September SOTM: Melody Swartz

by Shi En Kim

I confess that writing about Melody Swartz is a somewhat intimidating task. The world sees her as an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Young Investigator Award recipient, a winner of the National Science Foundation Early Career Award, and one of the Brilliant 10 named by Popular Science in 2006. There have already been numerous articles written about her; I was concerned that I would be rehashing another one of these articles that herald her many accomplishments. Nevertheless, I have the desire to do her achievements and even more so, the personal side of her story justice.

If you are a student in immunology or cancer biology, then you may have already heard of Melody Swartz. She is a chaired Professor of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, a distinguished bioengineering scientist who has authored over 130 publications to date. Her work on the lymphatic system in cancer immunotherapy is legendary; the MacArthur Fellowship which she garnered in 2012 is a direct testament to her creativity. Yet, many would be as surprised as I was at learning this snippet of Melody’s background: she confessed that once upon a time not too long ago, she actually almost detested biology.

‘I was once a pre-med student at John Hopkins University, but I changed my mind halfway,’ Melody explains. During her undergraduate studies, she found the cutthroat environment of the pre-med track to be a poor fit to her interests. Biology, in particular, required a reductionist way of thinking that her mind rebelled against. She switched to chemical engineering, where she reveled in the problem-solving nature that has ultimately become the bedrock of her research interests later on.

After college, she was awarded the prestigious Watson Fellowship to study the crossroads of engineering and social development in Micronesia. Driven by the desire to improve the standards of living in undeveloped communities, she thus embarked on a mission to improve the water resource systems in the local communities. Melody playfully slips that back then the technological disparity compared to back home was enormous: she may have been living in conditions equivalent to ‘having rudimentary toilets consisting of mere holes in the ground’ and ‘wearing clothes made from leaves’ à la Robinson Crusoe. Amidst all the adventure, she was frustrated with the cultural barriers that often hindered her efforts to improve lives, and although her cause did not waver, she realized that the challenge she craved was more of an intellectual rather than a social one.

On her journey of self-exploration, she recognized that what she truly enjoyed the most was research. Her appreciation for science simply for what it is is palpable, but she prefers the broader scope of applying scientific principles to real-world applications. In the implementation of engineering solutions to solve various global problems, she prefers to be at the helm in making the groundbreaking discoveries that revolutionize technology and the way we think. Naturally, research was a fitting choice for a career path. After working as a research technician for a year at Northwestern University, she was accepted into MIT as a PhD student to pursue research that applied chemical engineering principles to—ironically—biology. Back in the 1980s, Melody clarifies, bioengineering was still nascent, straddling biology and traditional chemical engineering but not a separate field in its own right. Furthermore, fluid mechanics, which is so integral to chemical engineering, had hardly been used to investigate solute and fluid transport through tissues and in lymphatics. But the human body is largely made of water, so—in her words— ‘tissue fluid mechanics is essentially the same as solute transport for waste [water] management,’ as any chemical engineer is familiar with. A full circle had been drawn back to her undergraduate years. She, in fact, had never truly resented biology, on the contrary, she found that problems in biology were (and are even till this day) largely unexplored and thus a gold mine waiting to be unearthed using the tools of her trade: fluid mechanics and transport modeling. That the world needed more solutions to solve various issues in health also appealed to her inner engineer to seek to improve lives.

Since graduate school, Melody’s research migrated from studying biomechanics in the lung and lymphatic system to the integrative biology of the lymphatic system she is now most well-known for. In particular, she focuses on the role of lymphatics in immune regulation, especially for cancer detection and elimination. I am drawn into her infectious enthusiasm as she elucidates what intrigued her to the field in the first place. She believes that not only the molecules carried by the lymphatic fluid but also how the lymphatic fluid flows have a profound effect on the body’s immune response. When one truly delves into how the immune system works, one cannot help but marvel at the complexities it has to deal with in sensing foreign antigens and self-produced harmful agents as it proceeds to eradicate them without killing the human host in the process. What is the line between this self-non-self distinction, and how does the immune system decide what to eliminate? The ‘self’—cancerous cells, for instance—is not always as innocuous as we would normally expect, whereas ‘non-self’ interlopers such as gut bacteria play a vital role in supporting various bodily functions. Melody’s goal is to explore this selectivity of the immune system from the perspective of lymphatics. What makes her research stand out is her willingness to be unconventional. I am especially in awe of how she is drawn to open questions in biology but is also willing to take the extra step of expanding her toolset to include computer modeling as needed. Her integrative, problem-solving approach makes her a tour-de-force in the fields of physiology and immunology.

Besides her tenacity in her research as well as her adventurous spirit that has charted her self-exploration and taken her all around the world in to establish new collaborations, I admire her the most for her honesty. She admits that being a woman in science has not always been easy as her male colleagues have it. Occasional off-the-hand remarks from students and the subtle undermining of her authority by members of the scientific community from time to time are experiences that many female science students like me can relate to. Nonetheless, Melody’s research has always been accompanied by her mentorship to rebalance gender roles and nurture the next generation of scientists. In joining UChicago’s first ever engineering program at the Institute of Molecular Engineering (IME), she has been and remains an active participant in faculty recruitment to develop the bioengineering branch and in shaping the curriculum to cultivate a new generation of molecular engineers. The advent of the molecular engineering program also gave rise to engineering student societies such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), to which Melody acts as an advisor. Additionally, her very own group members adore her, describing her as personable, humble, and genuinely excitable when it comes to research. Interviewing her, I can see that her formula to her success is apparent: be adaptable and not forget one’s roots. Her diverse background, from her pre-med years to her immersion in sociology and finally to hard core research, along with the willingness to experiment has brought her to where she is today. She has remained true to herself to reject the inherent inefficiencies in regarding traditional disciplines, thereby reinventing the way the scientific community considers engineering and biology, and perhaps, herself along with it.