Meet the Researcher
University of Pittsburgh
What is your research focus? I am a graduate student in Dr. Beth Roman’s lab and we study the development of arteriovenous malformations (AVMs), direct connections between arteries and veins that occur in patients with hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT). Mutations in the endothelial cell receptor ALK1 cause AVMs, and my research focuses on understanding the unique and overlapping roles of ALK1 ligands, BMP9 and BMP10. Though they both circulate in blood, using zebrafish mutant models we have found that BMP10 is the only required ALK1 ligand.
What current project are you excited about? Currently, I am excited to look into why BMP9 and BMP10 are not redundant ligands. I am testing whether different molecular forms of BMP9 and BMP10 can equally activate ALK1 in zebrafish and cultured endothelial cells.
What do you like about working with zebrafish? What don’t you like about it? I like working with zebrafish because we can learn so much from live imaging transgenic animals. This has been useful in my work because I could image the heart and blood vessels at 2 days and then image the same fish again at 5 days. I can’t say there is anything I dislike about working with the fish, though it can be challenging at times to find antibodies or other reagents that work well in the fish, like they do in mice or other models.
Getting to know you better
Where were you born/where did you grow up? I grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
When did you realize you wanted to have a career as a scientist?/What made you realize you wanted to have a career as a scientist? I have always enjoyed science, but I knew I wanted to become a scientist during my first research experience as an undergrad in Dr. Nancy Kaufmann’s lab.
Where did you do your undergraduate studies? Did you do research with anyone? I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh where I received my B.S. in Biological Sciences. During my time as an undergrad, I worked in the lab of Dr. Nancy Kaufmann where we studied aquaporins. Using cell culture, I studied whether a specific mutation in aquaporin-2 disrupted proper intracellular trafficking.
Where did you do graduate studies and with whom? What did you work on? I am currently doing my graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh in the department of Human Genetics with Dr. Beth Roman. In the Roman lab we study arteriovenous malformations, which occur in the genetic condition hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia.
What other jobs have you had? Prior to joining the Roman lab as a graduate student, I worked in the lab as a technician.
Science and Careers
Share a turning point or defining moment in your science/career. A turning point for me was when I gave my first oral presentation at the International Zebrafish Conference in 2018. It was exciting for me to share my research and to hear that other people were interested in my work as well. I was nervous because this was my first talk at an international meeting, but it gave me confidence for future meetings.
If you could be present for any "Eureka" moment in history (i.e. the moment some scientific discovery was made), which moment would you choose and why? I would have liked to have been present for the discovery of GFP from A. victoria and the later studies to show that it could be used as tool in cell biology. GFP and other fluorescent proteins are used every day in so many labs, it would have been exciting to be present for the discovery, especially now knowing how important it would be to future scientists.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in science/research? To anyone considering a career in science, I would say science can be challenging but never give up and stay curious.
Where do you think the next scientific breakthroughs are going to occur? I believe the next scientific breakthroughs will occur in the area of epigenetics.
What is the most challenging part about your science or obtaining your career goals? The most challenging part of my career has been writing. I have been working in research for a while so it is not difficult for me to pick up new techniques, but writing research papers and grants has been a new experience. I have been able to improve my writing with practice, but in the beginning it was definitely a challenge.
Outside of work
What do you enjoy doing outside of work/lab? Prior to COVID-19, I really enjoyed travelling with my friends and family and I look forward to travelling again in the future.
What are you reading right now (not including research papers)? I am currently reading “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King.
Favorite place you have lived or visited? My favorite trip was to Italy when I was in high school.
What alternative career would you like to attempt if you could? If I could, I would like to be an entrepreneur.
Provide a quote that speaks to you. “Do not wait; the time will never be “just right.” Start where you stand.” - Napoleon Hill
Friedrich Miescher Lab of the Max Planck Society
What is your research focus? In order to eventually create a functional adult, the embryo must activate different genes in specific embryonic cells. I’m interested in how embryos generate these diverse gene expression patterns. For me this breaks down into three questions:
- How do signaling molecules get to their target cells?
- How do cells convert their interactions with signaling molecules into gene expression?
- How is signaling from multiple pathways interpreted simultaneously?
What current project are you excited about? I’ve been using molecular optogenetics to manipulate signaling pathways in zebrafish embryos with light. It’s worked surprisingly well and I’m very excited to see where we can take this.
