A student works with a microscope as a professor looks on

Ellie Gibbs ’22 Can See Whole Worlds in a Single Yeast Cell

February 19, 2020

“It’s overwhelming to think that you can spend your entire life on one tiny segment of the life of a cell.”

When Ellie Gibbs ’22 arrived at the annual conference of the American Society for Cell Biology in Washington in December, she was struck by that observation, and by the multiple decades of research and data represented by the thousands of assembled scientists.

“It was humbling,” Gibbs said, recalling her first impression of the conference exhibition hall. “Everybody has a topic that is their life’s work, that basically only they and their research team know enough about to truly grasp. At that gathering you see everybody’s life work coming together.”

She attended the event with John Goss, assistant professor of biological sciences at Wellesley, and Solveig Stensland ’21, who was working on a different project in Goss’s lab, to present findings on how yeast cells restructure their walls to become stronger or weaker based on signals and stimuli from their surrounding environment. Goss and Gibbs’ work, which required the use of Wellesley’s atomic force microscope that can map the atomic-scale topography of a surface, covered uncharted territory: No one else has studied these cells in this way before.

Gibbs, one of just a handful of undergraduates at the conference, was approached by graduate students and postdocs from large-scale research universities who asked high-level, hyper-specific questions about her work at Wellesley and discussed possible collaborations on future projects. Many were surprised to learn that she was an undergraduate.

“But I explained to them that I had had the attention of a grad student,” Gibbs said. “I had had a mentor consistently help me and show me how to use these tools and read this data.” 

While Gibbs quickly found her footing explaining the details of her research at Wellesley, her path to studying cell walls was somewhat circuitous, and in many ways a byproduct of the intellectual curiosity that drove her to Wellesley.

Born in Boston, Gibbs grew up in Anaheim, Calif. She chose Wellesley in part so that she could study subjects she felt she missed at her STEM-oriented high school. “I wanted to take history classes, I wanted to take Arabic, I wanted to take poetry classes,” Gibbs said.

As a first-year, Gibbs planned to major in environmental studies; when she didn’t get into a required class, she switched tracks entirely, to physics and engineering. But by the spring of her second year she had realized that despite her love of math, she didn’t necessarily want to be a mechanical engineer.

“And then I thought, what if I went back to biology?” Gibbs said. “My parents are physicians, so it was always on my mind.” Gibbs spoke with Dr. Lynn White, Wellesley’s director of health professions advising at the time. She told Gibbs she needed three things: good grades, community service, and research experience. “I said, ‘Let’s start with the research experience,’” Gibbs said with a laugh.

She applied to work in the Goss lab as part of Wellesley’s 2019 Science Center Summer Research Program. “To be honest, part of the reason was because I wanted to be pre-med, but I also wanted to use the fancy machines,” Gibbs said. That fancy machine is Wellesley’s atomic force microscope, a powerful instrument that can take images with resolutions on the order of a nanometer, perfect for studying cell walls. 

As Gibbs began learning how the microscope worked and how to read the data she was receiving, she drew from her background in physics and engineering. “Force curve data, spring constant data, elasticity data—that’s all stuff I learned in physics,” Gibbs said. “I was like, ‘OK, I can work with that.’”

Last summer, Gibbs put in six-hour lab sessions most days. The process of developing good data was quite slow. “Imagine you’re trying to poke a cylinder that can move around a lot, and it’s floating in water, and you’re using a stick,” Gibbs said. Goss emphasized a patient, deliberate approach, which Gibbs appreciated. “For me, it was really nice having a mentor with a value system that was about patience and the process of getting data rather than a mentor whose value system was only getting good data,” she said. “Wellesley does a really good job teaching that you can’t make the data. That what you need to do is work hard and stay in there until something works out.”

That approach is already paying dividends. Gibbs’ experience with Wellesley’s atomic force microscope has put her on a path toward conducting research with even bigger, fancier instruments. This spring, Gibbs received a spot in the National Institutes of Health Summer Internship Program. There, she will be working in Dr. Yamini Dalal’s lab, using an atomic force microscope to study epigenetics—how DNA changes based on its surrounding environment. “We have this idea that the DNA you are given does not change through your life, but it does, as you age,” Gibbs said. “My hope is that by learning how to use all these different tools, I can bring that knowledge back, and that it will be applicable here. It would be really cool if I could add to Professor Goss’s lab with what I learn at NIH.”

In addition to focusing on scientific discovery, Gibbs is pursing some of the multidisciplinary interests that inspired her to come to Wellesley. She has begun exploring her Lebanese identity: Her mother grew up in Lebanon during its civil war and eventually immigrated to the United States to study and become a physician. Gibbs has written poetry about her experience as a child of the Lebanese diaspora, focusing on her relationship to that community. “In terms of me growing as a person, my poetry classes and my Middle Eastern studies classes for my minor have been instrumental,” Gibbs said. “It’s like, you’re doing all this science for what? It kind of helps you focus your attention even more.”

Gibbs has given a lot of thought to Wellesley’s liberal arts approach, and it’s a topic she and her roommate often discuss. “It’s one of our household conversations,” she said. “I love my professors. I have not had a bad professor. I love the sense of community here—being part of the siblinghood, being part of the alumnae network. I have communities through the dorm I lived in my first year, through the Wellesley Arab Women Association, through my fellow biology majors. Everybody here is so receptive to building those connections and that community.”

“Wellesley students all think they can change the world for the better,” Gibbs said, “and they are all willing to try. Being surrounded by people who want to try, even if it might not work out, makes you want to try, too.”