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Megan Sperry on Developing Therapeutics for Traumatic Injuries

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

In the months and years after Megan Sperry developed stress fractures in her back from competitive figure skating, she found that the pain she felt didn’t correspond to the state of her healing – some of the fractures never fully healed, yet the pain was sometimes gone, sometimes present. She was frustrated, but also fascinated. This sparked her scientific interest in injury and pain. At the Wyss, Megan is working on the Biostasis project, a multidisciplinary effort to develop new therapeutic approaches for traumatic injury and acute infection. Learn more about Megan and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.

What are you working on?

Megan Sperry on Developing Therapeutics for Traumatic Injuries
Megan Sperry, Postdoctoral Fellow. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

I’m interested in injury states, and why some injuries tend to resolve, whereas other become more chronic over time, leading to pain and disability in people. I studied aspects of this during graduate school

Then, when I joined the Wyss, they had just started an exciting, multidisciplinary project called Biostasis. The goal of the project is to develop new therapeutic approaches for trauma and acute infection. The project ultimately aims to prevent organ injury and increase patient survival in cases of traumatic injury. To do this, we aim to find a way to induce a state of stasis, thereby slowing down some of the biochemical and metabolic processes that cause irreversible damage after injury.

More specifically, most of my work is with Xenopus frog embryos and tadpoles. This is a useful whole organism model because it shares many genes, signaling pathways, biological functions, and organ systems with mammals, but it’s small and easy to work with for high-throughput drug screening, imaging, and monitoring of metabolism. A lot of the work on the Biostasis project started in this model.

What real-world problem does this solve?

The really big thing we’re going for is to develop a therapeutic that can be given to a patient in the case of a traumatic injury to delay some of the damage we see when transporting patients over long distances. That’s of course the ultimate goal of the Biostasis project.

But also, the project has many other wide-ranging, real-world problems that it could solve. One that’s really exciting is the potential to improve the organ transplant process. We could use what we discover to prolong the lifespan of organs outside the body, so they can be in the best possible shape when they reach patients who need them. Right now, organs in transit are preserved using different temperature controls, but that can only do so much, and might not be available in low-resource environments.

What inspired you to get into this field?

Like a lot of scientists, my interest stemmed from a personal experience that made me curious. I started figure skating when I was five years old, and competed up through college, encountering injuries as many athletes do. When I was around 15 or 16, I developed stress fractures in my L5 vertebrae. I went through treatment and rehab. Despite some of the fractures never fully healing, the pain eventually resolved. This incongruency between the structure and the function of the injury first sparked my interest in the science behind pain and injury. As time went on, the pain in this region would return and remit, which led me to be both frustrated and fascinated. I wanted to study the science behind injuries to learn why I was having this experience.

What continues to motivate you?

As I’ve gotten older, my motivation is still partially personal, but it’s become broader. The burden of injury and disability is so high and has affected members of my own family. I’m also more generally interested in applications that are adjacent to injury, like organ donation. Being able to apply my research to patients, whether they are civilians or members of the military who are undergoing traumatic injuries really motivates me. Although our work is still in early stages of translation, we envision that there are so many ways it could possibly be applied to help people.

What excites you most about your work?

Beyond some of the clear applications, I enjoy the mix of working towards big ideas but also having small victories peppered in. Research can be tough sometimes; there are experimental failures and periods of high uncertainty. But the days when things go really well, or you’re truly surprised by something, are really exciting. This has been especially true at the Wyss because we get to work on high-risk projects. So, you have days where things don’t go your way at all, but then you have some extremely exciting days too.

At the Wyss we get to work on high-risk projects. So, you have days where things don’t go your way at all, but then you have some extremely exciting days too.

Megan Sperry

What are some of the challenges that you face?

Megan Sperry on Developing Therapeutics for Traumatic Injuries
Megan with her now-husband John on the day she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with her Ph.D. While there, she worked in the technology transfer office and gained a greater appreciation for how technologies make their way through the lab and get licensed to industry. Credit: Megan Sperry

Beyond the normal scientific hurdles, the biggest challenge, honestly, is that there are so many interesting problems to work on and sometimes I find it hard to choose. It was a bit simpler when I was in graduate school because I was focused on one primary project. As a postdoc at the Wyss there are so many interesting projects. I’m always wondering if I can find a few more hours in my day to investigate something else.

Why did you want to work at the Wyss?

During the last two years of graduate school, I worked at the technology transfer office at the University of Pennsylvania. I did initial technology assessments for potential patents and wrote descriptions of technologies to match with potential partners or licensees. I enjoyed seeing that aspect of the scientific process and it was so exciting to see technologies get closer to those final stages. Though I knew I wanted to continue with academic research, that experience influenced my desire to do my postdoc somewhere that sits a little more between traditional academia and industry. The Wyss was on my radar, because after undergrad I had applied to be a research assistant here, but the timing did not end up working out. I knew the Wyss offered that combination I was looking for, so I reached out to scientists and PIs working here.

