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.

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: