Justin Chen, graduate student in Hazel Sive’s lab at Whitehead Institute, writes about his research interests

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Justin Chen | MIT School of Science
January 2017

As a developmental biologist, I study how a single cell becomes a complete animal — how nature makes something from almost nothing. The growth of an embryo seems mysterious because new tissues and intricate body parts arise from what previously seemed to be an inert lump of cells. Like origami, layers of cells grow, flatten, and fold over themselves. Neurons are strung from one end of the undeveloped body to the other. A transparent heart is assembled and begins to beat even before it fills with blood.

I was first captivated by embryonic development as an undergraduate at Oberlin College. Copying diagrams from textbooks or walking back from lab, I would ask myself: How does an embryo know how to build itself? There must be some inner logic of cells — a flow of information when sperm meets egg that spreads over time and space, always reinforcing itself and always growing in complexity, to shape what we become, both in personality and appearance.

For the past five years, I’ve studied development as a graduate student in MIT School of Science’s Department of Biology. My research, performed in Professor Hazel Sive’s laboratory at the Whitehead Institute, focuses on face development. Faces are our portal to the world and aid us in interacting with our surroundings but, more broadly, they are the basis of our identity. We remember the smiles or mischievous glances of family and friends while the images of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe or Muhammad Ali are cultural icons.

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