How Cell Biologists Work: Jessica Feldman, from blue monkeys to buying all the lottery tickets

Jessica Feldman is an assistant professor at Stanford University in the Department of Biology. Feldman’s lab is investigating how different types of cells organize their microtubule cytoskeletons and the impact of that on the shapes and functions of cells. The Feldman lab uses the developing C. elegans embryo as a model system to reveal how diverse cell types deploy their microtubule networks in vivo. Using live-cell microscopy, creative manipulations of the microtubule cytoskeleton, and clever genetic approaches, Feldman and her group have uncovered molecular mechanisms that direct the formation and regulation of microtubule organizing centers (MTOCs) within cells.

Let’s start with your Name: Jessica Feldman

Location: Stanford University, Department of Biology

Position: Assistant Professor

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone 7, iPad 2

Current Computer(s): MacBook Pro, iMac

What kind of research do you do? We are cell and developmental biologists thinking about how cells become internally patterned during development. In particular, a large part of the lab is focused on understanding how the microtubule cytoskeleton becomes spatially organized during cell differentiation.

Feldman’s office at Stanford.

What is one word (or phrase) that best describes how you work: multitasking (aka frenetic)

What excites you most about your current work? I am really excited about all the doors CRISPR has opened for us, both the ability to watch endogenous proteins move around inside live organisms and the extreme genetic domination it has afforded us.

Can you describe one formidable experience from your life or training that set you on this path? I had really great research opportunities as an undergraduate at Columbia. As a freshman, I was able to start in the lab from day 1 and this was very impactful. Probably the most life-shaping event was when I won a fellowship in my sophomore year to study blue monkeys in the rainforest in Kenya with one of my professors. I had never been out of the country, and working in the field was amazing. This trip shaped my life and career choice in many ways

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging? The inevitable disconnect from the bench is challenging.  I love doing experiments, and so I am trying to maintain a bench while juggling all of the other aspects of running a lab and teaching. I have found it impossible to do so while I am teaching, but in other quarters, I still try to do experiments. I have found that I can be particularly useful in doing complicated crosses, C. elegans injections, and imaging and these types of things fit well with a schedule full of meetings.

C. elegans embryonic microtubule. Alpha-tubulin labeled with magenta and gamma-tubulin labeled blue.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty?  It is hard work, an emotional roller coaster, but totally awesome! The most important thing in setting up a new lab is finding good people. This means being smart about who you hire (and don’t hire). As everyone reading this has probably experienced, a good lab environment makes all the difference in the scientific endeavor. This means finding people who are excited to exchange both scientific and nonscientific ideas. The other important thing to do these days is to find money. There are many awards that are specific to junior faculty and so it is important to capitalize on these while you are still eligible. But, like all things in science, you have to remain unfazed in the the face of rejection.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack? Riding my bike everywhere…the fastest way to get around!

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)? Post-it Notes. I have tried to use digital list managers, but nothing really sticks as well as Post-its (see what I did there?).

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without? I love InDesign (by Adobe) to put together imaging data and to make figures. I have used it for a long time and can’t imagine assembling images without it.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it? I really love my Apple Watch, but I couldn’t live without my bike.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are? Exercise.  If I don’t exercise regularly, I go crazy. Also, it is important for me to do activities that help me completely disconnect my brain from my work. I have been boxing for about a year and find that it requires extreme mental focus with no extra space for anything else. That said, I have some great ideas while doing mind-wandering types of sports like swimming or cycling.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person? Jane Goodall. I saw her speak when I was about 10 years old. I was then and am still inspired by her fearlessness in pursuit of and passion for her scientific endeavors.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab? Art and design—I am a very visual person in and out of the lab.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about? The recent political climate has made me more than ever want to advocate for women and minorities and for science. I haven’t come up with any great answers on how to reach the population that apparently thinks so differently on these topics, and living in the Bay Area I am very insulated from other ways of thinking. I look forward to conversations with many different types of people to try and determine how a difference can be made. I also urge the trainees reading this to think hard about how they can effect change in their own communities.

What’s your sleep routine like? 12-7. By nature, I am a night person and so this can drift significantly depending on what I am working on. Sadly, regular schedules and an obstinate cat mean that no matter how late I stay up, I am now programmed to wake up around the same time every day.

What would you do if you weren’t doing research everyday? Anything outside. I also love traveling and all the amazing things in the world it allows you to see.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions? Tim Mitchison.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees? I got the advice when I was just starting my career that if science is like a lottery, then you can either be very lucky or you can buy all of the lottery tickets. Alex Schier told me this, although he likely doesn’t remember saying it. I have never been particularly lucky, so I I interpreted this to mean that I needed to work really hard, trying many different approaches. I guess I feel like I have gotten where I am through really hard work, especially in the face of failure.

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

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