How Cell Biologists Work: Omar Quintero on the power of undergraduate scientists

Omar Quintero

Omar Quintero is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Richmond, in Richmond, VA. The University of Richmond is a liberal arts school and a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). Quintero’s lab is broadly interested in the genes and proteins involved in cellular motility and organization. His students explore the role of the actin cytoskeleton and myosin motor proteins in executing diverse cell behaviors. They are specifically interested in MYO19, a myosin that facilitates the movements and functions of mitochondria. Quintero’s students use microscopy, biochemistry, biophysics, and bioinformatic approaches to understand MYO19 activity. Quintero was a Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education (SPIRE) Fellow as a postdoc at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has extensive experience mentoring undergraduates in research. He was recently elected as a member of the ASCB Council and will begin a three-year term in 2019.

Omar Quintero, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Richmond.

Name:             Omar Quintero

Location:        B-pod, Gottwald Science Center, University of Richmond

Position:         Associate Professor of Biology

Current Mobile Device(s):    iPhone 6s

Current Computer(s):           Many PCs running some version of Windows (XP thru 10)

 What kind of research do you do?

I’m interested in movement and self-organization of cellular components. Currently, my undergraduates and I are working to understand the mechanisms of actin-based mitochondrial transport, specifically focusing on the unconventional myosin that I characterized as a postdoc, MYO19.

What is one word that best describes how you work?

Joyfully. I really like what I do, and who I get to do it with. I’ve had the good fortune to find research questions amenable to the resources available at a PUI, and accessible to undergraduate scientists.

What excites you most about your current work?

Making use of modern imaging techniques to get students thinking about how little we really know about how cells work. Since we know so little, there are lots of open questions for students to pursue in the future. Whenever a student says, “That isn’t what it looks like in a textbook,” it’s an opening for someone to learn something important.

What type of microscopes do you have access to both in your lab and at Richmond that allows you to use such an imaging-heavy approach? How are you able to be so well equipped at a PUI (e.g., startup, grants, institutional support, etc.)?

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had good institutional support, and I’ve been able to make things work with some older equipment. I purchased a wide-field epifluorescence scope with my startup at Richmond that lets me do time lapse in multiple colors (four, plus DIC) and at multiple stage positions. I built a homemade environmental chamber out of black plastic sheeting, PVC pipe, and a Nevtek air curtain incubator. I keep my cells alive in Rose chambers that I inherited from Ted Salmon. In addition to that scope, we’ve also got two other wide-field scopes capable of time lapse (one is an old Nikon TMD), and two upright fluorescent scopes. Richmond has a full-time microscopy director who helps to manage these instruments, a laser-scanning confocal, a SEM, and a TEM. The facility has primarily been supported by internal funds, and we’ve written for NSF MRI on occasion. Because we’ve got 6+ fluorescent scopes with digital image capture abilities, I can run an upper-level lab class that is very microscopy-heavy. The price point for digital image capture has come down a lot. Most of our instruments are running micromanager as the image capture software, and the last sCMOS camera I bought was just about $2K. Building an undergraduate microscopy core is totally doable if you put some thought into stretching your resources and putting money where it makes the most difference. I think that one of the biggest challenges with microscopy is the disconnect between what a cell biologist needs from a microscope, and what an administrator imagines a microscope to be. For example, if you were to tell a Dean or Provost (who isn’t a scientist) that you need an NMR and that it would cost $500K, they are unlikely to be able to imagine what an NMR is, so the cost has no frame of reference. The first thing they will think of is the microscope that sat on their desk the last time that they took biology. They’ll wonder why something so simple costs so much because they’ll associate the cost with the wrong kind of instrument. The recent Nobel prizes related to imaging and fluorescence have made these conversations a little easier lately, but they are still a huge challenge for faculty negotiating startup packages at PUIs.

Quintero’s office at the University of Richmond.

How much collaboration you do with other PUI or R1 labs?

Collaboration makes things even more accessible. When I was at Franklin & Marshall (Lancaster, PA) as a visitor, I drove cells ~2 hours to Lehigh to try FRAP on Lynn Cassimeris’s confocal. At Mount Holyoke, I’d drive cells 30 minutes to get to use the core facilities at UMass. I haven’t had to do that at Richmond. My sabbatical is coming up, and I would like to get up to Janelia to try some things. Most of the collaboration I’ve been doing is with my colleagues at Richmond who want to do imaging, but don’t have as much experience with quantitative fluorescence.

Lack of equipment can also drive good science. The only reason this 2016 paper and technique exist is because we wanted information about binding kinetics but did not have access to FRAP.

Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path?

