Head of Lab:

Mijo Simunovic, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Chemical Engineering

Department of Genetics & Development

Member, Columbia Stem Cell Initiative

Columbia University

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Bio

Born in a country that doesn't exist, Mijo was raised in the northeast region of Croatia in the oldest European urban settlement, and the site of the murder in Agatha Christie's Orient express. In a story similar to that of many immigrants, Mijo sought education in the West and moved to the United States and to France. There, Mijo obtained a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Physics from the Sorbonne Universities in Paris. In their early scientific work, working first under Gregory Voth in Chicago then under Patricia Bassereau in Paris, Mijo developed computational and biophysical experimental models to study the physical basis of cell membrane reshaping relevant to chemical signaling. It led to the discovery of a new membrane cutting mechanism, friction-driven scission. For their work, Mijo became the 2017 laureate of the AAAS/Science and SciLifeLab Prize in Cell and Molecular Biology, awarded in Stockholm following the Nobel week festivities.

In 2015 Mijo moved to the Rockefeller University in New York City to train with Eric Siggia and Ali Brivanlou as a Junior Fellow of the Simons Society of Fellows. While at Rockefeller, Mijo created one of the first 3D stem cell models of the human embryo and propose a molecular mechanisms of how the human embryo might break symmetry to specify the first body axis. Following on this work, Mijo engineered an integrated model of the post-implantation human embryo capable not only of in vitro attachment but of downstream development as well. These models hold promise in revealing clues into the origins of human development and to advancing our knowledge of reproductive disorders. In January of 2020, Mijo joined Columbia, hoping to employ the ingenuity of chemical engineering approaches to the field of fundamental and applied developmental biology, and in this way to advance paradigms in how we study human development in health and disease.

Training

2016--2019: Junior Fellow of the Simons Society of Fellows at the Rockefeller University

2015--2016: Postdoctoral Associate at the Rockefeller University

2015: PhD in Physics, Sorbonne Universities and Curie Institute, Paris

2015: PhD in Chemistry, The University of Chicago

2010: BS/MS in Chemistry, University of Zagreb

Teaching at Columbia

Fall (2020--present) -- Engineering Thermodynamics

Spring (2020--present) -- Synthetic organs

Spring (2019--present) -- Guest lecturer in developmental biology courses

Notable Awards

2021: NIH New Innovator Award

2021: Burroughs-Wellcome Fund, Next Gen Pregnancy Initiative

2020: Columbia Stem Cell Initiative Pilot Award

2020: Columbia Digestive & Liver Diseases Research Center Seed Fund

2017: AAAS/Science and SciLifeLab Prize in Cell and Molecular Biology

2016: Prix de la Chancellerie

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Alice Reis, Ph.D.

Associate Research Scientist

Alice is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she earned her PhD in Morphological Sciences and became fascinated by developmental biology and its mysteries. As a postdoctoral fellow at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, she studied the role of Wnt signaling in Xenopus laevis embryogenesis. Now, as a research associate, she pursues her interests into early human embryonic development and its implications in reproductive health. She uses stem cells to build tissue culture models of the human embryo, so to study the basic biology of human embryo implantation, and the signaling rules underlying embryonic axis formation in vitro.

Serin Seckin, M.D.

Clinical Fellow in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology

Serin is a postdoctoral clinical fellow interested in the mechanisms behind embryo implantation success and failure within the endometrium. She graduated with Honors from Brown University, where she received her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She received her medical degree from Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and completed her OB/GYN residency at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai-West/St. Luke’s. Her clinical and research interests also include ovarian aging, effects of platelet-rich plasma, and the impact of endometriosis on fertility.

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Carlotta Ronda, Ph.D.

Junior Fellow Alumna of the Simons Society of Fellows

Associate Research Scientist in Systems Biology (with Harris Wang)

Carlotta grew up in the Veneto region of Italy, where she graduated with a degree in molecular biology from Padua University. She pursued her PhD at the Technical University of Denmark, where she developed new CRISPR tech and holds one of the earliest CRISPR patents on editing eukaryotic cells. After completing her PhD in synthetic biology in 2015, she moved to Columbia as a Simons Junior Fellow in the Harris Wang lab to employ CRISPR in gut microbiome engineering applied to in vivo therapeutics. In the Simunovic lab, Carlotta runs multiple projects developing new genomics tech applied to stem cell engineering and human organoids that can be used to dissect the detailed cell fate choices in human organogenesis.

