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Enamel Nanowires: Research to Cut Your Teeth On!

Posted on Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Victoria Cooley’s cutting-edge research on tooth enamel lies at the intersection between materials science and molecular biology. A third-year graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, Victoria uses genetically engineered mice to study how gene deletions or mutations in genetic enamel disorders create small-scale defects in tooth enamel. She hopes that one day her research will lead to better diagnosis and intervention for congenital enamel defects in humans.

The following comments are excerpted from a conversation with Victoria.

How do you envision your current research contributing to the advancement of innovation in the nation?

My research focuses on amelogenesis, the developmental process that gives rise to tooth enamel, and explores how inactive or mutated genes create defects in enamel. Although not as prevalent as cavities, genetic enamel disorders can make a significant impact on a population’s health and wellbeing.

We’re trying to establish links between the function of each protein involved in enamel formation and change in individual genes, and then chart the impact on the overall enamel structure. By developing this information, we can begin to design better prevention and treatments for compromised enamel stemming from genetic disorders.

What are you eager to investigate further in your scientific research? 

Nothing is more exciting to me than being able to zoom into a material and see individual atoms. If you were to look at a mouse’s enamel with a light microscope from a high school science classroom, you might see that it has a complicated woven pattern. If you zoom in further with an electron microscope, you would see that the weave is made from tight bundles of nanowires. I like to compare the building blocks of enamel to yarn, which can be woven together to make fabric, but the enamel itself is made from bundled fibers. Zooming in on the enamel nanowires (comparable to the yarn fibers) is at the edge of current research.

What we found in the last five years is that some trace ions, such as magnesium, are present between crystals but are not incorporated into the crystals themselves—like a glue that sits between yarn fibers without soaking into them. This means that enamel is somehow organized down to the atomic level, which is mind-blowingly detailed!

We don’t yet have a satisfying description of how proteins are able to shuttle specific ions around during enamel formation to achieve this staggering control over the chemistry of enamel. This is an intriguing area of research for me, and I never get tired of looking at a 3D model of enamel and seeing individual atoms! I really can’t stress how cool that is. We can “see” atoms!

How has your ARCS award helped you in your research studies?

One aspect of biomineral research that I didn’t necessarily expect was how much work I would carry out in national labs. Because the features of enamel are so small, my work requires high-powered X-ray radiation. For this, we travel to synchrotrons, or particle accelerators such as the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory just southwest of Chicago. These synchrotrons produce an enormous amount of data—I’m wading through a few terabytes right now—but the cost of travel is usually unaccounted for in research grants.

The ARCS Scholar Award has given me total freedom over my research—letting me go anywhere and study anything I want, as long as the research is related to materials science. For example, my ARCS award allowed me to spend a week at Argonne Lab and will allow me to travel to Brookhaven National Lab in New York this March. Trips such as these can be stressful for young researchers, but having the logistics taken care of with help from ARCS has provided tremendous relief. The data from these experiments are crucial to my dissertation, and I’m especially grateful to have the support from ARCS to make it all happen.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in science? How are you overcoming those challenges?

As the daughter of a materials scientist, I was fortunate to grow up with a number of science role models in my life. I learned early on from my dad’s students and colleagues that instead of a man in a white lab coat with Albert Einstein hair, a scientist can be and look like anyone.

However, many subtle biases continue in the STEM fields, and they will take perseverance to overcome. In all the labs I’ve worked in, women researchers are asked to do more secretarial work or are more frequently burdened with lab organization than men. For me, overcoming these challenges is about being clear with myself about the skills I want to develop and the way each role I play in my lab is helping me develop those skills. Whereas booking rooms or ordering lunch for meetings doesn’t help me develop the skills needed to further my career, writing a protocol for anyone in the group to conduct their own meeting is a meaningful contribution for me.

Presently I’m the safety designate for our lab spaces: it’s my responsibility to make sure all our experiments are performed safely and the lab is kept clean and tidy. This can be a time-consuming responsibility, but learning how to delegate tasks and manage a lab space are skills that I can use later in my career.

What advice would you give to young people, especially young women and girls, to encourage an interest in science? 

I’d say that anyone can do science; becoming a scientist isn’t really about how smart you are. I can tell you from experience that experiments rarely go right the first time, and once something finally does work out, a researcher can spend months or even years sifting through the data. Science is more about being persistent and patient, and people who excel in science are good at puzzling things out, especially when they don’t understand something. I’d also advise fledgling scientists that they can study almost anything as a researcher. If you’re interested in a topic, there’s a way to turn it into meaningful research.