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Meet the Expert: Yanlan Mao

6 August 2021

Dr Yanlan Mao is a Group Leader and Associate Professor at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology. She combines genetics, imaging, biophysics and mathematical modelling approaches to study the role of mechanical forces in tissue development, homeostasis and repair.

Question 1: What inspired you to specialise in tissue mechanics?

Answer: As a child, I was always fascinated by beautiful patterns in nature (e.g. flower petals, shell swirls). I also loved mathematics and wanted to use mathematics to help understand biology. During my PhD, I studied cell signalling and patterning, with an aim to apply mathematical modelling of signalling networks to understand patterning during development.

However, towards the end of my PhD I realised modelling of signalling networks (or ‘Systems Biology’) was already too crowded a field. As I searched for postdocs, I stumbled upon the concept of ‘mechanobiology’ when I applied to Nic Tapon’s lab (now at the Crick Institute) – the idea that cells can respond to mechanical (physical) forces.

Dr Yanlan Mao standing in front of a bookcase

This completely opened my eyes to so many new possibilities. Also, at the time (2008), the labs of Suzanne Eaton and Franck Julicher had just published a paper using a computational model (vertex model) to study the influence of mechanical forces on epithelial tissue patterning. This beautifully simply model was what inspired me to combine my love of mathematical modelling with developmental biology to study the role of mechanics in tissue behaviour.

Question 2: What area of tissue mechanics research excites you the most and why?

Answer: Understanding how tissue size and shape is controlled to give rise to the beautiful diversity of animal and plant sizes and shapes is, in my opinion, the most fascinating problem in biology, and tissue mechanics has a huge role to play in this.

I’m currently interested in three aspects of this: 1) how tissues develop to their correct size and shape, and know when to stop growing; 2) how they maintain their size and shape throughout life; and 3) how they repair back to the right size and shape following injury. I find this fundamentally fascinating, as I am a developmental biologist at heart, and I want to know how the natural world around us is built. However, these questions also have implications for health and disease, such as in cancer and regenerative medicine. So many diseases are caused by growth control defects, or tissue repair problems, so a full understanding of how these processes are normally controlled is the first step towards finding novel cures and therapies to treat disease.

I am very excited by the prospect of being able to translate some of our fundamental discoveries to aid the design of novel biophysical/biomechanics-based therapies for treating disease and engineering tissues. For example, we recently discovered a new mechanism of tissue repair in Drosophila where changing the tissue’s mechanical properties can lead to faster and more seamless wound repair, and it would be very exciting to test this mechanism in mammals and humans.

Question 3: If you hadn’t gone into academia, which career path would you have been interested in?

Answer: When I was a child, I used to think medicine, or medical research, and I picked research, and I haven’t regretted it one bit. I think I would have hated medicine. Now I have a new passion for cooking (follow my Instagram!), so I think if I quit science/academia, I would become a chef, and run my own catering business, combining science with cooking and my Chinese and British tastebuds!

I think a lot of the same skills as being a good scientist apply: to be the top of your field, you need to be creative, which often means adopting and combining unusual techniques (tastes) that seemingly are from separate fields, but somehow when combined, generate a little magic! I’m always looking to apply techniques from different fields into my research, and I often combine and fuse ideas when I cook - I rarely follow recipes, both in cooking (and in scientific research – sorry!). The good thing about cooking is the returns are fast, and you get to eat it at the end!

Question 4: What do you enjoy most about leading a lab and what has challenged you most during the past year?

Answer: Having the independence and freedom to be able to do (almost) whatever I want. I often tell my students/postdocs that being an academic researcher is such a privilege, especially when you get to the group leader level – how many jobs give you so much freedom and flexibility? Very few. And that’s what has been amazing. To be able to let my imagination fly, bring together a team of amazing young scientists that share my passion, and together, test out my (sometimes crazy) ideas, and share the joy when results come through.

Working as a team with my lab members has also been one of the best parts of leading a lab, every day is different, and I’ve been very lucky to have incredibly talented, funny and nice people in my lab. And that’s what has made the last year so difficult – being able to see them only via Zoom has taken out a lot of the fun of working together. We used to socialize a lot together: karaoke, dinners out, etc, supporting each other as a lab family through ups and downs, but I know this last year has made it especially tough for some of my lab who live alone and a long way away from family. We still created Zoom socials where we cooked together, did fitness/core/yoga together, and that helped to keep everyone’s spirits and motivation up, but only to a certain extent.

I have tried extra hard this past year to support everyone’s mental/physical health and general welfare, as well as their science, and that takes its toll sometimes on my own well-being. Luckily, I’m a very positive person (you must be, I think, to be a scientist), but the problem of being the group leader is very rarely does someone say to you “how are you doing”?

Question 5: What’s your next big research challenge?

Answer:  There are many. One is to translate our research on tissue repair in Drosophila to mammals and humans to try to find new therapies that can improve tissue repair and regeneration in humans. I know the path from fundamental discoveries to clinical treatments can be very long, but I’m very excited by the new challenges, ways of working, and new collaborations with clinicians and industry that may be needed to see this through. Secondly, I’ve recently become fascinated by how we buffer the constantly fluctuating forces from our environment to robustly develop and maintain our tissue shapes. Why do we not change shape every time someone pulls or stretches you? After injury, how do you know what shape and size to repair back into again? What keeps this ‘tissue memory’? There are some of the exciting questions and challenges we are addressing in the coming years.

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