Miaoci Zhang

PhD student in Chemical Engineering

Miaoci is from Zhengzhou, China and graduated from Penn State University with a degree in Chemical Engineering. There, she worked in Dr. Manish Kumar’s lab to develop biomimetic membranes and found her passion in applying chemical engineering principles to biological systems. She joined the Simunovic lab in 2019 and studies the mechanism of human embryogenesis with stem cell based organoid models. She is  interested in understanding the process of embryo implantation and early pregnancy failures and hopes to contribute to the field of women’s reproductive medicine with her research.

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Corey Hansen

NSF graduate fellow in Genetics and Development

Corey is originally from San Antonio, Texas and served in the Marine Corps as a signals intelligence analyst. He then worked on an organic farm in Hawaii before earning a BS in Biochemistry at Hawaii Pacific University. He made his way to New York City and worked as a research assistant in Dr. Angela Christiano’s lab. His primary project was on creating autologous gene-corrected iPSC-derived skin tissue organoids as a potential treatment for recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (RDEB) patients. Following this, he started his PhD at Columbia and joined the Simunovic Lab in 2020. He is now studying the signaling hierarchy involved in early human development by combining traditional cell culture with engineering techniques such as micropatterns and microfluidics. When he’s not looking down a microscope, Corey enjoys riding motorcycles, hanging out with his dog Nigel, and exploring the outdoors.

Jessica Zhou

NSF graduate fellow in Chemical Engineering

Jessica Zhou is from Michigan and graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a degree in Polymer Science. At CWRU she conducted research under Dr. Gary Wnek and pursued various internships relating to materials science and biology and biomaterials. She joined the Simunovic lab in 2020 and is engineering a biomietic platform to reconstitute human intestinal development. She is interested in understanding how the intestinal microenvironment impacts gut health and finding ways to translate it into personalized medicine. Her side projects include perfecting her mouth pipetting technique, hanging out with Corey's dog Nigel, and eating her way through NYC like a sentient gut organoid.

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Wallis Boyd

PhD student in Chemical Engineering

Born and raised in central Connecticut, Wallis comes from the University of Connecticut where he worked in Prof. Leslie Shor’s lab on agricultural biotechnology. He joined the Simunovic lab in 2020 and now develops technologies for controlled stem cell differentiation through synthetic biology. He is interested in studying the genetic mechanisms of human development until his inevitable transformation into a mad scientist with dreams of killing Spiderman.

Baltasar Andrés Lopez Sardi

PhD student in Chemical Engineering and Fellow

Baltasar grew up in Caracas, Venezuela and moved to Florida where he ended up getting his bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Florida. At UF, he studied potential methods to treat Type 1 Diabetes using oxygen generating biomaterials and islet cells under Dr. Cherie Stabler. After graduation, Baltasar moved to New York City to pursue a Chemical Engineering PhD. He joined the Simunovic Lab in 2021 and is interested in unraveling the mysteries surrounding organogenesis through tissue engineering and biomaterial research. Outside the lab, Baltasar enjoys exploring NYC, traveling, and trying to obtain tickets to a Bad Bunny concert.

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Walter Piszker

PhD student in Chemical Engineering

Walter is from Los Angeles, California and received his degree in Chemical Engineering from U.C. Berkeley in 2019. He researched nanoscale NMR spectroscopy under Dr. Alex Pines and Dr. Ashok Ajoy before pivoting to developing mathematical models of immune response and other physiological processes under Dr. George Brooks and Steven Garan. Following a brief stint as a patent agent for medical devices and biotechnology, Walter moved to New York and joined the Simunovic Lab in 2021. He applies protein and tissue engineering to understand the molecular signaling, genetic, and epigenetic regulation in cell fate specification and tissue patterning.

Sophia Liu

Research Assistant

Sophia is from Waunakee, Wisconsin. She joined the Simunovic Lab during the fall of 2020 as an undergraduate student in Chemical Engineering to developing new approaches using CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing of pluripotent stem cells to modeling human organogenesis. After graduating, she joined the lab full time as a research assistant and continues her research on the basic mechanisms of human organ development, while applying for medical schools. Besides studying and doing research, she is involved in Big Sibs, Make A Wish, Columbia Women in Medicine, and Columbia Women’s Water Polo Team. She also enjoys exploring Central Park, attempting the New York Times Crossword, and trying new restaurants in the city!

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