Get to Know: Joanna Swain, BPS Council Member

We recently spoke to Biophysical Society council member Joanna Swain, Bristol-Myers Squibb, about her research, meeting her heroes, and what she loves about living in New England.

Joanna Swain_pictureWhat is your current position & area of research?

I am currently a Senior Principal Scientist in Molecular Discovery Technologies at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where I work to discover transformative medicines for patients whose medical needs are not being met by currently available treatments. My team uses in vitro selections to discover cyclic non-natural peptides that bind to pharmacologically important targets with high specificity, but that are small enough to hold the promise for intracellular delivery and oral bioavailability.

What drew you to a career as a biophysicist?

I was initially drawn to the field of structural biology by the idea of seeing the unseeable, with NMR as my first tool to illuminate protein structure and dynamics. I was captivated by the theoretical models of protein allostery, and wanted to understand allostery at a mechanistic level – how are protein structure & dynamics impacted by ligand binding, and how can information about binding site occupancy be transmitted to distal sites? It has been immensely rewarding to channel my interest in modulating protein activity toward drug discovery in an industry setting.

What do you find unique or special about BPS? What have you enjoyed about serving on Council?

In my early career, BPS was the meeting for finding other people who shared my interests and for learning about new technologies and applications that could be relevant to my own research. Since joining Council, I have been particularly impressed by the commitment of the Society to maintaining diversity at the podium in all of its meetings. Serving on Council has also given me the opportunity to meet many academic peers that I would not otherwise have gotten to know. I have to admit to being a little starstruck in a recent Council meeting sharing breakfast with my heroes Angela Gronenborn and Jane Dyson!


Swain modeling her mother’s 1970s era ski gear. “It’s still going strong! Wooden waxless skis with real mohair strips, and leather boots with no insulation whatsoever! Perfect for New England winters,” she jokes.

Who do you admire and why?

I admire women like Margaret Oakley Dayhoff, who pushed their way past boundaries and first claimed access to male-dominated scientific fields, allowing me to follow my interests and gather opportunities that were never so easily offered to them. I admire local and global citizens, faith leaders, and activists, who build me up with messages of hope for a more just world, and give me both strength and mechanisms to help make it happen.

What do you like to do, aside from science?

Raising a family alongside an active career has not left much time for other pursuits, but now that my children have grown to teenagers, I look forward to a future that involves a whole lot more bicycling and travel, hopefully at the same time!

What is your favorite thing about living in New England?

I love the change of the seasons, and long cold snowy winters. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

What is something BPS members would be surprised to learn about you?

Sometimes the news on NPR’s Morning Edition becomes too much for me on my drive to work, so I start the day with Red Hot Chili Peppers or Ani DiFranco at volume 11 instead.  With enthusiastic tuneless singing.

Do you have a non-science-related recommendation you’d like to share?

This might be a better answer for the last question, but my guilty pleasure is the TV show “Shameless.” I think William H. Macy’s portrayal of deadbeat dad/addict Frank Gallagher is just brilliant. Again, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.


Rolling Cells on the BiophysJ Cover

Mehmet Toner and his group at the BioMEMS Resource Center, Massachusetts General Hospital describe the illustration that appears on the cover of the current issue of Biophysical Journal.

A longstanding interest in our lab is the sorting and separation of complex mixtures of cells, which is important for diagnostics, therapeutics, and basic cell biology. Our general approach has been based on the selective capture of cells using antibody-functionalized surfaces in microfluidic devices. However, interfacial phenomena at low Reynolds numberscan impose “speed limits” on how efficiently cells can be captured.

For the cover image, we worked with medical illustrator Janet Sinn-Hanlon to visualize the two physical mechanisms utilized to circumvent these “speed limits.” Our microfluidic device incorporated a nanoporous, fluid-permeable membrane that allowed us to steer cells directly towards the bottom capture surface. To illustrate this, the background of the image shows a mixture of target cells (red) and other cells (green) entering the microfluidic channel. As these cells travel from the image background towards the viewer, we also emphasized their movement downward on the page. Janet conveyed this idea by progressively increasing the opacity of the cells and sharpening the focus. In addition, streamlines and bubbles were used to suggest a sense of movement in the fluid.

After being transported to the membrane, the cells must also interact specifically with antibodies by “rolling” in order to be captured. Since the flow is primarily directed into the surface, the diminished flow along the surface promoted specific capture of target cells but also limited non-specific adhesion of other cells. This was illustrated by showing only the red cells rolling to a stop as they approached the foreground, while the green cells continued onward. This behavior is reminiscent of the in vivo “homing” of leukocytes and stem cells to porous vasculature during inflammation and injury.

We are thrilled that our image was chosen for the cover of Biophysical Journal, in conjunction with the publication of this article. The fundamental ideas and issues we explored are highly relevant for the development of new microfluidic technologies to diagnose cancer, burns, and trauma, or HIV/AIDS. We hope this cover inspires public interest in the exciting research problems we investigate at the interface of the physical sciences, clinical biomedicine and technological development, which are described further at our website,