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Erin Rericha

by Oct. 3, 2011, 8:11 AM

Interfacial scientist thrives on moment of discovery

Erin Rericha (Lauren Owens/Vanderbilt)

Erin Rericha considers herself an interfacial scientist. The new assistant professor of physics explained that she has “a bit of a split personality.”

“I am trained as a condensed matter physicist,” she said, “and I spent my postdoc working in biology labs learning about cell migration.”

An interest in biology comes naturally to the Dallas, Texas, native. “I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember. The women in my family tend to be ‘sciency’ types, but they have all been medical professionals,” said Rericha, whose last name is pronounced like “America” without the first syllable.  “When I was 5 or 6, I had decided that I was going to be a neonatal neurosurgeon, even though I didn’t really know what that was.”

Rericha decided to go into physics in high school after she attended a National Science Foundation workshop at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“It was the first time they let me play in a laboratory, and I loved it,” she said. “The way physics frames things and uses mathematics to articulate how things work really resonates with me. New technological advances are now making this possible in biology.”

Rericha doesn’t recall much about the classes she took as a physics major (with a pre-med intention) at Texas A&M. Instead, she remembers the jobs she had: first, at the computer help desk where she learned about computer graphics and scientific visualization; then, in a physics lab where she helped build a neutrino detector.

“Course work in college didn’t hold my interest,” she said. “I’m really good in the lab. I love the moment of discovery.”

As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, Rericha studied a physical system that exhibits some biology-like properties. The system consists of granular materials (collections of small particles). When energy is provided to the system, the grains form a series of patterns, many of which are unintuitive.

She was fortunate to get a post-doctoral fellowship with Wolfgang Losert, a physics professor at the University of Maryland and director of a cancer technology partnership with the National Cancer Institute.

“We started a project that wasn’t going to work because I didn’t know enough about cell biology to ask the right questions. So he gave me the flexibility to learn more about biology,” Rericha said.

Losert arranged for her to work in a cancer lab at the National Cancer Institute and a cell dynamics lab at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, take a physiology course at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and work with a biophysics group at Georgetown University.

“So now I can speak ‘biology,’” she joked.

Coming from state-funded universities, Rericha didn’t know whether she would fit in at Vanderbilt.

“I didn’t expect to like it nearly as much as I did when I visited,” she said. “I was blown away by the science that is being done here. The environment is so conducive to interfacial studies. That makes it great for me.”

Rericha is putting together a laboratory with microscopes designed for high-speed imaging, quantum dot fluorescent tags, microfluidic chambers and optical tweezers that will allow her to study the forces that act on cells and that cells exert as they move. This is important because the cell’s ability to change shape and exert forces is critical to a number of bodily processes, including the ability of muscle cells to contract and the immune system’s ability to track down invaders.

One of her first subjects will be the physical properties of networks of semi-flexible fibers called actin that are part of the cell’s skeletal system and play a key role in its ability to control its shape. She will be studying these networks in purified form as well as in the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum.

Another of her interests is the role that water plays in cell movement, a subject that has been largely ignored in previous studies. “My gut tells me that water is important,” Rericha said.

After all, a cell is about 60 percent water and all that water has to move along with the cell. In fact, when cells move in three dimensions, one method they use is forming “blebs,” pseudopods filled with nothing but water.

Rericha also intends to apply these techniques to investigate the largely unknown processes that allow cancer cells to spread through the body and therefore make cancer so deadly.

See the complete list of new faculty for 2011-12.