Charlotte scientist among select few to win Scialog support for research into next-gen imaging technologies

Charlotte researcher Rosario Porras-Aguilar, whose work includes a focus on learning how cancers spread, is one of 21 early career scientists in the United States and Canada to win funding and other support through the Scialog: Advancing Bioimaging initiative.

Porras-Aguilar, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Optical Science, and colleague Arnold Hayer, a biologist at McGill University in Montreal, each will receive $50,000 for their interdisciplinary research project, “High-speed 4-D Morphodynamic Analysis of Migrating Cells.”

They form one of 10 teams chosen for grants through Scialog, with funding provided by Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, and Walder Foundation. Their team’s funding specifically comes from RCSA and FGCF.

Their project seeks to answer fundamental questions on cellular migration using the new four dimension quantitative microscopy techniques — which are precise and low-cost — recently invented by Porras-Aguilar’s Charlotte lab. The answers to these questions can help expand understanding of cancer proliferation and cellular evolution.

Looking for ‘brave biologists’

“One of the most challenging aspects of my work as a microscopist is finding collaborators in biology willing to use new imaging techniques. Scialog provides me with the invaluable opportunity to establish collaborations among brave biologists with common research interests,” said Porras-Aguilar.

Porras-Aguilar’s lab is developing label-free microscopy techniques to obtain quantitative data in three and – with the recent discovery – four dimensions. The innovations harness the optical properties of smart materials to drive applications in microbiology and industry.

Hayer’s research is focused on collective movement of cells, a process with critical importance for development, repair and disease. The research strives to identify how functional coupling between cells is achieved, through communication across adhesive cell-cell junctions.

Porras-Aguilar also was a 2021 recipient of RCSA’s $100,000 Cottrell Scholar Award, one of 25 teacher-scholars in chemistry, physics and astronomy recognized for the quality and innovation of their research programs and their potential for academic leadership.

Scialog, which is short for “science + dialog,” offers more to the researchers than funding. Created in 2010 by RCSA, the Scialog format supports research through intensive interdisciplinary conversation and community building around a scientific theme of global importance. A May 2022 conference in Tucson, Arizona brought together 45 early career chemists, physicists, biologists, bioengineers and medical imaging specialists for talks about their research, current tools and needed breakthroughs in imaging, and what they believe are promising areas for discovery.

Gaining input on future research

“Having an environment where bioimaging is discussed among senior and early career investigators with diverse expertise gave me feedback on my research direction,” Porras-Aguilar said. “It offered the opportunity to establish long-lasting multidisciplinary collaborations and an open perspective of where the field needs to move forward and what challenges we need to address.”

Teams of two to three fellows who had not previously collaborated competed for seed funding. They developed new research ideas to bridge their different expertise, methods and technologies in new ways to enable major advances in bioimaging. They wrote and pitched proposals, competing for the grants.

“Multidisciplinary collaborations create synergies that spark new ideas,” said RCSA President and CEO Daniel Linzer. “In the same way, funding organizations investing in forward-thinking projects like these can work together to expand the horizons of knowledge.”

Read the entire article on the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences website.