Abby Dernburg on meiosis and mindfulness

Abby Dernburg

Our profile this month for How Cell Biologists Work is Abby Dernburg,  a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. The Dernburg lab studies the great mysteries of meiosis: how homologous chromosomes successfully pair with each other and how crossover formation is regulated to exchange genetic material between paired chromosomes. They use the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as a model and are developing tools in another nematode, Pristionchus pacificus, to study how meiotic processes have evolved. They discover the finer details of chromosome architecture and synaptonemal complex assembly during meiosis using a powerful combination of superresolution microscopy, long-term in vivo imaging, robust C. elegans genetic tools, and an auxin-inducible protein degradation system adapted for C. elegans in the Dernburg lab (Zhang et al., Development 2015). The lab recently discovered how a complex of meiotic RING finger proteins patterns crossovers along paired chromosomes in the C. elegans germline (Zhang et al., Elife 2018). In addition to appointment as an HHMI investigator, Dernburg’s work has been recognized with many awards, including the Genetics Society of America Novitski Award, the ASCB Early Career Life Scientist Award, and the Presidential Early Career Award. You can find her talking about meiosis on iBiology.

Abby Dernburg (Photo by Mark Hanson of Mark Joseph Studio

Let’s start with your Name:Abby Dernburg, PhD, @adernburg

Location: Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, UC Berkeley

Position: Professor and HHMI Investigator

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone 8S

Current Computer(s): MacBook Pro (early 2017)

What kind of research do you do?

I study the organization and dynamics of chromosomes during meiosis. We combine genetics, genome editing, biochemistry, and microscopy to investigate how chromosomes pair, synapse, and undergo recombination. Most of my lab uses C. elegans, but I am also really enjoying some work we are doing to develop another nematode, Pristionchus pacificus, as an experimental model.

What is one word that best describes how you work?

Serendipity (a nice word for haphazardness). I am not a planner, I follow my nose.

What excites you most about your current work?

I think we’re on the verge of understanding two of the central mysteries of meiosis: 1) How meiotic crossovers are patterned along chromosomes, and 2) how homologous chromosomes recognize each other to pair in the first place. The first of these was not something I ever intended to work on, but we sort of fell into it through our recognition that the synaptonemal complex (SC), the unique protein structure that assembles between paired chromosomes during meiosis, has liquid crystalline properties. This led us to think about the implications for regulation of meiotic recombination, and to recognize that diffusion of signaling molecules might give rise to pattern formation.

The latter question—how chromosomes recognize each other—has intrigued me ever since graduate school. I’m actually a little apprehensive that we (along with others in the field) may be getting close to an answer. If that happens, I will have to find another big white whale to pursue!

Germline in Pristionchus pacificus labelled for DMC-1 (green), RAD-51 (red), and DNA (blue). DMC-1 is essential for homolog pairing in P. pacificus, although this function has been lost in C. elegans. (Image by Regina Bohn)

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

My choice of PhD lab took me along a major deviation from what I intended to study. I started graduate school thinking I would become an X-ray crystallographer, since I had worked on protein function and I really wanted to see proteins in action. However, I really enjoyed my third rotation with John Sedat, who was developing wide-field 3D fluorescence microscopy. I realized that what excites me is visualizing biology, not necessarily at atomic resolution. Although I had never thought of myself as a cell biologist, I joined the Sedat lab, became obsessed with chromosomes, and never looked back (although I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with crystallographers).

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

It’s very difficult to carve out time to think, and I constantly feel that I’m letting people down. I also struggle with teaching—it doesn’t come naturally to me, even though I value it highly.

Many biologists value the importance of teaching, but as you mentioned, teaching is not always a natural skill. What are your tips for overcoming the barrier to effective teaching?

I haven’t really figured this one out, and of course it depends on what the major obstacles are. Most universities/colleges have Centers for Teaching and Learning (or equivalent) that offer workshops and other resources (e.g., they’ll videotape your lectures so you can watch them), which may help. Peers are often willing to watch you lecture and offer advice, and of course you can gain a lot of insights by watching effective lecturers at their craft. All of this takes a lot of time, though, and it can be hard to prioritize when there are so many other things demanding attention.

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

I had an amazing opportunity to attend a lab management course organized by Burroughs Wellcome and HHMI shortly after I became a PI. They invited several standout PIs to come and share their wisdom and experience. What stuck with me was Tom Cech’s advice: he said that the biggest mistake he sees new PIs make is spending too much time in their offices—that when you start a lab, you need to be physically embedded in the lab to ensure that your people learn the techniques and approach that made you a successful experimentalist. Moreover, by working side-by-side you find out immediately about technical obstacles they encounter, and you help them learn how to overcome them. I thought that was very wise, and it also made me feel much better about spending time in the lab, which I really enjoyed. Now I find it very difficult to do experiments—my days are just too fragmented with other responsibilities. When I do try to do anything I usually hurt myself and/or induce a lot of eye-rolling (at least I imagine that I do).

Also, it’s essential to cultivate a supportive peer network through collegiality and service to your field, your institution, and your research community. (I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, and I’m still learning it.) Your colleagues will evaluate your papers and grant applications, will decide whether to invite you for conferences and seminars, and will write letters for your promotions, so their goodwill is critical throughout your career. That said, research is not an ideal career if your self-esteem is too dependent on what others think of you, so you have to strike a balance.

Also, everyone should read Prachee Avasthi’s advice on Twitter and on her blog. She highlights issues related to research and lab management from the perspective of a new PI in a much more articulate and mindful way than I’ve ever done. (HCBW interview with Prachee)

What (if any) are your preferred methods for training your students to become independent scientists?

