How Cell Biologists Work ‘at Home’ featuring Katrina Velle

Katrina Velle is a postdoctoral researcher in Lil Fritz-Laylin’s lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, MA. Velle studies a nonpathogenic freshwater amoeba (Naegleria gruberi) as a model for a pathogenic, brain-eating amoeba (N. fowleri), both of which lack cytoplasmic microtubules. She investigates the cytoskeletal dynamics underlying motility in N. gruberi, and just this month, she published a paper on BioRxiv demonstrating that actin-based lamellar protrusions, mediated by the Arp 2/3 complex, drive motility in the absence of microtubules in this species (Velle and Fritz-Laylin, BioRxiv, 2020). How has she managed to be so productive working from home? Velle is following a post-it note daily regimen, complete with a mid-day workout, and she recommends swapping Sundays and Tuesdays to split up the weekend break – intriguing idea!

Let’s start with your Name: Katrina Velle, @KatrinaVelle

Location: Ware, MA

Position:  Postdoc

Are you able to work? Yes, just not at the lab bench.

If you are working, where and with whom are you currently working?

I’m in Lil Fritz-Laylin’s Lab at UMass Amherst, but we’ve all been working remotely and connecting via Zoom since mid-March.

Katrina Velle’s work-from-home station
Photo credit: Robert Smith

What is your daily (or weekly) routine? Any regularly scheduled meetings or activities? Anything you really enjoy or really dread?

I have a schedule scribbled on a post-it note by my desk that I try to follow. I start work (at my desk, coffee in hand) by 6:30, and that’s when I do most of the reading and writing I have planned for the day. We have daily lab check-ins (and weekly lab meetings) on Zoom at 10:00, and after that I give myself a long break to go for a run or do some type of exercise. I work for another hour, take a lunch break, and then work on data analysis and/or making figures from 1:30 to 5:30. I really enjoy putting figures together, so having that at the end of the day gives me something to look forward to. I also look forward to weekly video calls with my sister’s family; I do “Science Saturdays” with my 4-year-old niece. We’ve done coffee filter chromatography, made density towers, turned pennies green, and looked at pond water under a microscope (a microscope I have at home that I rescued it from a dumpster).

What are your daily distractions?

Twitter is my go-to distraction. I also start growing hot pepper plants indoors in March, and they’ll be ready to transplant soon.

Each week, Katrina has a video call with her 4-year-old niece for “Science Saturdays.”
Photo credit: Kristin Crowe

Do you have any strategies that are helping you stay productive (or sane for that matter)?

Sticking to my daily schedule has been really helpful; it’s something I have complete control over. Taking a long break in the middle of the day has also made my afternoons more focused and productive than when I was going into lab for a full day. I decided weekends would be useful to avoid burnout, but I didn’t need two days off in a row, so I swapped Sundays and Tuesdays. I feel incredibly fortunate about my current situation; everyone in my family is still healthy, my husband and I are both still employed, and I’m not balancing childcare or homeschooling with work. I acknowledge that many people don’t have this amount of flexibility to optimize their schedules for productivity right now. For those who do, I strongly recommend splitting up the weekend.

Is there anything you have time for now that you previously kept on the backburner?

I had been putting off writing the introduction and conclusion sections for a paper. Writing is my least favorite part of science, so I distracted myself with new experiments when I was able to go into lab. Since the lab shut down, I had no excuse not to get it done, and I’m happy to say that we posted a preprint on BioRxiv earlier this week.

I also never really exercised before—I hadn’t stuck to an exercise schedule for longer than a month since high school. Having the option to do it in the middle of the day instead of early in the morning or after a full day in the lab has made it easier. Now it’s something I actually look forward to.

In light of recent events, is there an initiative (or multiple) in which you have taken an interest or active role?

I occasionally fall into a rabbit hole of analyzing Covid-19 data and making graphs. I also helped my dad write a short commentary for his local newspaper after someone wrote a full-page editorial saying the flu was worse. Other than that, I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t done much to help with the pandemic. One of my lab mates, Andrew Swafford, has been 3D printing face shields for local hospitals, which is amazing.

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: kiraheikes@gmail.com.