A Discussion With Matt Gibson

By Cathy Yarbrough

Growing up in Vermont, Stowers Investigator Matt Gibson, PhD, was fascinated with the behavior and biology of insects, amphibians, and other small creatures. In his bedroom, he kept a collection of critters including snakes, fish, salamanders, and even a slime mold. It wasn’t until his high school biology class, however, that Gibson began considering science as a possible career as well as a passion.

“I had a really good biology teacher who conducted actual experiments with us,” he recalled. “I did an independent project on how planaria (flatworms) regenerate missing body parts, and that experience really turned me on to experimental science,” says Gibson, who has a secondary appointment as an associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

After high school, Gibson graduated from Yale University with a BS degree in biology in 1994. Following short stints working on a fishing boat in Alaska, driving a delivery truck in Vermont, and using his biology background at a patent law firm in New York City, Gibson moved across the country to Seattle for his graduate studies at the University of Washington. There, his research efforts investigating development and regeneration in the fruit fly Drosophila resulted in several publications and were recognized with the Harold M. Weintraub Award for Innovative Graduate Research and the Larry Sandler Award for the most outstanding thesis on Drosophila biology.

Upon completing his PhD in 2001, Gibson was awarded a Jane Coffin Childs postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School in the lab of the renowned geneticist and developmental biologist Norbert Perrimon, PhD. In 2005, he and Perrimon authored a paper on cell-to-cell communication that attracted abundant scientific attention and made the cover of Science magazine. In 2006, the duo published a Nature paper exploring how cell division influences the geometry of complex cell layers known as epithelia.

That same year, Gibson joined the Stowers Institute where he continues to study small creatures, including fruit flies and sea anemones (Nematostella vectensis), as model systems for determining how the body’s layers of epithelial cells are constructed during development and how they are maintained during growth and proliferation.

“Epithelial sheets that line the surfaces of organs and body cavities are not simply inert layers of cellophane,” explains Gibson. “They are incredibly dynamic living biological systems.” Epithelia perform a variety of functions in the body. For example, the epithelial cells in the outermost layer of the skin serve as a protective barrier. The sheet of epithelial cells lining the intestines absorbs and transports nutrients from food. Research on epithelial cell biology can provide a valuable window into both normal development and the origins of cancers, a majority of which originate in epithelial cells. “A better understanding of epithelial cell biology in simple animals,” says Gibson, “will not only expand our knowledge of life, but also provide new avenues for the treatment and detection of disease.”

Why did you join the Stowers Institute?

The Stowers Institute offered a combination of great colleagues, great scientific support facilities, and great leadership. This place is truly unique because scientists have the freedom to take risks by pursuing novel ideas. If you are asking questions at the edge of what we understand, there are certain to be missteps and failures along the way. A willingness to take risks and the ability to tolerate failure is a major attribute of the most successful scientists, and the Institute has taken that spirit to an institutional level.

What is the most important change that has occurred during your 11 years at the Institute?

The creation of the Graduate School in 2011 dramatically changed the Institute’s social and intellectual dynamic, particularly by increasing connectivity between labs. Each year the school brings in eight to ten talented young people who bond with each other and become friends through the hardship of their coursework. After they disperse to different labs to conduct their thesis research, the students continue to hang out together and exchange ideas even when they work in totally different areas. They informally exchange information about the studies in their respective labs, which in turn drives research forward at the ground level. This horizontal transfer of information really sparks new ideas and has given the Institute a new kind of vitality.

How do you explain the relevance of basic research?

The fundamental mechanisms underlying life are very similar and are shared among all animal species. So what we learn from studying fruit flies, flatworms, and sea anemones can actually illuminate the principles of human biology. Scientists can understand biological processes at far higher resolution in model organisms than would be possible if they only studied human cell lines, making basic research the foundation of biomedical science and the testing ground for new ideas to address human disease.

Until recently, the fruit fly was the only model system in your lab. Why have you also begun to study the sea anemone, which is so primitive that you once described it as a “bag of epithelium”?

That overall morphological simplicity makes Nematostella a great animal for determining how developmental processes are controlled at both the mechanistic and evolutionary levels. But in this case “simplicity” might also be an illusion. An amazing thing about these sea anemones is their relatively large and complex genome, which has more in common with humans and other vertebrates than do the genomes of fruit flies, worms, and other traditional model organisms. Many human disease genes, for example, have been found in Nematostella, but are absent in fruit flies. The genomic similarities are shocking because it was assumed that the anemone, a simple organism, would have a simple genome.

With four children, ages 2½ to 11 years old, and the demands of your lab at the Institute, how do you manage your time so that your family and your research receive the attention they need?

There is no one correct answer for this question because every person and every family differ. I found that once I had children, I just instinctively became more efficient, particularly at work. I also set some hard boundaries. On weekends, I prioritize my family time and rarely come to the lab. I can do much of my work, such as reading scientific papers and writing, from home. Some of the best quality time for thinking actually comes while mowing the lawn, walking the dog, or doing dishes. Most importantly, I also have an incredibly supportive spouse, and seriously doubt I could maintain sanity or achieve balance without her.

What activities do you enjoy outside the lab?

Many—playing music, gardening, beekeeping, and coaching soccer, to name a few. My favorite activities are probably fly fishing and hiking. This past summer we had a great time camping and fly fishing in northwest Arkansas. This winter my two oldest sons and I went hiking and skiing in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. I think it’s essential for kids and adults alike to regularly unplug from the devices that deliver a constant supply of overstimulation. For clear thinking to occur, it’s extremely important to have long periods of time away from the information stream. Unplugged time is probably more important than plugged time.

Beyond science and family, are there any other passionate pursuits you have?

Until about a year ago, I was playing in a band that did some shows around Kansas City and made a recording of original songs—basically it was very loud, unrefined rock ‘n’ roll. It was fun but required a lot of time and energy, most of which fell between 10:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. Maybe when the kids are older, I’ll do it again...

What do you want to accomplish in the next five years?

Personally, I hope to survive my wild kids at home (Gibson laughed) and also spend as much time as I can outside with the family, whether it’s hiking, fly fishing, or gardening in the backyard. Scientifically, I especially want to see through the vision of our work with Nematostella and expand our efforts into genome-wide chemical and genetic screening. We think these sea anemones could provide a window into whole new areas of biology and want to use the most modern tools to access those areas. I also want to build on our integrated research approach in which we take advantage of the best parts of fruit fly biology and anemone biology to understand the control of cell division at the epithelial level. This is really an amazing time to be a scientist, and there is still a huge amount to be learned.