Total Immersion Gets Results

A number cruncher embeds in the lab to make better sense of stem-cell data.

September/October 2010

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Total Immersion Gets Results

Elaine Adolfo

Collaboration is so ingrained in the Stanford culture that it sometimes gets taken for granted, no matter how sublime the teamwork. But in typical Stanford fashion, there frequently seems to be a new twist.

Consider the achievements of the School of Medicine researchers led by Helen Blau, director of the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology. In July, the team unveiled a breakthrough method for growing muscle stem cells. Instead of a typical culture dish, they used a synthetic material that mimics the elasticity of muscle tissue, enabling the cells to maintain important properties that typically are lost. And to help prove that the cells were performing as needed, data analyst Klas Magnusson worked with the team to create a computer program, the Baxter Algorithm, that cuts months off the standard analytical process.

Magnusson's involvement was the culmination of three years of cooperation between Blau and Sebastian Thrun, professor of computer science and electrical engineering. Thrun had prompted computer students to tackle the analysis problem, but two years of efforts produced only minor progress. Then it hit Blau that she needed a programmer who was more closely attuned to the everyday work of stem-cell propagation, so she plopped graduate student Magnusson into the lab with the other researchers and announced her solution: "He's going to sit here with you, and you're going to talk to him every day."

Blau is the senior author of the research, published online in Science Express. Postdoctoral researcher Penney Gilbert and graduate student Karen Havenstrite share first author credit.

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