Lea Goentoro remembers the precise moment that biology made an impression on her. It was 2002 and she was a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Princeton. During a presentation at the Institute for Advanced Study, developmental biologist and Nobel laureate Eric Wieschaus—who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize with the late Edward Lewis, Caltech alumnus and former Morgan Professor of Biology—showed a movie of a live fly embryo under a microscope that was undergoing gastrulation, a phase early in development where a single layer of cells is reorganized into a three-layer structure. "The embryonic cells undergo massive rearrangement and things fold in—and it was all on this big screen," says Goentoro. "It was amazing. For me, that was when I thought, 'Wow. I really want to study this.'"
Now, nine years after that fateful day in New Jersey, Goentoro is Caltech's newest faculty member in the Division of Biology. She joined the division in late July as an assistant professor.
"Caltech is a wonderful place to be—the right place," says Goentoro. "When I saw that the division was looking for someone with a quantitative background and a research program that would combine quantitative approaches with biology, I thought it could be a perfect fit."
Although her educational background is in chemical engineering—like her PhD, she also earned her BS in the field from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2001—Goentoro has been applying her math and engineering skills to biology problems for the past 10 years. Previous to arriving at Caltech, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Systems Biology Department at Harvard Medical School.
Her current research focuses on Weber's Law applied at a cellular level. The law, first discovered by an experimental psychologist in the early 1800s, is the idea that we sense our world in a relative way. Imagine that you spend the day outside in the bright sunlight. When you come indoors, it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to a different background. The idea of the law is that you will always be able to adjust to these types of changes.
"From my previous work with Marc Kirschner at Harvard, we found that there is a strong suggestion that this concept also applies to individual cells in our body," says Goentoro. "The way our brain processes sensory information seems to apply to the way individual cells process signals."
She hopes to find out whether or not this idea is true. Do individual cells communicate this way, and if so, how is it implemented at the molecular level? Goentoro uses mathematical modeling as one strategy to address these questions. "Not only does it give us new tools, it gives us new ways of thinking about problems in biology," she says. In addition, Goentoro and others in her lab do experiments in human cell cultures and study embryo development in African frogs to try to understand how individual cells are communicating with each other.
"The signaling pathway that we are studying is highly conserved across all animal cells, so that's why we can jump between one system and another," she explains. "Each system allows us to do different experiments. By combining all of them, we can get more information."
When she's not attending to frogs in her lab, or studying cells under a microscope, Goentoro says she'll be exploring her new hometown. An aspiring hiker, she looks forward to tackling local trails. "I've been promised that there is a really good hiking scene here," she says. In addition, she enjoys scouring used bookstores for hidden treasures. Like research, you never know what you might discover.