What is unique about the Wyss? How has that impacted your work?

So many things! I feel lucky to work at a place that values basic science but really encourages everyone to think broadly about how their work can impact society. It feels like the best of academia and industry in one place. As a postdoc, I started working with new model organisms, new wet lab techniques, and new computational approaches, all of which I learned from my colleagues. It’s unique to be able to learn so much from one place.

I feel lucky to work at a place that values basic science but really encourages everyone to think broadly about how their work can impact society. It feels like the best of academia and industry in one place.

Megan Sperry
Megan Sperry on Developing Therapeutics for Traumatic Injuries
Megan and some of her fellow Biostasis team members at the Wyss Retreat in 2019. She’s learned a lot from her colleagues and transitioned to a more team-focused view of science while working at the Wyss. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The Wyss also has many affiliate labs in the area, which puts it at a unique place in the Greater Boston scientific ecosystem and results in opportunities for learning and collaboration. For example, I am also a member of Associate Faculty member Mike Levin’s group at Tufts University, and scientists in the Levin Lab have a deep expertise in Xenopus frogs, cognition, and molecular biophysics approaches to complex biological control systems. They’ve been a fantastic team to learn from.

Learning from so many different people has also helped to shift my mindset about research. As a younger scientist, I was of the mind that I should do all the work myself because it’s my project and I need to do everything. Slowly, my mind has changed to a team approach. Now I think, who can I team up with to do this even better than if I was doing it alone? As a postdoc, I want to deeply understand how everything is done, but I also try to balance that with using the incredible resources available at the Wyss.

How do you collaborate with and/or receive support from teams across the Wyss Institute?

The primary project I work on – I work on a few but they mostly stem from the Biostasis project – includes a mix of different teams with different expertise. The project is naturally quite collaborative. Over time, I’ve worked with people in computational biology, cell culture and organoids, organs-on-chips, microscopy, design and machining, and many more areas. It’s amazing to have access to all these experts.

How have your previous work experiences shaped your approach to your work today?

Over the time I’ve been doing research, I’ve worked on several different types of projects that focus on injury, pain, and trauma using a mix of human tissue, human subjects, rat models, Xenopus models, and computational models. I think those different experiences have given me an appreciation for what each approach can bring to the table. It made me excited about working at the Wyss, where most projects try and tackle a problem from at least a few different angles.

When you’re not working, and you’re not social distancing, how do you like to spend your time?

The things I like to do fall into two categories – hobbies truly outside of science and activities that are science-adjacent.

Some of the things that I find the most relaxing, fun, and restorative are reading, art projects, and running. Running is a nice way to get out of your head. I love running with my friends. Just before the pandemic, I ran a long-distance relay race across Utah with twelve friends that was incredibly fun. It’s called a Ragnar Relay. The race consists of different sections and between everyone on your team you cumulatively run about 200 miles over two days. I’m hoping to run another Ragnar race this spring. I also had the chance to run the REI 10K this fall with my sister-in-law.

Then, in the science-adjacent bucket, I enjoy working with younger students and talking to them about what scientists do day-to-day. During grad school I worked with an organization called TechGirlz in Philadelphia with some friends. We designed curricula to teach courses that combine wet lab experiences with coding for middle school-aged students.

During the pandemic, that kind of thing was hard to do. Luckily, the organization Skype a Scientist provided a lot of amazing opportunities to connect scientists with both classrooms, which is what they normally do, and with families. I did a few Skype a Scientist chats with families with multiple kids at home. This was so much fun because it was more one-on-one than the classroom setting. Every child could ask a question, as opposed to in the classroom where they can be a little shy.

Megan Sperry on Developing Therapeutics for Traumatic Injuries
Megan has two cats, Minerva (left) who is a former lab cat and Luna (right) who she adopted a year later. Credit: Megan Sperry

What’s something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a huge cat person, but not everyone knows that I adopted my first cat in grad school when I found out that a research team was looking for researchers to adopt laboratory cats after a study was over. My first cat, Minerva, was a lab cat. She’s adapted well to life outside the lab. She’s very social and very sassy. I also have a second cat named Luna who we adopted a year later. Of course, I’m always on the lookout for more potential adoptees, especially if they need a home after contributing to science.

If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?

It would probably be something in architecture, design, or interior design. As I kid, I would draw blueprints of my house and of future dream homes, complete with closets and the direction the doors would open. I think it also has some similar features to what I like about being a scientist – it’s a nice mix of quiet, focused work and working with a team on a big project.

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

I definitely feel really lucky and motivated by this environment. I love basic science research too, but thinking about what is needed to translate our work to patients really focuses me. Having a team goal of getting our work to a stage where it can be useful to patients helps you figure out what key questions you need to answer to move forward.

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