Prof. Kasza Wins Packard Fellowship

Oct 15 2018 | By Holly Evarts | Photo credit: Timothy Lee Photographers | Video Credit: Jane Nisselson/Columbia Engineering

Karen Kasza, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has won a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering for her research that “explores how cells work together to build tissues and organs with diverse shapes and structures during embryonic development. The Kasza Lab uses novel approaches to uncover the fundamental physical and biological mechanisms of morphogenesis, aiming to learn from cells about new ways to engineer tissue and treat disease.”

Karen Kasza

“I’m honored to join this amazing group of Packard Fellows and excited about the new research projects that this fellowship will enable my group to pursue,” says Kasza, who joins a select group of 18 to receive the five-year $875,000 fellowship, which is given to innovative, highly creative researchers early in their careers.

Kasza’s aim is to shed light on human health and disease and to leverage this knowledge to build functional tissues in her lab. Her work is focused on understanding tissue morphogenesis—the generation of shape and form in biological materials. She uses approaches from engineering, biology, and physics to understand and control how cells self-organize into functional tissues with precise mechanical and structural properties.

Currently, her lab is using the fruit fly as a model organism to investigate how cells build tissues during embryo development. To explore how mechanical factors influence this biological process, Kasza combines confocal imaging of cell and tissue movements with biophysical studies of cell and tissue mechanics. She also develops new tools to measure and control the mechanical forces generated by living cells. In part, the Packard Fellowship will support the development of optogenetic tools that allow light-controlled manipulation of the mechanical forces generated by cells in order to flexibly control tissue shape.

Karen Kasza's research focuses on understanding the principles underlying the mechanics, self- organization, and morphogenesis of living tissues—across molecular, cellular, and tissue lengthscales.

Because the interplay of physical and biological processes during morphogenesis is so complex, Kasza collaborates closely with a broad range of scientists and engineers, including developmental biologists and physicists. In earlier projects, she has taken approaches from soft matter physics to elucidate the physical origins of elasticity in cytoskeletal biopolymer-based materials, and used developmental biology methods to identify a new mechanism controlling where and when forces are generated within epithelial tissues.

The Packard Fellowships in Science and Engineering are among the nation’s largest nongovernmental fellowships, designed to allow maximum flexibility in how the funding is used. Since 1988, this program has supported the blue-sky thinking of scientists and engineers in the hopes that their research over time will lead to new discoveries that improve people’s lives and enhance our understanding of the universe.

“It really is amazing to see what brilliant researchers can do when given the room to take big risks,” said Frances Arnold, chair of the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel, 2018 Nobel laureate in chemistry, and former Packard fellow. “And I’m not only talking about their impressive contributions to their fields—I’m also talking about building entirely new disciplines and giving back to the next generation of scientists. I’m excited to see what’s in store for this new class as it joins our welcoming community of Fellows.”

Kasza is the sixth early-career professor from the School to be named a Packard Fellow. She joins Shree K. Nayar (Computer Science, 1992), Kenneth A. Ross (Computer Science, 1993), Adam Sobel (Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, 2000), Jingyue Ju (Chemical Engineering, 2001), and Latha Venkataraman (Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, 2008).