What can you measure today that you never dreamed of being able to quantify when you became a scientist?

In elementary school, children learn to measure things they can see in inches, milliliters, gallons. In biomedical science, measurement has moved into the infinitesimal. Four HHMI scientists weigh in.

Vivian Cheung

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

As a child, I loved to name animals. On car rides, instead of tracking license plates, I looked for animals. Was it a chipmunk, ground or flying squirrel? There are over 10 million living species in the world. The child who loved animals became a geneticist just at the right time. We can now “measure” the diversity of living organisms not just by the colors of their fur but also by their DNA sequences! I am enchanted by our ability to measure this phenotypic variation from the anatomical to the molecular level.

Edward De Robertis

University of California, Los Angeles

Back in the dark ages, we thought of a cell as a bag of enzymes; if we could purify each one we would understand the whole. I never imagined enzymes zipping in and out of cellular organelles, let alone that we could quantitate this. With green fluorescent protein fusions came a revolution in cell biology: we could measure the movement of proteins. My lab is measuring how a cytoplasmic enzyme called GSK becomes incorporated inside membrane-bounded organelles when the cell is stimulated by a growth factor. Quite amazing.

Jeff Magee

Janelia Farm Research Campus

We are able to measure activity in the smallest parts of neurons in awake brains. With genetically encoded indicators and two-photon microscopes we can measure signals from the tiniest dendrites, spines, and axon terminals while mice perform simple tasks.

Michael Laub

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I would say global measurements of RNA abundance using new deep sequencing methods—i.e., RNA-seq. I remember as an undergrad (which wasn't all that long ago) running and rerunning Northern blots for weeks just to determine the level of a single RNA. Now you can measure every RNA transcript in a genome in about a week. I certainly couldn't have imagined such a technology existed when I was an undergrad. It would have spared me a lot of hassle.

Photos: Cheung: Peter Wodarczyk / PR Newswire, ©HHMI, Magee: Tom Kleindinst, De Robertis: Ana De Robertis, Laub: Donna Coveney / MIT

Scientist Profile

University of Michigan
Computational Biology, Genetics
Janelia Group Leader
Janelia Research Campus
University of California, Los Angeles
Cell Biology, Developmental Biology