The first season of BioGenesis centers on the theme of surprises. The inaugural episode features Kwadwo Owusu-Boaitey, a soccer player-turned MD/PhD student studying tissue regeneration in flatworms. Owusu-Boaitey was struggling to find an effective means to map the stem cells in these peculiar critters when he stumbled upon a novel tool that would allow do just that, and probe how the flatworm can regrow its entire body.
Conor Gearin: Welcome to episode 1 of BioGenesis — where we get to know a biologist, where they came from, and where they’re going next. I’m Conor Gearin —
Raleigh McElvery: — And I’m Raleigh McElvery, and we’re your co-hosts.
Gearin: That’s right, so every episode — and there will be three this season — we’ll be introducing you to a scientist.
McElvery: Specifically, a grad student, who is jointly affiliated with our respective institutes, the MIT Department of Biology and Whitehead Institute. We’re trying to put a face to the research by showing you the people behind the biology. And each of these personal stories will have a theme.
Gearin: In our first season we’ll be talking about surprises, whether that be a sudden change in career trajectory, or an unexpected finding in the lab. Which is where those flatworms from the beginning come in. They’re a focus in Peter Reddien’s lab here at Whitehead Institute, where researchers like Kwadwo are studying regeneration. But we’ll let him start from the beginning.
Owusu-Boaitey: My name’s Kwadwo Owusu-Boaitey. I’m currently in my third year of my PhD in the biology department here at MIT and I’m a fifth year overall in my MD-PhD program. I was actually born not in the United States but in Ghana, in West Africa. And then my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was like two and a half or almost three years old. My dad is actually in medicine. He grew up kind of in a small village and did medical school in Ghana and then got the chance to do a residency here in the U.S.
McElvery: Starting off in high school, Kwadwo had his sights set on pro soccer.
Gearin: And I mean, he was pretty good. Actually, he was part of the Olympic Development Team for a while.
Owusu-Boaitey: Yeah. Like lots of 17-year-olds that play sports, I think oftentimes you think that that’s something you want to do for the rest of your life.
Gearin: Until junior year, when he ended up doing a big research project on steroids and public health, inspired by his love for the sport.
Owusu-Boaitey: And so I worked with someone in the medical field and just spent the year learning about what steroids did your body and how they worked.
Owusu-Boaitey: I knew biology was the class that I liked the most. And a lot of what I liked about it was that I just couldn’t see anything, especially in molecular biology. You could learn about a world that was completely invisible to you.
McElvery: So here he was, with these two big passions for research and sports. One complemented the other to a certain extent, but it became time to choose between them as he submitted his college applications.
Owusu-Boaitey: I remember having some conversations with my dad. My senior year of high school, all I was thinking about was soccer. My dad was like: Kwadwo, what kind of colleges do you want to apply to? And I was like: I think I will apply to colleges where I can play soccer. And then he’s like: Oh, that’s awesome. What do you think you want to do afterwards? And I was like: Oh, probably sign a contract in Europe. And my dad was like: OK, what fraction of students who go to college to play soccer get the chance to do what you think you want to do? And I was like: It’s probably not the super high. And he said what I think is still to this day one of the most loving things I’ve heard him say. He’s like: I think you should also consider other passions and interests that you have.
Gearin: So, which did he pick?
McElvery: He ultimately picked research.
Owusu-Boaitey: Yeah. one of the colleges that I applied to was UMBC, the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Gearin: His older brother went there as well.
Owusu-Boaitey: He was part of a scholarship program there called The Meyerhoff Scholars program. The program is all about helping students who come from underrepresented backgrounds pursue research careers. And so I applied the end of the fall and early spring. we were all encouraged to look up laboratories that existed on UMBC’s campus.
Gearin: He ended up working with a professor that studied inherited forms of breast cancer.
Owusu-Boaitey: So we studied BRCA-1 associated breast cancers. It’s a common form of inherited breast cancers. And so our lab was interested in what kind of factors affect the development of cancer even before it starts. So I ended up working on a project where we were really interested in how the mammary epithelial cells themselves — the cell types that eventually become cancerous — but how the cell types around them could affect whether or not those cells became cancerous.
McElvery: But he was still curious about, you know, making a difference, translating his research into something people could really use. So as a junior, he walked across the street to shadow doctors at the Greenbaum Cancer Center.
Owusu-Boaitey: The Cancer Center kind of serves a lot of local community members. I remember people I actually knew coming in for treatment. And I was like, oh wow this is really serious, these diseases really affect people. Part of the way it worked was I would go to these tumor board meetings where there are lots of breast cancer doctors, like radiation oncologists and surgical oncologists and medical oncologists and geneticists and pathologists and a whole staff team that were all concerned with: what was the best form of treatment they could provide to all the patients are we going to see during the day. And I remember just feeling totally immersed in a world that was both over my head — like I don’t understand all the clinical jargon — but I’m studying a lot of breast cancer in my lab, so a lot of it is familiar to me. But one of the coolest things that happened was that the things that we were working on in the laboratory sort of got brought to the front of my mind when I was sitting in this clinical environment. A lot of the things that end up being really transformative in medicine really come from basic science curiosity like trying to figure out how something works and how a system works. And so when I was going into my junior year I was like I know I want to be at the bench and do a PhD and do science. But do I also want to do an MD-PhD program?
