Kris Noel Dahl (E’98), assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, looks at life from a different angle — a very, very small one. Dahl and her research team are studying the mechanics of the nuclei of our body’s cells in an effort to better understand how our genes express themselves.
“Every cell in your body has the exact same genetic code,” Dahl explained. “How is that code accessed in different times and in different places within your body? We’re trying to understand how that works, how it’s mis-regulated in certain diseases and how it changes as we age.”
Unlike biologists and medical doctors, Dahl uses biophysical techniques to study the mechanics of the cell, applying tension and compression to see how the stiffness of the nucleus changes. She is particularly interested in observing this change in disease — specifically progeria, a premature aging syndrome.
Dahl and her team have made significant strides, demonstrating that stiffness of the nuclear shell has cardiovascular implications in progeria patients, knowledge that could prove useful for the general aging population.
“Our ultimate goal is to cure — or at least help find effective ways to treat — disease without using pills or invasive surgery,” she said. “If we have a better understanding of the role of mechanics, other therapies could be useful.”
Dahl so enjoyed her undergraduate years at Carnegie Mellon, returning to the university in 2006 to join the faculty was a no-brainer.
“Honestly, Carnegie Mellon spoils you for every other university that you go to,” she said. “There’s just this fantastic mix of really smart, unpretentious, fun and interesting people who are driven to work hard, and that’s at every level, from the undergraduates to the professors.”
She calls it a ‘can-do’ culture.
“At Carnegie Mellon, I’ve never had anyone tell me, I’m sorry, that’s too hard, I can’t do that,” Dahl noted. “You give students a problem and they get it done. It’s the same with the faculty. You come to someone with a very complex problem and they’ll help you solve it. They never say, ‘I’m too busy or that’s too hard.’”
“I love teaching,” she added, saying the energy students bring to the table helps foster her own breakthrough discoveries. “Students bring with them a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the material. Working with them is fantastic. It’s a rejuvenator every time.”