“Every day we interact, speak, move, think, and wonder,” Arlotta said, “yet we rarely stop to think about the incredible organ that allows us to do all of this: the brain.”
Arlotta has spent her scientific career focusing largely on the brain, and is pursuing her passion both in the classroom and in the laboratory.
“I spent most of my career wondering about how an embryo goes about building such a beautifully complex organ. I never cease to be amazed by this extraordinary process, and that sense of wonder is what motivated me to emulate some aspects of brain development in a dish, starting from stem cells.”
Arlotta’s work contributed to a new generation of disease models: organoids. These raisin-sized collections of neurons, made from human stem cells, replicate minuscule portions of the brain, and they are changing the study of neurological disease.
“This technology is giving us the very first opportunity to explore human brain development directly, and will help us answer so many questions,” Arlotta said. “It will let us get right to the root of human brain diseases like autism and schizophrenia. We can discover their origins and unpick all of those complex mechanisms that make the human brain so amazing — and for many, so terrifying.”
For Arlotta, becoming a Harvard College professor is an opportunity to gain fresh perspectives on how stem cell science is taught.
“Today we are able to do research into human diseases that would have been impossible only a year ago,” she said. “The pace of progress in stem cell science is simply breathtaking. So how can we give students firm grounding in a field that is moving so quickly?”
The Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology has a mission to push the frontiers of science, and a big part of that is education: making sure students learn the state of the art, even as it changes.
“I am energized to build a new course that allows students to experience firsthand the excitement of what we are doing with organoids,” said Arlotta. “This is a special time for our field. We have learned so much about what stem cells can do, and are poised to apply it to making new tissues and organs. When you combine all these new possibilities for understanding human diseases with the unique perspective students bring, that’s when we’ll start to see real transformation.”