How Cell Biologists Work: Valentina Greco on cultivating a passionate research team

Valentina Greco is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Genetics, Cell Biology and Dermatology at Yale University, and is a member of the Yale School of Medicine Stem Cell Center and Cancer Center. The Greco lab is shedding new light on the mysterious lives of stem cells. Using stunning in vivo imaging of intact tissues, they reveal how stem cells are regulated and deployed during normal tissue maintenance and in tissue repair.

Valentina Greco, Associate Professor of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Dermatology at Yale University

Recently, the Greco lab has characterized how stem cells in the mouse epidermis participate in injury repair through collective migration and proliferation (Park et al., Nature Cell Biology, 2017). They also discovered that normal mouse epidermal cells can resolve tumor-like growths, correcting significant defects in tissue architecture (Brown and Pineda et al., Nature, 2017). Throughout her career, Greco has received many awards, including an HHMI Faculty Scholar Award and an Early Career Award from the American Society of Cell Biology.

Let’s start with your Name:  Valentina Greco

Location: Yale University, USA

Position: Associate Professor with tenure

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone

Current Computer(s): Two Macs. A desktop and a laptop

What kind of research do you do?

We are fascinated by how different cell behaviors are coordinated to maintain tissue function under homeostatic conditions, as well as how they are altered to adapt to challenges like injury and cancer. To this end, we have established an approach to visualize and manipulate stem cells and their niche in the skin of an intact, uninjured mouse. Our real-time in vivo imaging of skin epithelium has allowed us to capture a number of basic principles of regeneration, including that location dictates stem cell fate, that specialized stem cells are dispensable for tissue growth while the niche is required, and that tissue correction preserves homeostasis.

 What is one word that best describes how you work: Fully.

When I commit to something, I give everything I have to shape/turn that commitment (mentee/colleague relationships, projects, teaching, etc.) into a meaningful and rewarding life experience.

 What excites you most about your current work?

The potential for unexpected discovery, as well as the opportunity to work closely with people who share the same passion I feel for this work.

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

A moment when I gained clarity about my passion for science was during my PhD selection at EMBL (The European Molecular Biology Laboratory) in 1998. When I was exposed to the amazing science each PI discussed with me during my interview, I felt hooked and deeply thirsty for learning more. I specifically remember Michael Way showing a movie of how listeria infect cells and the strong excitement I felt in being able to visualize what happens inside our bodies and cells.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging? Making sure our research is conducted thoughtfully and takes into account points of view of all scientists involved, be it my own mentees or colleagues, who share the same scientific interest. We operate often within time constraints (in talks) or word limits (in papers) and being able to properly reference all the work already done and even ongoing in a given scientific area is challenging.

Greco’s Team

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

Invest in your lab members and be passionate about helping them develop into independent, well-nourished scientists from the start.

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

It may seem counterintuitive, but thinking, not action, has been my shortcut. It has helped me to recognize the time that tasks actually need in advance, and prepare for them by even adding extra time to dedicate to it as a buffer. Thinking also helps me to know myself more deeply. Rather than avoiding or being ashamed of my weaknesses, I address them by reaching out to my group so that together we are more effective and also satisfied.

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

Analog on a small white notepad and a pencil

Greco’s office at Yale University

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

Email (I can see my mentees going “oh yeah” 🙂 )

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

My espresso machine – it was the first piece of equipment that entered my office when I started eight years ago. It still works!

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

Check in with people I have an investment in, from my friends and family to my mentees and cherished colleagues.

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

I have many heroes, a list too long to add to this paragraph, that I have accumulated over the years, and they range from very young students to senior scientists who still foster a thirst or student-like attitude to learning. In reflecting what I admire in them is their recognition and acknowledgment of teamwork.

I believe that as a society, we see heroes as individuals who are extremely bright and special, but who go solo and owe little to the majority of people around them. I believe we also perceive dependence on teamwork as a vulnerability instead of an enhancement of any single individual capacity to reach a goal. Thus, the quality I admire in my scientific heroes is the genuine recognition of their dependence on their team members as well as their projected perception that their incredible discoveries and (scientific) accomplishments are the result of an interdependent community.

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

I think a lot about biases and how they can affect my thinking and behaviors. I also love playing or listening to music and have Pandora to inform me of new bands/songs.

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

Being both an immigrant and a woman I tend to think a lot about diversity. It has been my experience, especially in work settings, that my thinking has been at times different from others which has caused me to reflect on what it means to be different and for anybody in that position, how to be listened to and appreciated.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I used to be a late person but for several years I have discovered the pleasure of waking up early (having kids encouraged this change!)—when it is quiet—and I can think clearly with music while drinking an espresso.

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

Be in charge no matter how young you may be and actively seek supportive criticism. It stings badly—but it can accelerate one’s growth considerably.

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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