Years ago, Lindsey Barske, PhD, pulled on a pair of tall rubber boots and began a journey that led from her college research experience on the muddy Alaskan tundra to her current postdoctoral studies in the USC Stem Cell lab of Gage Crump, PhD.

Now, she’s arrived at a key turning point, having received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) to help her transition from the postdoctoral to the faculty stage of her career. As the recipient of this nationally competitive award, she will study facial development in zebrafish and mice, in hopes of better understanding human birth defects ranging from cleft palate to prematurely fused skull sutures.

After a childhood spent in a town of 7,000 people in the so-called “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut, Barske pursued a biology degree at Pomona College. For two summers, she studied with an ecological research team working on Alaska’s North Slope. Squishing across the sponge-like ground between tall tussocks of grass in a land of permafrost, caribou and grizzlies, she knew that science was her calling.

“My time in Alaska showed me how fun and creative and dedicated real scientists are,” she said. “I felt that I had found my tribe.”

She then explored different aspects of biology during two technician jobs: first in the cancer epigenetics lab of Peter Jones, PhD, DSc, at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, and then in the developmental biology lab of Alvaro Sagasti, PhD, at UCLA.

“I love embryos,” she said. “The details of their development are so elegant and mindboggling, but completely underappreciated by most people. There seems to be no end to how much they can teach us about our own biology and evolution.”

She went on to obtain her PhD in developmental biology and embryology from Duke University, where she performed research on sex determination and ovary development in mice and turtles in the laboratory of Blanche Capel, PhD. During these years, Barske published five first-author manuscripts and three review articles in top scientific journals, including Nature and Developmental Biology.

In 2012, she accepted a position as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Gage Crump, associate professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at USC.

“Lindsey is an enthusiastic and insightful researcher who has an eagle eye for the embryo,” Crump said. “I feel fortunate to have recruited such a high-caliber postdoc.”

To support her research, she was awarded a T32 Hearing and Communication Neuroscience Postdoctoral Fellowship from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, enabling her to use zebrafish to identify new genes that shape the bones of the middle ear.

In 2013, she received a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the A.P. Giannini Foundation. As a fellow, she has explored how key genes regulate both the timing and spatial arrangement of stem and progenitor cells in the developing face, resulting in publications in journals such as PloS Genetics and Developmental Cell.

Working with Crump and Yang Chai, DDS, PhD, director of the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology at USC, she also co-authored a book chapter about craniofacial research in zebrafish for Current Topics in Developmental Biology.

In 2015, Barske and Michaela Patterson, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar from the USC Stem Cell laboratory of Henry Sucov, won a Doerr Stem Cell Challenge Grant to fund a collaborative project. Together, they used zebrafish to investigate the role of a gene, known as Tnni3k, in heart regeneration.

Her NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) project will focus on how two groups of genes, Fibroblast Growth Factor 20 (Fgf20) and the Nuclear Receptor 2f family, restrict the maturation of skeletal progenitors in the developing facial skeleton in both zebrafish and mice—and the implications for other species, including humans.

“I want to devote my career to an exploration of the developmental mechanisms that sculpt the skull and, when disrupted, lead to craniofacial malformations in human patients,” Barske said. “This K99/R00 award will offer me time and financial support to acquire essential training in mammalian craniofacial biology, a critical component of my envisioned independent research program, before moving on from the very supportive and creative craniofacial and skeletal biology community at USC.”

Crump will mentor and Chai will co-mentor her NIH Pathway to Independence project. Robert Maxson, PhD, and Ruchi Bajpai, PhD, from USC will be members of her advisory committee, and Joanna Wysocka, PhD, from Stanford University will serve as a consultant.

“I am confident that Lindsey will become a future leader in the field of craniofacial development and am committed to helping her make the transition to a tenure-track assistant professorship,” Chai said.

Andy McMahon, PhD, chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, added, “Dr. Barske has made several important contributions to our understanding of the pathways controlling facial development, and the zebrafish model system is particularly well-suited to her genetic approach. We anticipate a bright future as she transitions to a fully independent research career.”

As Barske continues her scientific journey, she is open to pulling on her rubber boots and following the science wherever it takes her.

“There’s nothing so motivating to me as the drive to find answers to questions in development biology — it can be so exciting when you finally figure out something that’s been driving you bonkers for months,” she said. “I’m fortunate in that the rapid pace of zebrafish work means that I get to experience that feeling more often than many researchers, and it pushes me to jump straight to the next question that inevitably arises from the answer to the first. I love what I do, and I want to keep being a scientist as long as I can. It’s a privilege to get to do this.”

— Cristy Lytal