I’ve got to give you three. First is the mentoring relationship that I had with my PhD advisor, Jo Rae Wright. In a way, her mentoring style was constant across all of her students. If I had to describe her mentoring approach in one word, it would be “personalized.” Her skill was finding how she could best support each individual student’s success by adapting differently to what each of us needed in terms of guidance and motivation. She remains the model for how I work with my students. Second would be the MBL Physiology Course in 1997. I would guess that every student in that course would say the most important thing they took away from that course was a clearer understanding of just how much they could accomplish when they were given the time and space to really focus. Third would be my SPIRE postdoctoral training at UNC Chapel Hill. There I learned to juggle multiple responsibilities (research, teaching, non-work life).

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?

Time. If I’m not careful I am pulled in too many directions. Saying “no” is super important.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty?

Buy a label printer. Handwritten tubes are too challenging to read at times, and some people have terrible handwriting. With a label printer, you can standardize the labeling and be sure that you can still identify what is in a tube long after the people who generated the material have left your lab. Also, be sure that the labels are ethanol- and cold-resistant.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

If you’re willing to put in the time to figure out the right time/power level combination, you can learn how to cook an egg sunny-side up in the microwave.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)?

A white board. I take photos on my phone of my white-board lists. I guess that is an analog-to-digital conversion.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without?

FIJI for work, and Facebook for work. I get advice from my science colleagues all the time through Facebook. It is also how I keep connected to my lab alumni. I haven’t really figured out how to make Twitter useful.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it?

My camera. Like a lot of microscopists, I’m also a photographer. Mostly I take pictures of my kids these days. I also like to photograph birds.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are?

Eat well.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person?

I’m going to buck the trend again. Rather than picking one, I’m going to pick a “generation” of scientists who are charting new paths. Most of the folks I’m thinking of finished their PhDs in the 2000s, and rather than following the default career path, they have chosen to follow paths where they feel they can make a difference in the scientific community. Whether it is working to revise high school science education (Natasha Gutierrez @ Health, Education, and Research Occupations High School), enhancing the ability of scientists to freely exchange their work (Jessica Polka @ ASAPbio.org), building grassroots scientific networks to influence policy and education (Daniel Colón-Ramos, Mónica Feliú-Mójer, and Giovanna Guerrero-Medina @ CienciaPR.org), making research instrumentation more available in the developing world (Nina Dudnik @ Seedinglabs.org), or thinking deeply about the health of the scientific enterprise and advocating for evidence-based improvements (Gary McDowell @ futureofresearch.net), these folks and others like them are setting a positive example for the need for PhD-level folks to engage in activism. When I talk to my students about how science training can help them reshape the world into a better place, these are the examples that I use.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab?

I don’t really read, but I do enjoy movies a lot. I’m probably one of the few people out there who likes 3D movies.

The Quintero Lab in 2018 at the University of Richmond.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about?

We are currently in the middle of a shifting approach to how we teach. In some spaces, these approaches go by the names of scientific teaching, active learning, or inclusive pedagogies. What I think it boils down to is very similar to what I learned from Jo Rae. First, assume that everyone you are tasked with mentoring is capable of growth. You have to trust your admissions office. Second, your job as a classroom teacher, research lab advisor, or faculty mentor is to build an environment where your charges will be challenged and supported in their growth. It is complicated work since each student is unique, and the mentor needs to develop a way to figure out what each student needs. Third, when done correctly, the students become more capable future learners and you become a more capable teacher/mentor as well. When it works (and it works more often than it doesn’t), it is a win-win for everyone involved.

What is one thing you envision for the future of the cell biology field? (This could be scientific or non-scientific)

Over the years, I’ve seen that faculty at PUIs are capable of a lot of good science. They know it, but I’m not sure the field as a whole realizes just how much PUI researchers and their undergraduates can accomplish. Thoughtful partnerships and collaborations between PUI research teams and research teams at R1 institutions can lead to some great science. Additionally, those undergraduates get a far richer research experience.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I have a hard time shutting down my brain, so I watch “Venture Brothers” on my phone and I fall asleep super fast. I probably get 6-8 hours/night.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees?

Don’t forget that as a scientist, you are an explorer. Exploration is not at all linear. Experiments that “fail” will cause you to backtrack. In the grand scheme, they are not failures at all. They can give you as much direction and understanding as experiments that “work.”

My lab is interested in the role of mitochondrial dynamics within cells. This summer, we are using a CAD-cells, a neuron-like model system to investigate the role of MYO19 in actin-based mitochondrial dynamics and establishment of neuronal structures. On the left is an image of cultured, differentiated CAD cells (cyan: actin, magenta: DNA, yellow: mitochondria) and on the right an SEM of cultured, differentiated CAD cells.

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 is a postdoc in John Rawls' laboratory at Duke University. She is currently studying host-microbe interactions in zebrafish. Twitter/Instagram: @hephephooray Email: jennyheppert@gmail.com