Pitt bioengineer receives $2.2 million grant from National Institute of Health


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The Cathedral of Learning and William Pitt Union on campus.

By Colm Slevin, Assistant News Editor

Arthur Clark, a British science fiction writer, formulated three laws of science fiction, one of which states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” According to Lance Davidson, a bioengineer at Pitt, the processes of organism development are “magic.”

“I feel like when we watch the embryo develop, we’re looking at this advanced technology. We don’t understand how it works. It looks like magic to us,” Davidson said. “And as an engineer, I think I want to be able to control that as a technology.”

Davidson recently received a $2.2 million Method to Extend Research in Time award from the National Institute of Health for his research on morphogenesis, the biological process where cells, tissues and organs develop. His lab uses frog embryos and studies the biochemical processes involved in morphogenesis. 

“We focus on one of the great mysteries of biology. How is it that organisms form in these sort of really diverse shapes and functions?” Davidson said. “I speak for my species as well as my kingdom. It’s not just animals, but plants and all sorts of multicellular life — each has a different form and shape.”

Davidson’s work helps “translate” the human genome into the organisms they represent and understand how organisms develop. He wants to know how organisms take the information in the genome and create living biological systems. The NIH grants MERIT awards to researchers who are “distinctly superior and who are highly likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner.” It is also one of the highest recognitions a researcher can receive.

Fatima Syed-Picard, a professor in the School of Dental Medicine, said she believes Davidson has deserved the recognition. Davidson was a mentor for Syed-Picard during her doctorate, and she still thinks of him as a mentor in her academic career.

“The first thing I thought was well deserved,” Syed-Picard said. “It completely makes sense. It goes without saying that he is such an amazing innovator, scientist and engineer, [well deserved] was the first thing that comes to my mind.”

David Finegold, a human geneticist in the School of Public Work, said he was excited about Davidson receiving the award because he feels Davidson really deserves it. 

“Dr. Davidson is not someone who boasts or brags, and his achievements really speak for themselves,” Finegold said. “I was pretty excited when I heard [he got it], his output is prodigious.” 

Davidson said the MERIT award is incredibly helpful for his research project. He said this means he won’t have to worry about writing grant proposals for the foreseeable future, which will allow him to focus on his research. 

“​​It’s actually funding me for potentially 10 years without having to write a major grant again. I can focus on this project, I can have graduate students that are focusing on it,” Davidson said. “And I think that’s such a relief. It reduces my stress, and it’s also a fantastic vote of confidence from my field.”

Finegold said the MERIT award shows how decorated, innovative and important Davidson is in his field.

“Some of us are always concerned at recognizing that there’s a possibility we will not be able to keep up and run with the younger lads,” Finegold said. “Lance is not only running with the young guys, he’s running ahead of them — it’s a good thing.”

According to Davidson, when scientists first sequenced a human’s genome, they couldn’t tell what eye color he had. Davidson said with the MERIT award his research will be able to “tap into” the huge amount of information from genomics. His research combines both biology and physics to understand the biological processes in developing frog embryos. 

“We know how cells do things — we know a lot about cell biology on one hand. We’ve got lots and lots of sequences of data from different organisms. We’re now a wash with genomic information,” Davidson said. “But we don’t really know how the two really are connected. It’s basically a black box at present.”

Davidson said the MERIT grant allows his lab to not only focus more on their research, but ask bigger, more long term questions and expand his team with more people who are passionate about morphogenesis.

“I think this gives us the opportunity to start working in that area,” Davidson said, “and to make the investments that are needed both for how do I find students that are interested in that and combining the sort of physics and the genomics into a new direction.”