I have long had the idea of perusing a career in science. However, that description was broad and I had no defined path sketched out in front of me. For the majority of my peers, they too had vague plans for the future. Many of them are still no wiser even after completing a degree that should just land you a job, right? This is far from the truth… after completing a degree you are thrown into the real world, questioning where you should exercise your skills and questioning where you will fit into the job market. For me the most important questions; What will make me happy and what will challenge me?
In the second year of my biological sciences degree, I happened to stumble across the wonderful field of developmental biology. I saw an embryo gastrulating in which orchestrated cellular migrations would elegantly shape the future body plan of an organism. It was safe to say that I was hooked, and I had never been so enthusiastic to uncover more. This was the year where my burning desire to carry out research was sparked. I could finally answer a popular question of family members, younger students, and previous teachers: What do you want to do after your degree?
Developmental biology is a field which aims to understand how multicellular organisms are built from the simple beginnings of a single cell. It is fascinating to delve into the mechanisms that produce robust, repeatable patterns from the events of development that appear so chaotic and mysterious. How is it that the vertebrae form in the right place at the right time? How does a hair follicle, with a certain predictable structure, form and how are the arrays of hair follicles patterned? How does an organism’s body axis stop elongating? These questions are fascinating because they go beyond the function of a single gene or the elements of individual signaling pathways and begin to interrogate how ‘instructions’ are laid onto cells to generate form. Furthermore, it is truly amazing how conserved mechanisms have been tweaked in evolution to bring about such varying structures and body plans. This gives us the opportunity to appreciate the complexity and variety of organisms on the earth and how they have evolved.
Studying the fundamental processes which drive the formation of an organism has many applications that many people are pleased to hear can aid us in understanding disease, regeneration, and stem cells. Developmental processes don’t just stop after the embryo has developed. Our adult tissues must also maintain the right balance of cell loss and cell proliferation to maintain form and function to sustain life. This is achieved by stem cells which are situated in specific sites (niches) in the body such as in the skin and intestine. It therefore follows that the breakdown of such maintenance mechanisms is associated with ageing and frailty. Furthermore, our germ cells (eggs and sperm) are set aside to contribute to the next generation, allowing development to start again. Therefore, developmental biology has broadened my future possibilities, engaging me with the circle of life from conception to death. It has certainly generated many more questions than I could imagine and directed me into topics I wouldn’t have acknowledged otherwise.
It is quite easy to get bogged down with information when trying to understand a field of science. So, what else set developmental biology above other fields during my undergraduate degree? It has to be the experiments. In my (probably biased) opinion development offers the most elegant and thought-provoking experiments. For example, grafting a piece of tissue from the bottom portion of an embryonic limb bud to the top portion at a particular time can generate a duplication of limb digits. These types of experiments, and many more, connected interesting questions and current knowledge which are the ingredients for research. Importantly, developmental biology also changed my perspective on biology, allowing me to to see how it all fits together to generate life forms.
Developmental biology is a framework where many fields of biology such as genetics, molecular biology, cell signaling, and cell biology can be put together into a context to gain a better overall understanding. It made studying cell signaling pathways and cell migration mechanisms more exciting as I could link them to what was happening in the embryo. I therefore feel that development has allowed me to embrace biology to the full and it has enabled me to enjoy a content heavy degree without daunting exams and revision too much. Above all, developmental biology has fuelled my curiosity and excitement which has allowed me to find my place in science.
To end on one of my favourite quotes, ‘Our real teacher has been and still is the embryo, who is, incidentally, the only teacher who is always right’ – Viktor Hamburger.
Movie of a Salamander developing from a single cell.
Featured image taken by Jannes Glas, https://unsplash.com/photos/P6iOpqQpwwU