How Cell Biologists Work, with physician scientist Anna Huttenlocher

This is the first article of the series “How Cell Biologists Work” for 2018. In these articles, we hope to reveal the life habits, hacks, and hurdles that leading cell biologists encounter, what they think has led to their success in running productive labs, and finding answers to their scientific questions.

Anna Huttenlocher, MD, is a Professor of Medical Microbiology & Immunology and Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Huttenlocher lab studies how diverse cell types respond to and repair damage from injury, pathogens, and cancer. The primary focus of the lab is migratory immune cells, such as macrophages and neutrophils. The Huttenlocher lab investigates how these cells move to the site of a wound, the signaling pathways that direct their activities to resolve the injury, and other aspects of the wound healing process. They use zebrafish as their model system, exploiting the optical transparency of the larvae to live-image immune cells and wounds as they heal in vivo. Using the strong genetic tools available in zebrafish, the lab is able to introduce human disease mutations that affect immune cell function. Recent work from the lab focused on signaling at a wound and demonstrated that wound-associated reactive oxygen species (ROS) lead to the local, dynamic remodeling of collagen which guides epithelial regrowth during wound healing and regeneration (LeBert et al. eLife, 2018). Huttenlocher is a physician scientist, and has received many awards throughout her career, including her recent election as a Fellow by ASCB in 2017. She has been a member of ASCB since 1997.

Dr. Anna Huttenlocher, Professor of Medical Microbiology and Immunology and Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison

Let’s start with your Name: Anna Huttenlocher

Location: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Position: Professor and Director of the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP)

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone 6

Current Computer(s): MacBook Pro

What kind of research do you do? I am a cell biologist and study cell migration.

What is one word that best describes how you work:


What excites you most about your current work?

I like new and unexpected findings; the beginning of projects is particularly fun when you delve into the literature and think about where to go next.

I like imaging new things in live animals. We are working on the response to thermal injury in zebrafish and uncovering new mechanisms of repair. Fascinating.

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

I am a physician scientist and as a resident saw a patient with chronic inflammation from birth due to an inherited autoinflammatory disease. I was curious and performed collaborative studies and found that her leukocytes did not move normally. I think this finding drove my interest in cell migration.

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

As a scientist: Dissecting multicellular communication in vivo. It’s very complicated!

How do different cells talk to each other during repair? Contact guidance of cell movements in vivo is particularly interesting but it is difficult to tackle in vivo.

As a PI: I think one of the challenges is the demands on my time and staying focused.

Neutrophils (left – green) and macrophages (right – green) interacting with transformed cells (purple) in vivo (Image by Chrissy Freisinger)

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

Follow what interests you. It is ok to change. Let the questions drive what you do.

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

When you are reviewing papers look at the figures and figure legends first; this saves a lot of time.

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

Making lists on my computer in Microsoft Word; I’m old school and like to delete things when they are done!

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

Email. This is good and bad; a great way to communicate science quickly but difficult to keep up with.

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

Wow; that’s hard. I am not a gadget person. My phone and my computer are really the only gadgets I use. I like to take pictures, but now I use my phone! I like to listen to music so maybe my turntable!

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

Exercise; swim or dance class, using the elliptical or walk in the woods. I do one of these almost every day.

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

Marie Curie; I read all about her when I was a kid and continue to be fascinated by her science, her career and curiosity. She was my first scientific hero; I admire her perseverance and focus.

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

I love to read fiction and biographies. I just read Pachinko by Lee and now I am reading Sean Carroll’s Brave Genius.

Dr. Huttenlocher’s workspace in Madison, WI

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

Training physician scientists; the challenges for women in science in particular. A few of our MSTP students did a very interesting observational study and survey recently. They found that our women students ask fewer questions in seminar. The gaps remain! This seems to be an issue across disciplines. I think this is a gap that we can try to tackle.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Regular; I like to wake up early and work, but sometimes I stay up late and then don’t work early!

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

Tell a story and have fun.

You will fail; allow 24 hours to be bummed and then move on.

Make some close colleague friends; this was really important for me, especially early on.

Do what you think is the right thing for you to do, with your science and career.

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