Leave them alone ;).

Seriously, though, I try to spur their thinking by suggesting topics that they should read about, helping them to break down long-range goals into more achievable units, and remembering to cheerlead when they make tangible progress (or don’t).

What are your best cheerleading strategies for encouraging your students to keep pursuing their scientific questions?

I don’t really have a one-size-fits-all strategy. By nature I am not really a cheerleader, so mostly I just try to be gentler on my lab than I am on myself and to avoid dampening their enthusiasm.

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

Can’t really think of one, other than riding a bike to work. And yoga (see below).

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

Ugh. I hate to-do lists. I have never found a list manager that helps me to get things done or makes it less painful.

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

I love tools that help me to communicate my work graphically in a creative and dynamic way. I’m partial to Apple Keynote, which I use for both talk slides and figures.

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

I like gadgets but I can’t think of any (other than phone and laptop) that I couldn’t live without. I do love my phone—I’m still amazed by all of the devices it’s replaced (from alarm clock to document scanner to game console to communication device). I bought an electric bike last year to tackle the Berkeley hills and really enjoy commuting to work that way. It’s faster than driving, since parking around our campus is a bit of a nightmare, healthier, and makes me feel more virtuous. I also like cooking gadgets. Recent acquisitions include an Instant Pot and a sous vide wand—but none has been life-altering. I also really like my BioBidet 2000. (I won’t describe how I use it. It’s not WiFi enabled so I don’t need to worry that it’s sharing information with my thermostat or Sonos system.)

When/ where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research?

This is very unpredictable, which keeps it interesting. The two things I like best about research are 1) solving technical challenges (which I only get to do vicariously now, not nearly as much fun), and 2) making connections between disparate fields or concepts. The most exciting new ideas are often serendipitous—sometimes triggered by reading a paper or going to a seminar outside my field.

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

Yoga. I think it’s essential to have outside activities that fully occupy your mind and body, and take both of them away from the lab. Mine have evolved as I’ve gotten older and my lifestyle has changed. In grad school I loved road biking, cooking, and taking hip-hop dance classes. As a postdoc I learned to fly a Cessna and got my pilot’s license. Now I have three kids, and can’t quite manage a demanding hobby on top of that and my job. I first tried yoga over a decade ago because a friend/colleague practiced it. I did not love it—I found it a little boring and also thought it was kind of weird to be confined to a mat while exercising, but as I got into a regular practice, I got hooked on the way it blends physical challenges with meditation and an explicit practice of gratitude. It’s an efficient way to combine physical and mental self-care. I favor a Power Yoga/Vinyasa style and try to make it to a class 3X/week.

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

Two rise to the top at the moment:

I’ve become a little obsessed with the insights of Alan Turing. Although he is best known for his contributions to mathematics and computer science, his last paper, published in 1952 (only two years before his untimely and tragic death), described how simple chemical interactions could give rise to various forms of asymmetry and patterning in biological systems. Without knowing virtually anything about enzymes or their activities, his mathematical mind led him to infer these far-reaching ideas, which I think have yet to be fully appreciated.

A more contemporary hero—one I’ve been lucky enough to know personally— is Bruce Alberts. I can’t think of another biologist whose career has been more beneficial to the scientific enterprise. He was partly responsible for bringing together the collective talent that established University of California, San Francisco, as a powerhouse in basic research. He recognizes ability in diverse forms, and has launched and supported the careers of many trainees. He has co-authored a fantastic textbook and argued for more sustainable research training and funding models. Long before almost anyone was talking about “active learning” and research-based coursework, he advocated for teaching science as a method of inquiry rather than a collection of facts. Over his long career he has devoted enormous effort and resources to improve K-12 and college science education, and to make it accessible to disadvantaged populations. His leadership of the National Academy of Science also had a lasting impact on science education. He does all of this in a selfless way, and is one of few scientists I know who seems to avoid drawing attention to himself. He also delights in science of all kinds and remains eternally curious. He’s a true mensch and someone I’m always happy to see.

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

It’s pretty scattershot (this seems to be a general theme here). I’m in a book club that was founded by some graduate school friends over 22 years ago (!), which keeps me reading at least some literature and nonfiction. My other reading is mostly short-form since I have limited time and a short attention span. Lately it’s been overly focused on politics, a habit I’m trying to break. I’ve also been trying to become a successful beekeeper after a couple of false starts, so I’ve been reading about that.

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

I’m trying to figure out how we can do a better job of teaching biology to undergraduates, ideally through discovery-based learning. I’ve never been particularly good at learning in a lecture-based format, and I feel like we should be using student’s time in more stimulating & interactive ways. There have been some amazing successes, notably programs like the Freshman Research Initiative at University of Texas Austin, and I would love to see more innovation like that at UC Berkeley.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Sleep is critical for mental health and creativity! I felt physically horrible throughout most of college and only realized later that it was because I was always running a sleep deficit. Now I’m not really able to tolerate more than a couple of nights of poor sleep—and my husband is even worse. Luckily I’m pretty good at sleeping.

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

I’ve always preferred to do science that’s off the beaten track. I dislike being directly compared to others and I don’t see much point in working on things that other researchers could do just as easily. This is much easier said than done, however, since if you show that a question is interesting and tractable, it tends to attract others to work on it.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Julie Theriot (my classmate!), Tim Mitchison.

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:

Kira Heikes is a graduate student in Bob Goldstein's laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is currently studying embryonic development in tardigrades. Twitter: @KiraTheExplora Email: