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Impact Magazine

What's in a Name?

PDBio Evolves Into Cell Biology and Physiology

Almost 20 years after its founding, the Department of Physiology and Developmental Biology (PDBio) is changing its name to the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology (CELL).

Over the past 18 months, PDBio faculty came to a unanimous consensus that a department name change was necessary to reflect how the department has evolved. Since 2001, when PDBio was originally formed, the department’s focus has slowly shifted as classic systems physiologists have retired and more cell biologists have joined the faculty. Additionally, physiology research has become more cellular in nature.

Digital art of scientists on ladders building a cell
Photo by Emily Tribe

Arminda Suli, a professor of developmental biology who joined the department in 2013, believes Cell Biology and Physiology more accurately reflects the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, the evolving and expanding research expertise of the faculty, and the skillsets and knowledge of the program’s graduating students.

“We created Physiology and Developmental Biology at that time because we were teaching and doing research in anatomy and physiology, and we had expertise and experience in birth defect research and developmental biology,” says Michael Stark, chair of the PDBio department. He envisions that the new name will expand the department’s reach to non-developmental biologists and “give it a richer, broader footprint of cell biology.”

The faculty hope that renaming the department to Cell Biology and Physiology will not only reflect the students’ learning experience more accurately but will also clarify the department's goals toward major selection, graduate student recruitment, and faculty hiring. The department wants to increase its ability to help students find success as they enter their professions.

Due to the classes offered by the department (anatomy, physiology, cell biology), many pre-med and pre-health professional students are attracted to the major. Dr. Benjamin Bikman, a professor of pathophysiology, believes that the name change will make graduating students “more marketable as they apply for competitive jobs and graduate programs.”

Required coursework will most likely remain the same after the name change. Students who have already declared PDBio as their major will have the option to either graduate with the physiology and developmental biology major or shift to the new cell biology and physiology major.

Featured Research from the Cell Biology and Physiology Lab:

Drawing of a cell


Understanding human metabolism may be the key to understanding human health and disease. This is especially true in the brain because metabolic dysfunction is a significant characteristic of a number of pathological brain states such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and migraines. The Bikman Lab is currently exploring how ketones—molecules produced by the body under conditions of low insulin (e.g., fasting, exercise, dietary carbohydrate restriction)—enhance brain metabolism and cognition. The research suggests that dietary and lifestyle choices have implications for brain health as well as body weight.

Drawing of a cell


While it is intuitive that maternal lifestyle and environment affect the health of a developing baby, accumulating evidence suggests paternal lifestyle and environment may be equally as important. Our environment can affect chemical modifications on our DNA that, although they do not change the genetic code itself, can alter gene activity. These modifications, known as DNA methylation, affect the individual exposed and may also pass to their offspring. The Jenkins Lab is currently exploring how smoke and firefighters’ occupational exposures affect DNA methylation in human sperm and the implications for offspring health. This research links our environment to our own health and suggests that men should take their health as seriously as women when having children.

Drawing of a cell


Age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) is highly associated with disability in elderly individuals. By the seventh and eighth decades of life, muscle strength is typically reduced by about 20–40 percent in both men and women and continues to rapidly decline with age. The Thomson Lab is currently investigating whether AMPK activators—a class of drugs that mimic some of the beneficial effects of exercise—can be used to treat sarcopenia associated with aging, insulin resistance, and other muscle pathologies such as facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). This research highlights the importance of moving your body and strengthening muscles to remain as functional as possible throughout the aging process.

Drawing of a cell


The Barrow Lab is currently developing cutting-edge techniques to manipulate genes in chickens to understand organ development. While techniques to alter mice genes have been employed for decades, similar techniques to alter genes in birds have lagged behind, and, until recently, these techniques have been impossible in chickens. The gene-altering techniques for mice are somewhat limited, as it’s difficult to directly observe mammalian embryo development in utero. In contrast, using chickens would allow direct observation of developmental processes, because chickens develop outside the mother in eggs. This research has implications for human development and will open ways to study real-time development in chickens.

Drawing of a cell


Preeclampsia is one of the leading causes of pregnancy-related mortality in the U.S., accounting for the deaths of approximately 76,000 mothers and 500,000 babies worldwide every year. Although preeclampsia’s cause remains unknown, the condition is characterized by hypertension (high blood pressure) and proteinuria (protein in the urine) and is associated with placental DNA damage. The Arroyo Lab has identified placental proteins that protect DNA and is currently looking for ways to use these proteins to improve preeclampsia symptoms and outcomes. This research aims to alleviate the burden of preeclampsia as well as add to the growing body of literature that reduces the social stigma surrounding pregnancy complications.