How Cell Biologists Work: Derek Applewhite on introducing undergraduates to the wonders of microscopy

Derek Applewhite is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. Applewhite’s lab studies the mechanisms of cytoskeleton regulation that are critical for cell shape change and cell movements. The Applewhite lab uses Drosophila (fruit fly) and Drosophila cells (S2 cells and other migratory cell lines) as a model system to better understand how different parts of the cytoskeleton are regulated, how they interact with one another, and how they are deployed in vivo. The lab uses reverse genetics, exogenous protein expression, and pharmacological inhibitors to manipulate cytoskeletal regulators with the goal of understanding how cell shape changes impact the development of complex tissues. Reed College is a liberal arts university and a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). In his time at Reed (2014-present), Applewhite has mentored six students who have completed undergraduate theses, with topics ranging from cellular mechanotransduction to the contributions of cytoskeletal cross-linking proteins to nuclear positioning.

Let’s start with your Name: Derek A. Applewhite

Location: Reed College, Portland, Oregon

Position: Assistant Professor of Biology

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone 7

Current Computer(s): iMac (27-inch)

Derek Applewhite, Assistant Professor, Reed College

What kind of research do you do? We study how the cytoskeleton (mainly actin, microtubules, and nonmuscle myosin II) is regulated and how these dynamics affect the way cells move and change shape. We use Drosophila as our model organism and rely heavily on Drosophila-derived tissue culture cells of all types.

Why did you choose to use Drosophila to study the cytoskeleton?

My decision to use flies morphed into more of a conscious one once I realized how easy fly cells are to use. For undergraduate students who have never done tissue culture work before, fly cells are ideal because they are maintained at room temperature, do not require CO2 to buffer the media, and can be used in all types of microscopy. Using fruit flies themselves was a natural progression from using their cells and it allows me to address questions using classic genetics. Along with S2 cells we use a number of migratory fly cell lines derived from various imaginal discs to address questions regarding cell migration. Furthermore, my lab also uses primary neuroblasts, which are neuronal stem cells that we isolate from the brains of third instar larvae. I would say that the fly cell toolbox is pretty rich and we capitalize on this variety as best as we can.

What is it like to run a research program at a PUI?

My lab is made up of several undergrads (at one point last semester, eight), and I have recently hired a technician. One of the perks of this job is that I too am in the lab doing experiments and getting my hands wet. I am still very much learning how to balance my teaching and research. I teach a three-two, which means three classes in one semester and two in the following semester. Progress can be really slow at times, but what I have found is that if you break your research into smaller pieces you can distribute the weight of an entire research project to several undergraduates.

Reed also requires every senior to complete a thesis. This is a year-long research centered project, and so these students really can drive your research forward. The entire curriculum is scaffolded in a way so that by the time students are seniors they have the tools and the critical thinking skills to function at the level of graduate students, it is really quite remarkable. Reed also has a pretty long winter break and during the summer I take on students, so the productivity can really increase during these times of the year. The biggest challenge to all of this is the rapid turnover of students. I have a few students who have been working in my lab for two years or so, but often students join the lab and only work for a year. Having a good system in place for keeping track of data, reagents, and results from student-to-student is really critical.

A still from an image series of a neuron isolated from the brain a third instar larva expressing EB1-GFP and mCherry-tubulin. The image series was captured by one of Applewhite’s students using the lab’s TIRF microscope.

How did you start your research program in a PUI setting? How is it different from an R1 position?
Honestly, I was not sold on working at a PUI until I visited.  What I saw was an eager student population with a strong desire to learn and students and professors working side-by-side in a partnership. It dawned on me that I really could make a difference in the larger scientific community through mentoring future scientists. I also feel strongly that if we are going to recruit and retain scientists of color, it is really important that they can see themselves in their mentors. I have a great opportunity to do just that. I also found that I really enjoy teaching, more than I had anticipated. One reason is that Reed gives me the freedom to design my courses and teach whatever I think is important. As a result, I incorporate my research into my teaching as much as I can. We have an ethos around here that “teaching is research is teaching,” and so blurring these lines can help to better prepare students to think like real scientists. What PUIs often lack is the resources of a large institution. Maintaining connections with large research institutions to gain access to some of the more expensive pieces of equipment is key in my opinion. It may take more planning than you are accustomed to, but you may find that you really don’t miss that million dollar piece of equipment as much as you thought you would. I do think that people coming from an exclusively R1 training background do not realize, or underestimate, the quality of the research that can be accomplished with undergraduates. While the pace is much slower, and it may take a bit of creativity, the results will speak for themselves.

What is one word that best describes how you work: Determined

What excites you most about your current work? I enjoy introducing students to the wonders of microscopy. The joy and wonder students experience the first time they image a migrating cell takes me back to that magical time when I imaged a live cell for the first time. Intellectually, I think students understand that cells are dynamic, but to see it with their own eyes is a different story.

Can you describe one formative experience from your life or training that set you on this path? I make it a point to show all of my students one of the first image series I ever took as a graduate student in Gary Borisy’s lab of a migrating B16F1 mouse melanoma cell by phase-contrast microscopy. I wanted to know everything about how that cell was moving (and still do!).

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging? Time management! There is never enough time. It is tough learning what is possible to accomplish during the semester when I am teaching a full load, mentoring senior theses, and trying to run a lab. I am getting better, but I have much to learn.

Does working with undergraduates change your approach to research?
I try to be as thoughtful as possible about how I conduct my research so that it is approachable to undergraduates, but I have found that I can do many of the things I did as a postdoc. In fact, being the only cell biologist on campus has expanded my thinking and the approaches I use in my research. Having to think and teach other aspects of cell biology has made me more of a well-rounded cell biologist. Sometimes as graduate students and postdocs we get hyper focused on a small part of cell biology, but having to teach means that we have to read and understand things outside of our particular field. I think that above anything else this has changed the way I approach things.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty? Pay attention to what makes your research run smoothly. What piece of equipment do you end up using over and over? What reagents do you use on daily basis? If you can afford it, buy it. If it saves time, do it (see the above answer); your time is more valuable than you think.

Applewhite’s lab at Reed College

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack? Having a supportive partner! My first couple of years my partner made most of the dinners we ate, did the laundry, and made sure bills were paid, etc. I can’t tell you how much that helped when I was trying to get the lab up and running and teaching my classes for the first time.  

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)? Analog. I have lists and notes everywhere. Something about the act of physically writing something down just feels better to me.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without? I recently started using Slack to communicate with my lab and it has changed my life.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it? Bluetooth headphones. I still get into the lab and onto the microscope and not having wires and cords to get in the way while I listen to music or a podcast is key. Also, they are great for working out.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are? Working out. I need to work out. I lift weights, swim, occasionally bike, but I have to do something on a regular basis.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person? I have always looked up to Ron Vale. The breadth and depth of the topics his lab studies amaze me. He is like a world class 100-meter sprinter who is also a  world class marathoner.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab? I have been reading about African-American history from slavery to the Great Migration and how this history is shaping what America is today. It is heavy, so I don’t read a lot at one time.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about? Trying to find a way to be strategic about political activism, but I am probably doing a poor job of it…

What’s your sleep routine like? I am in bed by 10:30-11:00 and up by 5:30-6:00 most every day.

What would you do if you weren’t doing research every day? We are surrounded by great food and amazing beer and wine, so eating and drinking my way through Portland!

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees? Sometimes just showing up is an accomplishment in itself.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.


About the Author:

Jenny Heppert studies the cell biology of host-microbe interactions. She is currently a postdoc with Heidi Goodrich-Blair at the University of Tennessee. Twiiter: @hephephooray