Dr. Claire Higgins is a Reader (faculty) in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London. She is also President of the European Hair Research Society and Vice President of the Institute of Trichologists, a professional association for researchers who study the hair and scalp. Claire received her B.Sc. in natural sciences and her PhD in skin developmental biology from Durham University in England. Afterwards, she conducted postdoctoral research at Columbia University. She worked as an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University before joining the faculty and starting her laboratory at Imperial College London in 2014. In our interview, she shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:48)
Making pottery has been one of Claire’s favorite pastimes since she took her first classes as a postdoc. She enjoys making items like bowls, vases, and lamp bases on her pottery wheel in her studio during her free time.
The Scientific Side (4:42)
Claire teaches and conducts research in the areas of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. She uses skin and hair follicles as models to better understand how tissues respond to injury, heal wounds, and repair after disease.
A Dose of Motivation (5:35)
Dance like no one’s watching.
It’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:31)
Claire loves asking questions and finding the answers. In her earliest biology classes, she was constantly stopping the teacher to ask questions during their lectures. Fortunately, Claire had a great teacher who took the time to answer her questions and look up the answers to some of the more difficult ones. When she enrolled in college, Claire took courses in chemistry, biology, and archaeology. She later narrowed her focus to chemistry and biology and decided to pursue a PhD. Claire only applied to one PhD position after hearing the investigator give inspiring lectures at her college. She was accepted and learned a lot during her graduate training. At that time, she knew she wanted to study skin and hair development, and her PhD advisor suggested she apply for a postdoc position in a particular lab that specialized in that area. Claire applied only for this one postdoc opportunity, and she was thrilled to get the position. At each step of her scientific journey, Claire made decisions based on what she enjoyed doing most, and this has served her well. She ultimately decided to apply for faculty positions, and after an initial round of rejections, she got an interview and an offer to launch her own independent research career.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (19:16)
During her PhD, Claire did a rotation in another lab for about six months. While she was there, she tried to continue making the organoids she had been working on in her PhD lab, but she just couldn’t get the organoids to form. After painstaking, systematic troubleshooting, Claire discovered that the antibiotics used in the cell culture in her rotation lab were different, and this difference prevented the formation of organoids. Once she removed the one antibiotic from the culture media, the organoids grew beautifully. A few months later when she was back in her PhD lab, she struggled to get the antibodies to work in her antibody staining. This was another major struggle where Claire just couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t repeat this technically simple experiment. After more troubleshooting, Claire was able to determine that the source of the issue was the water used in her buffer solution. This situation delayed her by about four months, but it was an important learning experience.
A Shining Success! (23:12)
Over the past year, Claire’s lab had two big papers published that involved wonderful collaborations. In the first project, Claire worked with a hair transplant surgeon who transplants hair follicles into skin to camouflage scars. Through biopsies at different time points after transplantation, they discovered that the presence of the hair follicles in the scar tissue facilitated scar remodeling. In the second project, Claire worked with a neurochemist in her department to study cells in the hair follicles that interact with surrounding sensory neurons. These neurons wrap around the hair follicles, and they wanted to understand the signals being sent between these cells. The neurochemist had developed a technique to measure neurotransmitters in real time, and they adapted this technique to analyze their cells of interest in culture. They discovered that the cells in hair follicles released the mood-regulating neurotransmitters histamine and serotonin in response to simulation, and this was different from similar cells in the skin, which only released histamine. These were two interesting stories that they were able to uncover through successful interdisciplinary collaborations.
Book Recommendations (29:54)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Most Treasured Travel (31:09)
Claire traveled to Kyoto, Japan, for a conference when she was a relatively new faculty member. This conference felt very different because she was now an independent investigator, and her lab was starting to generate new findings. At the conference one of the PhD students in her lab gave a presentation, and it was exciting to see research from the lab being shared with others in the field. Claire didn’t usually spend extra time before or after conferences to explore the cities she visited, but when she was flying home from Kyoto, it was the first time that she wished she had stayed longer. Kyoto was an amazing city, rich with culture, beautiful temples, arts and crafts, and remarkable food. She had an opportunity to return to Kyoto later, and for this trip, she brought her family, and they added a week of vacation after the conference. Their day trip to Nara was particularly memorable. Wild deer roam the grounds of Nara Park, and they bow at tourists to receive biscuits. This was a fun experience for her four year old and 18 month old children.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (34:32)
In the lab where Claire was a postdoc, there was a technician who was always trying to get the group to relax and have fun. He started a tradition where every Friday, everyone would stop for a “happy five minutes” (like a happy hour, but shorter). There were about 20 people in the lab at the time, and everyone would gather in the conference room to chat and sip rice wine together after a long week. Though it usually lasted more than just five minutes, it was a really nice way to bring people together and get to know each other.
Advice For Us All (38:59)
Think outside the box, and don’t restrict yourself. It is really important to be creative, both within and outside of science, to identify new questions and come up with solutions. Also, in life, try to be more like the character Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh than the character Eeyore. In science, you will continuously be writing grants and papers and facing rejections. You have to come at these challenges with enthusiasm and bounce back quickly after failures.
Claire is a biologist by training, and she moved into bioengineering when she started her faculty position. The main focus of her research is to understand mechanisms of tissue development and regeneration, both in normal conditions, and in response to disease or injury. Claire uses the hair follicle as a model, as it is an accessible and elegant system to study organ regeneration. She prefers using a top down, bioengineering problem-solving approach to research and says it feels more natural to her. Perhaps this is in part due to her childhood – her dad was a civil engineer and Claire grew up in Cyprus, Bahrain, Somalia, and Ethiopia before moving to the UK to go to boarding school. She spent six years in Durham in England for her undergraduate and postgraduate studies, which at the time was the longest she had stayed in one place. This was followed by six years in New York City for a postdoc. This timeframe has been topped now as she has been working in London (UK) for ten years. Despite this, she has never lived in London and instead lives in a large town on the river Thames (about an hour to the west of London) with her husband, two kids, and a very excitable Springer Spaniel named Onions. Here, she balances her time between her hobbies, such as pottery, and her family and friends.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by New England Biolabs, Inc.