What do you like about working with zebrafish? What don’t you like about it? I like that they’re a microscopy-friendly vertebrate embryo model. They’re not the most budget-friendly though, especially if you’re building a new fish facility
Getting to know you better
Where were you born/where did you grow up? I grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Lots of sagebrush and ATVs. One thing we would do for fun is stand on the highway overpass and pump our fists so the semi truck drivers would honk.
When did you realize you wanted to have a career as a scientist? /What made you realize you wanted to have a career as a scientist? I don’t really have a Disney princess origin story. It was more of a gradual gelling of proclivities, together with the realization that scientists are “my people”. That, and doing undergraduate research.
The biological observation that ended up grabbing my attention is the fact that we start life as a single cell that gives rise to trillions of cells that somehow form functional humans. I find this a little unsettling, and I think figuring out how it works is important on an almost existential level.
Where did you do your undergraduate studies? Did you do research with anyone? I was an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. I had the good fortune to join David Fay’s lab, where I used C. elegans to study germline sex determination. I had no idea what a career in science could look like before that experience.
Where did you do graduate studies and with whom? What did you work on? I did my PhD at Harvard with Alex Schier, where I studied the role of the Nodal signaling pathway in zebrafish germ layer patterning. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment for my PhD work.
Where did you do postdoctoral studies and with whom? What did you work on? I kept moving east! I’m currently a postdoc in Patrick Müller’s group at the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory of the Max Planck Society in Tübingen, Germany. I’ve recently been using molecular optogenetics to understand how signaling is interpreted in early zebrafish embryos.
What other jobs have you had? I was a dish washer at a Mexican restaurant in high school. I was pretty good at it so they promoted me to prep cook. I was pretty bad at that so I got demoted back to dish washer. I still don’t cook.
Science and Careers
Share a turning point or defining moment in your science/career. I remember Alex swirling a dish of embryos so we could look at them under a microscope when I first joined his lab. Maybe not the most cinematic or unique image, but it has stuck with me because I felt that there was so much potential in that moment (and there was!).
If you could be present for any "Eureka" moment in history (i.e. the moment some scientific discovery was made), which moment would you choose and why? I would want to be sitting next to Martin Chalfie at the fluorescence scope when he saw for the first time C. elegans expressing GFP. To think you can put DNA encoding a protein from jellyfish into a totally different organism, and it works—and in such a visually striking way—very cool. This paved the way for much of what I currently do. As a microscopist I use fluorescent proteins all the time. I’ve also been creating optogenetic tools by generating chimeric proteins made of domains from different species (including plants and algae) and expressing them in zebrafish.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in science/research? You will make mistakes and fail. Learn from it, build systems to avoid it, but know that it’s part of the process. When I was a kid I crashed my ATV, and the next day my dad arranged for us to go riding together even though I was freaked out. That built my confidence back up, and I was a more competent rider after that because I understood better how the machine (and centrifugal force) worked. Think of mistakes as “learning how the machine works”, and do what you can to surround yourself with people who will encourage you to keep trying.
Where do you think the next scientific breakthroughs are going to occur? I think there are evolutionary limits on the unaugmented human brain in terms of what it can understand about reality. My guess is that deep learning approaches will open up directions that we literally couldn’t have imagined.
What is the most challenging part about your science or obtaining your career goals? I think there’s a balance that’s hard to maintain: On the one hand you have to be optimistic and full enough of your own Kool-Aid to believe that what you want to do will work. At the same time, you need to be constantly critiquing your research and receptive to criticism. If you veer too far in either direction, things stall.
Outside of work
What do you enjoy doing outside of work/lab? I’m a big podcast fan.
What are you reading right now (not including research papers)? I’m on a psychedelic kick. I just read “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan (recommended), and I’m currently reading “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass (??).
My favorite recent book is “Exhalation: Stories” by Ted Chiang—really elegant short stories about fictional worlds that are just as implausible as our own.
Name a favorite song or musical piece. Stupid Love by Lady Gaga.
Favorite place you have lived or visited? Living in Boston was pretty great.
What alternative career would you like to attempt if you could? Fiction writer.
Provide a quote that speaks to you. Lewis Wolpert’s ideas motivated a lot of fundamental research in the field of developmental biology. Since he recently passed away, I would like to pay tribute by citing his classic quote: "It is not birth, marriage, or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life."