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Yogesh Goyal

University of Pennsylvania

Yogesh Goyal was already doing a Ph.D. when his eyes were opened to the wonders of cells. He’d grown up in a rural part of Jammu and Kashmir, in northwestern India, near the Pakistani border, and the school system was siloed. “If you choose physics and math as a track, you don’t really do biology,” he said.

But then, when he was a Princeton grad student interested in engineering and applied math, a professor gave an example that made him sit up. He was used to modeling the output of chemical plants; it had never occurred to him that some of the same calculations might apply to living organisms, too. “Inside a cell, it’s kind of a factory — of course, much more complicated,” he said. In an industrial setting, you might aim to maximize output. But that doesn’t quite work with cells: Too much growth, and you get cancer. “How does this process, despite all its complexity, go right so often? You know, it still fascinates me,” he said.

His fascination meant he had to start from scratch. As a second-year graduate student, he was taking biology courses with freshmen. “A lot of premeds — it got a little intense,” he recalled.

His solution was to develop a way to create a kind of QR code made of DNA, to be able to track single cells. “What we find is that some cells, they survive, but they don’t divide afterwards. So they make it, but they just make it,” he explained. “Then there are some cells that divide but very slowly, and then there are some cells that divide uncontrollably.”

Now, as he prepares to start his own lab at Northwestern, he’s hoping to continue to study cancer cells, but also use that same technique to better understand how mammalian embryos develop, to see if he can track how molecular structures are working together in space and time to create the complex factory that is each one of us.

Eric Boodman