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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Faculty Profile: Brian Mitchell, PhD Assistant Professor in Cell & Developmental Biology

Brian Mitchell, PhD

Brian Mitchell, PhD
, assistant professor in Cell & Developmental Biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, studies a “strange-footed” frog to better understand human development.

There’s nothing strange, however, about Mitchell’s passion for science. A Dallas native and fan of outdoor activities such as camping and mountain biking, Mitchell joined Feinberg in 2008. Prior, he completed post-doctoral work at California’s Salk Institute. He earned his doctorate degree in neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and previously worked in pharmaceutical research in San Diego, where he earned his undergraduate degree.

Mitchell’s work has been published in high-impact factor journals such as Nature, Nature Genetics, Developmental Biology, and Genes & Development.

What brought you to Feinberg?
My scientific background is mainly in developmental biology, but I have a long-standing interest in basic cell biology. The opportunity to come to Northwestern University and work among some of the best cytoskeleton cell biologists in the country was very exciting.

What are your research interests?
My lab has several ongoing projects. The first deals with the basic question of how ciliated epithelia work to generate directed fluid flow. This is an important question in a variety of physiological contexts, but most obviously in the respiratory system where the beating of cilia generates the directed fluid flow that clears our lungs of bacteria and debris.

We work to understand how these cells integrate multiple polarity cues to rearrange their intracellular organization in a polarized manner.

The second project involves a cellular process called centriole duplication. Centriole duplication is typically one of the first steps in the cell cycle and is critical to proper cell division. However, centrioles are also involved in generating cilia, so we are interested in the process of centriole duplication in cells that make many cilia. By understanding how nature has uncoupled centriole duplication from the cell cycle in these cells, we believe we can gain insight into how this process goes awry during cancer development.

What is the ultimate goal of your research?
We work towards understanding detailed aspects of cellular function in the context of a living, developing animal.

How does your research advance medical science and knowledge?
While my lab asks many really basic questions about how cells function, we do most our experiments on live animals. We work in the developing embryos of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis. In contrast to other experimental models, such as the commonly used mouse, frog embryos develop outside of the mother and so can be easily visualized throughout development. This affords us the opportunity to study detailed aspects of vertebrate development that are relevant to understanding human development and disease.

What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus?
We have initiated collaborations with members of the dermatology department here at Northwestern to work on how migrating cells break down cellular barriers. During development (and cancer progression) certain cells need to migrate in a specific direction. To do this they need to know their polarity and they need to break through the surrounding cells so that they can migrate to where they need to be.

How is your research funded?
I have received a fellowship from the Parker B. Francis Foundation in pulmonary research. I have an NIH R01 grant that funds the main projects in the lab, and I received a small pilot grant from the Skin Disease Research Center program in the Department of Dermatology to initiate our collaborative experiments.

Who inspires you?
My post-doctoral mentor Chris Kintner from the Salk Institute has really been an inspiration to me. I know of very few scientists who are completely fearless in their approach (to science). He follows whatever directions are exciting to him and consistently pursues important biological questions regardless of how challenging the approach may be. Many scientists get stuck in a rut of what they have been successful doing in the past; I admire people that continually reinvent themselves to push our understanding of biology further.