Meet the Scientist: Emma Rawlins

Dr Emma Rawlins is a group leader at the Gurdon Institute, in Cambridge, UK. Despite the challenges of a locked-down lab during the COVID-19 pandemic, she made time to speak online to Rebecca Wagner about her career and her current work on understanding lung development with the long-term aim to repair damaged lungs.

Emma Rawlins
Emma Rawlins

The lung is a highly structured organ that consists of several different cell types produced during development by a specific lung progenitor population, which is then also important for responding to injury in the adult. Emma's research group is particularly interested in understanding how the production of different cell types is determined in different settings, including development, homeostasis and in response to injury. The overarching aim of the group is to provide insights that allow directed regeneration of damaged lung tissue to be a clinical possibility. In order to answer these fascinating research questions, the group uses a mixture of organoid culture, mouse genetics and mathematical modelling techniques.


Could you give a brief background of your career?

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge. It is here that I discovered a passion for genetics and this led me to pursue a PhD in Drosophila genetics with Andrew Jarman. My PhD focused on understanding the development of the peripheral nervous system in drosophila. This was a great experience and I had a lot of freedom to pursue my own ideas. After my PhD I wanted to look at development in a mammalian system. I went to join the group of Brigid Hogan at Duke University, in the USA. Again, I was able to focus on my own interests in developmental biology, although this time it had to be in the lung. I learnt a lot about mouse genetics and at the end of my post-doctoral studies my supervisor encouraged me to apply for a faculty position. This led me to the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, where I continue to work on the lung.


What drew you to science?

I enjoyed all the subjects at school but eventually settled on sciences and, in particular, I was drawn to the logic of chemistry. University-level chemistry teaching was quite different and I found the biology lectures fascinating. In particular, the lectures on developmental biology, where John Gurdon was one of the lecturers, were really inspiring. I chose to focus on genetics in the final year of my degree, in part due to the breadth that this still provided.


How did you get into stem cell biology?

I would say that stem cell biology is a subset of developmental biology, and the great mentors I had encouraged me to pursue my interests within this field.

I was most interested in adult homeostasis initially and the clonal behavior of individual stem cells. However, due to the long-term nature of these experiments, I decided to look at development of the lung in parallel. These initial experiments lead to some really interesting observations, but the tools to study precise mechanisms of what was going on were lacking. This is when I began to think about in vitro systems and developed lung organoids from human embryonic tissue.


What are you currently working on?

The main focus of my research group at the moment is using lung organoids to study the development of the human lung. These systems lend themselves nicely to genetic manipulation so that the contributions of individual factors can be studied in depth.

I am also very interested in studying how the lungs regenerate after injury, and exactly how the lung progenitors are activated and produce the cells that are lost, or why they are unable to do this after severe injury. Modelling injury remains a challenge, but I am positive that we are moving in the right direction in establishing better models in order to answer questions about damage responses and normal tissue maintenance.


What is the main goal of your science?

The overarching aim of my research is to be able to regenerate damaged lung tissue. I am addressing this by aiming to contribute to our understanding of stem cell activity in homeostasis and in response to injury in adults and during lung development. 

Hopefully this will mean that it will be possible to revert damage in the lungs to improve people’s quality of life.


Do you think lung organoids could be useful for drug development?

I think this depends on the question that is being addressed. For studying the airways, more traditional 2D culture methods are often much more efficient, and people are harnessing this method to study infection of the airways and conditions that affect the airways, such as cystic fibrosis.

There are some cell types that can’t be grown in a 2D culture, and then organoids become extremely useful for studying these cell types, including for disease modelling and for scaling up cell production for drug screening.


We are currently in the midst of a pandemic where science is being called upon in an acute way, could lung organoids be a useful model for studying respiratory viruses like COVID-19?

I am a member of the Human Lung Cell Atlas consortium where several research groups have contributed data in order to gain a better understanding of the tissue as a whole, in particular which lung cells express the COVID-19 receptors. I think these things bring together a huge amount of information, which enables science to progress faster as information is shared. As I mentioned there are some cell types which can’t be grown in 2D culture, and if these are believed to contribute to a disease, then organoids become very useful. Organoids are defined as a mixture of cell types growing together in an organised fashion, and this also means cell interactions can be studied better. This also allows the interactions of the immune system and the cells of a tissue to be studied in a more meaningful way.


What advice would you give early career researchers?

Finding a mentor who both supports you and is honest with you when things are not going to plan is key. This figure should also encourage you to reach for those next steps in your career. However, it is also important to mention that this is a very personal relationship, and so there is no one size fits all.  


Do you have any specific advice for women?

Seek out positive role models and an environment which allows you to make things work, even if this is not always straightforward. I believe striving for equality and being open about the struggles that come with this is important. I also like to remain positive and acknowledge all the progress that has already been made.


What qualities make a great researcher?

It is not an easy career, and so having passion for the work is vital. With this it is also important to nurture the ability to persevere so that you do not give up when something doesn’t work, but to carry on thinking about why that was the case and then try, try, try again. Communicating effectively is also hugely important, and this encompasses both standing up and giving a talk and forming closer relationships with colleagues in order to form collaborations. Finally, having confidence in yourself and the work that you are doing is also important.


More about Emma Rawlins work:

Emma Rawlins - The Gurdon Institute


More information from EuroStemCell:

3D organoids and the study of lung disease

Using organoids to understand COVID-19

Fact sheet: Lung stem cells in health, repair and disease

Fact sheet: Organoids: What are they and how do they help regenerative medicine?

Fact sheet: Regeneration: what does it mean and how does it work?