McElvery: Kwadwo was particularly interested in MIT’s joint MD-PhD program with Harvard, since he’d already spent two summers as an undergraduate at MIT Biology, getting lab experience in MIT’s Summer Research Program.
Owusu-Boaitey: And really the way that I was kind of thinking about it at the time is that there are smart people everywhere and people are really brilliant everywhere. But just choosing an environment where people are also like a humble was one of the things I was like kind of guiding a lot of my thinking.
McElvery: OK so it’s 2014, he’s picked a program, when do we get to the surprise part?
Gearin: Right, so it’s coming. Pretty quickly, Kwadwo was drawn to Peter Reddien, a member of Whitehead Institute. He’s also an investigator with Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Owusu-Boaitey: I’m kind of a big believer that oftentimes what dictates success is not like how smart you are but being sort of in the right environment. One of the things that stood out to me about Peter was that a lot of our conversations were about things in science really deeply but also things outside of science, too.
Gearin: Peter is concerned with understanding how organisms regenerate missing body parts. And so that’s where the strange, aquatic flatworms called planarians with the googly eyes come in.
Owusu-Boaitey: It really oftentimes feels like science fiction cause they’re just weird animals, planarians. Scientists have known about them really for centuries even since the 1800s. People have done really beautiful detailed studies where you could cut worms reportedly into up to 200 pieces. And as long as they’re kept pretty healthy now you have 200 different worms. And you and I can’t do that, and most other animals can’t do that. And so it makes them both almost like a feat of imagination, but also this really interesting system to study, to ask how does the animal regrow its body parts, and why can’t some animals do it, and why are others really exceptional at doing it?
Owusu-Boaitey: One of the projects I’m working on in the lab is trying to understand how the stem cell population in our animals — like how it’s spatially organized, where different types of stem cells exist and if there’s a logic to how particular stem cells are distributed throughout the animal.
Gearin: — Kwadwo is studying these cells that are particularly pliable because they haven’t assumed a specialized role yet. And if he can map out where they exist in the flatworm, it would give the lab a clearer picture of how planarians can regenerate their whole body. It might even shed light on human development, too.
Owusu-Boaitey: Like for you and I, our gut can regenerate and turnover and we know exactly where the gut stem cells are or the primary gut stem cells. We know where they exist and we know how that makes sense for how the gut can regenerate. We know — the skin can also regenerate, and we know where the stem cells exist, we know the cells they give rise to, where they exist, and so we can understand how the skin regenerates and how it functions because we understand its structure. I sort of worked on this project probably like maybe 10, 11 or maybe 12 months ago around this time last year. Our lab does a lot of in situ hybridization. So I spent a lot of time doing different in situs to try and figure out how different pairs and populations of stem cells, trying to map them near one another. And it didn’t yield as much fruit as I thought it was going to.
McElvery: Kwadwo was starting to feel like he needed a new tool to make the project work. Something that would let him figure out what genes were turned on and off in the animal without destroying the tissue by grinding it up so it could be fed into a sequencing machine. So he decided he needed to have a chat with Peter.
Owusu-Boaitey: Yeah. It was actually during one of our two week meetings. So he meets with everyone in the lab every two weeks and we actually had our meeting in the worm room like where we keep all of our worms. I remember us sitting in a chair and he was standing up washing his worms —
Gearin: — that’s just something you do every week in this lab, wash your worms —
Owusu-Boaitey: — And I was like: Yeah, honestly Peter, I feel like I’m going to need a new technique to make this work. And he’s like: Oh, well have you like looked at the STARMAP thing yet? And I was like: Not yet, but I’ll go take a look at it.
Gearin: The funny thing was, Kwadwo’s advisor had actually sent him a paper a few months ago describing a new technique, STARMAP, that would let him do exactly what he’d been hoping to try —
Owusu-Boaitey: — identify lots of cell types but figure out where they exist inside the animal without breaking everything up.
McElvery: The developer of STARMAP, Xiao Wang of Stanford, had actually already given a talk about her new technique at Whitehead, so Kwadwo watched a recording of the lecture.
Owusu-Boaitey: And I was like oh my gosh this is like a wonderful technique. I remember coming back and being like: Oh my gosh this is what we need to do. So the past couple of months for me have been ordering new reagents for this technique designing the new components that I’m going to be needing and actually running the essays.
McElvery: The sense that we got from talking to Kwadwo is that he’s someone who thinks a lot about his community and doing his part. This time, though, the community came through for him.
Owusu-Boaitey: I think it like not just science but like human experience generally works that way. I think it’s the same whether you’re trying to find an antibody in a freezer box or whether you’re trying to figure out how your project is going to advance. I think science totally works as a communal effort. And the more that structures are set up to allow you to hear what other people are thinking, hear how other people are thinking and hear what other people are working on. And I think it’s actually like a lot of science advances and thrives.
Gearin: So that’s it for this week. For our next episode on the theme of “Surprises,” tune in next week to hear from one grad student who moved from Mexico to the US, determined to major in psychology until she found a surprising new passion that reminded her of something out of science fiction.
McElvery: Find us on iTunes and Soundcloud or on our websites at MIT Biology and Whitehead Institute.
Gearin: Thanks for listening.
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