How Cell Biologists Work: Ron Vale on converting chemical energy into mechanical work and curiosity into discovery

Ron Vale is a professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology Department at the University of California, San Francisco and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. Vale’s lab studies how the contents of cells are organized, including how molecular motors move cargo to new locations and how signaling molecules in the plasma membranes of immune cells are arranged. The Vale lab has made substantial contributions to our understanding of how microtubule motor proteins work on a molecular level, and in the course of pursuing fundamental cell biological questions, Vale and his colleagues have pushed the boundaries of light microscopy techniques. During his career, Vale has received many scientific awards and prizes, including recently the 2017 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine.

Ron Vale

In addition to his lab’s scientific discoveries, Vale has led a number of initiatives that increase the accessibility of science both within life science research and in the greater community. The diverse missions of the organizations he has founded range from science education (iBiology) to developing open source software for microscopy (the MicroManager project, now being developed through Open Imaging), and enhancing the life sciences community in India (IndiaBioscience). Vale is also a founder of ASAPbio (Accelerating Science and Publication in biology), an organization for improving publication, including encouraging and facilitating the use of preprints* in the life sciences. He is a former president of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB, 2012), and served as a director of the Marine Biological Lab Physiology Course at Woods Hole from 2004-2008.

Let’s start with your Name:  Ron Vale

Location: UCSF

Position: Professor and HHMI Investigator

Current Mobile Device(s):  iPhone 6

Current Computer(s):  Apple

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

What is one word or phrase that best describes how you work? Curiosity-driven?

Kinesin walking along a microtubule. Image by Graham Johnson.

What excites you most about your current work?  Finding unexpected results

Are there any particularly memorable times when unexpected results changed the way you were thinking about a question or process?

Off the top of my head:
1. microtubules gliding on glass, which led to the purification of kinesin;
2.  microtubule severing activity in frog egg extracts;
3.  finding a gamma-tubulin localization factor (augmin) and branching microtubule nucleation;
4.  a microtubule minus-end protection activity (patronin);
5.  CD28 as a target for PD-1 inhibition;
6.  motor-driven rotation of microtubules;
7.  septin-based membrane diffusion barrier at the yeast bud neck;
8.  structural homology of kinesin and myosin;
9. myosin localization driving certain asymmetric cell divisions;
10. spindly as a dynein localization factor at kinetochores;
and the list can keep going!

Can you describe one formative experience from your life or training that set you on this path? Doing a science fair project in high school (which I really got into doing). The shift from regurgitating information in the classroom to thinking of questions and designing experiments was both exciting but also challenging.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?  Making sure that people in my lab find good positions when they leave the lab and move on with their careers. While challenging, I also see lots of success stories, which is gratifying.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty? Treat the people in the lab as though they are part of your family. Become vested in their future dreams and goals. You should be working for them, not the other way around.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?
Learn to stay focused. There are a billion ways to become distracted these days. Reserve time to stay focused on thinking, writing, or reading without the temptation to respond to the latest alert on your device.

The Vale Lab at UCSF.

Vale’s office.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)?  I use “Stickies”, a very simple Apple App.  I just write down “things to do” and update them daily.  It is not much different from a piece of paper. But I probably would lose a physical “to-do list” list.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without?  Sad to say, but it is email. I suppose email is overtaking our lives. But it has changed how we communicate. My office phone rarely rings and if it does, it is usually a salesperson.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it? My espresso maker. It gets me going in the morning!

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of the lab), no matter how busy you are?  I try to exercise once per day, whether it is yoga, running, road biking, mountain biking or swimming. Sometimes life gets in the way, but usually, I will try to get in at least 30 min of one of the above activities each day.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person? I have many heroes because there are so many wonderful and inspiring people in science and I have had great mentors. But I will name a few who provided role models for their love and pursuit of science in their senior years—my undergraduate advisor Beatrice Sweeney and three of my scientific friends at Woods Hole, Andrew Szent-Gyorygi, Ed Taylor, and Shinya Inoue.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of the lab? Various types of fiction novels and books on the history of science.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about? Science communication and education. Both are incredibly important and are as creative and challenging as science research itself.

What are some of the projects you are currently working on? How do you choose projects that advance science communication or education? Do you have a philosophy about what you choose to spend time on outside of research? My current projects include, and the Young Investigator Meeting,, a new textbook project. I try to choose projects that will 1) make a big impact; 2) have a component of increasing the accessibility of science; 3) involve social equity; 4) require working collaboratively with many people or organizations; and 5) that I am personally passionate about and feel as though I can help to make a difference.

What’s your sleep routine like?  Seven hours and consistent.

What would you do if you weren’t doing research every day? Writing. Obviously, one does a lot of writing in a research career. But it would be good to have more opportunities to explore different types of writing.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions? Jody Rosenblatt.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees? Enjoy what you are doing and don’t lose sight of the curiosity that got you into science in the first place.

*Preprints are scientific manuscripts that are posted to an open access platform prior to undergoing peer-review at a scientific journal. Check out where there is more information about why and how to post preprints.

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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