After her breakthrough discovery that zebrafish can be used to study arthritis, Joanna Smeeton, PhD, postdoctoral scholar – research associate at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, has received a prestigious National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Award. Known as the K99/R00, the award will help her transition from the postdoctoral to the faculty stage of her career. Smeeton recently spoke with HSC News about her work and life outside the lab.


Tell me about your NIH fellowship project.

My project uses the highly regenerative zebrafish to investigate the role of stem cells in rebuilding cartilage and ligaments of joints after injury. Human joints have a poor intrinsic healing capacity, but I recently found that zebrafish are able to robustly regenerate ligaments and cartilage following surgery-induced damage. I aim to uncover the mechanisms by which zebrafish can regenerate their joints after injury and characterize the joint-resident stem cells contributing to the effective repair. The ultimate goal is to harness the insights from my work with zebrafish joint stem cells to awaken similar cells in human joints to improve repair for injuries and degenerative joint diseases like osteoarthritis.


What inspired you to become a stem cell researcher?

I’ve been fascinated by the natural world for as long as I can remember. From my days as an anatomy student at McGill University, I was struck by the beautiful and intricate patterns in the organs of the human body, and I wondered how such diverse and specialized forms could be created from stem cells all containing the same DNA. I feel very privileged that I get to explore and work towards expanding our understanding of biology every day.


How do you spend your free time?

Most of my free time is spent chasing after my 10-month old twins, Edie and Isaac. When we do get out of the house, my husband and I love to hike and explore the mountains, deserts and all that the U.S. National Park system has to offer … now with the addition of 20-pound kids strapped to our chests in baby carriers!


What do you like most about living and working where you do?

Southern California is an amazing place to live. From the weather and incredible outdoor scenery to the world-class art galleries and museums, L.A. has a richness of resources like no other city. I have lived here for a few years now, but I am still discovering new restaurants and hiking trails around L.A. On the scientific side, the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC is a fantastic place to work. I love that our friendly and diverse community of faculty, postdocs and students are always open to help me try out new techniques and troubleshoot experiments as I establish my regeneration project. The collegial atmosphere makes coming to work a joy.


What do you miss most about your native country of Canada?

I miss my family and friends the most. It’s difficult when we’re spread across the globe, but I’m happy that Skype exists so that we can keep in touch regularly.


How did your previous postdoctoral fellowships — supported by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and The Broad Foundation — contribute to your success?

The generous support from these two previous fellowships gave me the scientific freedom to explore joint biology and regeneration in zebrafish. I had never worked with fish or joints before my postdoc but with the financial support from fellowships and the incredible guidance of my mentor, Gage Crump, I jumped headfirst into studying arthritis and fish joints. In the past three years, we established the first genetic model of arthritis in fish, which we published in the journal eLife in 2016, and created the new joint repair model that I am currently investigating.


What is the goal of your future career as a stem cell scientist?

After my postdoc, I hope to start my own independent lab where I can continue to explore joint biology and regeneration. The ultimate goal of my work is to uncover the mechanisms driving joint repair in fish. How is it that fish can restore their ligaments and cartilage so well after injury? Hopefully, we can translate these lessons into new and effective cell-based clinical treatments for patients.

— Cristy Lytal