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Hire Purpose: Scott Fraser

Catching the Hatching

Founder of the Biological Imaging Center at Caltech, Scott Fraser joined the faculty in Summer 2012. The USC Provost Professor of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Engineering, and director of science initiatives has a joint appointment at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Illustration by Bill Sanderson.
Founder of the Biological Imaging Center at Caltech, Scott Fraser joined the faculty in Summer 2012. The USC Provost Professor of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Engineering, and director of science initiatives has a joint appointment at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Illustration by Bill Sanderson.

Tiny brown eggs dotted with what looks like speckles of liquid dark chocolate rest atop nests, while fuzzy, baby quails chirp and waddle inside the glass incubator.

Hanging above a laser-scanning confocal microscope, a poster quotes developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert: “It is not birth, marriage, or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life.”

At a microscope inside his laboratory, Scott Fraser concentrates on the moving image of a red, veiny quail heart beating inside an egg: thump thump-thump thump. The image fills a large computer screen.

Fraser’s lab develops the technologies that allow his team to image biological structure and molecular signals. He and his researchers use those technologies to better understand complex events like embryonic development or the changes that take place as diseases progress.

Fraser has expanded into the biomedical realm, where he works toward crucial biomedical devices and treatments in areas from eye disease to cancer.

“We build new microscopes that let us watch as a heart beats and takes shape from a simple tube to a simple double-chambered heart to something that has the four chambers that we’re more used to,” Fraser said, pointing to the beating quail heart image on the screen.

Observing in real time is a critical first step to understanding how heart defects evolve, he noted.

“When people write about the way embryos develop they often compare it to a ballet dance that’s been choreographed.”

But Fraser disagrees.

“It’s more like watching a football game. The rules are the same but whether or not somebody gets a penalty or that one touchdown is different in each game. We’re watching the game from beginning to end, so we are able to see how the whole development progresses.”