell imaging and cell-signaling pathways that will help biologists discover new causes and treatments for disease. Another goal, Horwitz said, is to have a better understanding of cell interactions. Up until now, technology has not advanced far enough to observe multiple cells at the same time.

Horwitz compared the situation to a football team and said, “We know a lot about individual cell structure and behaviors, which is basically like knowing a player’s blocking technique or footwork. What’s amazing is we’ve never seen a full game [of cells interacting with each other]. Can you imagine trying to predict the outcome of a football game if you’ve never seen one?”

Horwitz also spoke about the values of the Allen Institute, which set it apart from other research institutions. One unique value is its emphasis on teamwork and equality. Research teams have no principal investigators, Horwitz said, and instead there is a general attitude that every researcher is “all in it together to solve a common problem.”

"We’re all in the same boat,” he said.

Prior to his work at the Allen Institute, Horwitz was the Harrison Distinguished Professor of Cell Biology and the Associate Vice President for Research and Bioscience at the University of Virginia. He has also served as director of the Cell Migration Consortium, an NIH-funded multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary collaboration.

Horwitz’s lecture marked the conclusion of the 2018 Biology Graduate Student Research Symposium, which featured oral and poster research presentations from more than 30 biology students and faculty members.

Frank Portugal, clinical associate professor and director of the M.S. in Biotechnology program, was co-chair of the event with Assistant Professor Ekaterina Nestorovich. He said the symposium was an important opportunity for students and faculty to share their research findings, while also hearing from a noteworthy leader in the research field.

“Rick Horwitz flew from Seattle to The Catholic University of America to share the extraordinary advances in cell biology at the Paul Allen Institute for Cell Science,” Portugal said. “The Department of Biology annually invites a leader of biological research, like Rick Horwitz, to campus, and each person has been happy to accept.”