BS, Aerospace Engineering, University of Notre Dame
MS, Applied Mathematics, University of Southern California
PhD, Applied Mathematics, University of Washington
Paul Kulesa, PhD, has explored universes big and small over the course of his career—starting out as a NASA engineer before going on to develop state-of-the-art imaging technology to visualize cell behaviors, as director of imaging for the Stowers Institute. Today, he and his team are advancing understanding of how neural crest cells travel long distances to assemble vital organs and structures.
Raised in Chicago, Kulesa attended Notre Dame where he received a BS in Aerospace Engineering in 1984. He went on to work as part of the propulsion and payload operations teams at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. His job was to determine propulsion requirements for payloads as part of the Space Shuttle and Hubble Space Telescope programs. Knowing that he would need a graduate degree like his colleagues to advance his career, Kulesa began graduate work in applied mathematics. He earned his MS at the University of Southern California, followed up by a PhD in 1995 at the University of Washington.
Kulesa considered doing postdoctoral training at the NASA/Ames Research Center but opted instead to work at Caltech with Scott Fraser, a pioneer in developing imaging tools that zero in on the complex cell dynamics in living animal embryos. It was there that he created innovative 3-D imaging technology to track the movement of neural crest cells, cells that stream from the neural tube and form the peripheral nervous system, head and face features, and melanocytes, the skin cells where melanoma starts, among other structures. In 2003, he was recruited to Stowers to develop the Institute’s imaging center, which he continues to direct.
“I took a truly multidisciplinary pathway to get to where I am now, starting with aerospace engineering, applied mathematics, then biology,” Kulesa says of his background. “Solving a biological problem takes ingenuity, but also a lot of common sense.”
Off the clock, Kulesa enjoys playing sports with his kids, especially watching them make observations in nature and discussing their findings. He loves any activity that’s water related or dynamic – surfing, paddleboarding, and longboard skateboarding when he can’t get to the ocean.
The Kulesa Lab studies how cells travel throughout the developing embryo of vertebrate organisms, make connections with other cell types, and differentiate to build organs and other body structures. By tracking the journey, the researchers hope to better understand how missteps along the way cause conditions such as birth defects or pediatric cancer, insights that can inform the development of new treatments.
Imagine a flock of geese flying south for the winter. Or 19th century pioneers, traveling westward en masse by wagon train. How do these groups know where to go and how to communicate that information so others follow? Neural crest cells migrate much the same way, but exactly how they accomplish this feat has been a mystery.
By developing new technologies in imaging, single cell analysis, and computational modeling, Kulesa and his colleagues have pulled back the curtain on the complex dynamics and communication that drive neural crest cell migration. The Kulesa Lab was the first to develop imaging technology that visualizes and quantifies the behaviors of hard-to-track neural crest cells in the living chick embryo as they migrate, which they reported in 2002 in Science. Using this technology, they have made many important contributions to the field, including the discovery that vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) attracts cranial neural crest cells, and the identification of a network of “trailblazer” genes that play a key role in allowing neural crest cells to invade dense microenvironments.
The Kulesa Lab is investigating aggressive cancers including melanoma and neuroblastoma, a pediatric cancer of the peripheral nervous system. Neural crest cells play a key role in the development of both types of cancers. “Our long-term goal is to prevent or repair neural crest migration-related birth defects by exploiting our discoveries about development and harness this information to better predict and inhibit the progression of neuroblastoma and melanoma,” Kulesa says.
In addition to his research, Kulesa has enjoyed hosting many students and scientists in his lab over the years. “I am proud of seeing the people with whom I work make new discoveries and become successful, whether it is in basic research or otherwise science-related,” Kulesa says.