Matthew Paszek is living his dream. As a “naive” undergrad, he attended Cornell, studying for his bachelor’s in chemical engineering. Fast forward eleven years, and here he is, an assistant professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, creating an interdisciplinary team to study how physical and biochemical components of the cellular surface can influence cell behavior and health. “My main interest now is in understanding life at the nanoscale—how the organization of biological systems and molecules impacts the function of cells,” says Paszek.
Paszek didn’t think he was going to end up doing this. In fact, “I first came into school planning to major in economics, go into finance,” he says. Nonetheless, he became hooked on biology and chemical engineering, opting to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania with former Cornellian Daniel Hammer, where Paszek studied the mechanobiology of cancer. After this, Paszek followed up with a post-doc at the University of California, San Francisco where he “fully immersed himself” in cell biology, developing new methods for nanoscale cellular imaging, and focusing on the carbohydrates (sugars) and protein-carbohydrate compounds that reside on cell surfaces—known as the glycocalyx. Through his post-doctoral work, Paszek found that the sugar coating on cells is anything but sweet in cancer, and can play a major role in the development of aggressive, lethal cancers.
“Fifty percent of the cell surface is made up of carbohydrates,” says Paszek, “And yet we don’t fully understand their role.” His current work focuses on what exactly these molecules are up to, examining how they potentially oversee the transfer and flow of environmental information into the cell.
While this research not only uncovers basic insights to cellular biology, it also could have profound applications in therapeutics. Paszek explains that previous research had established that cancer cells showed ‘radically different’ glycosylation patterns on their surfaces. “We don’t know what it means, exactly, or what role metabolism and diet play in the presentation of these sugars,” he says, but it’s clear that “there are opportunities to engineer these sugars on the cell or control how they function physically,” says Paszek. This idea is fairly unusual in his field. “People usually take a purely biochemical perspective on cell signaling,” he says. “We take a more global perspective. We believe that these glycan molecules can influence the spatial arrangement of signaling molecules through physical as well as biochemical mechanism.” Cell signaling is a key aspect to consider regarding cancer biology—cancerous cells propagate signals differently than healthy cells—Paszek believes the glycocalyx plays an important role.
An additional arm of his research focuses on utilizing nanoscale imaging technologies. Current technologies are not ideal for capturing how cellular compounds behave in real-time in living cell systems. Having already developed state-of-the-art microscopes during his post-doc in San Francisco and at the Kavli Institute at Cornell, Paszek now wants to create an instrument that can more accurately measure some of the faster movements within living cells—specifically at resolution 100 times better than current microscope technology.
He’s already developed plans for the tool—“so now we just have to finish building it,” he says. “Once we do, it’s going to help us peer into the inner workings of cells at the nanoscale level.” In order to build, it, Paszek needs to bring in engineers and scientists of all disciplines, from engineering and physics, to cell biology. He’s confident that he’s at the right place to do it. “This place has expertise across multiple fields—physics, chemistry, biology—not a lot of places have that combination. Plus, its collaborative and interdisciplinary environment makes Cornell the perfect place for the work I want to do,” he says.