How Cell Biologists Work: Danelle Devenport on how a risky decision shaped her path in science

In this second installment of How Cell Biologists Work, we are fortunate to hear from Danelle Devenport, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. Devenport’s work is expanding our understanding of how cells are coordinated on a tissue-level scale. Her lab studies the cell biology of polarity and organization in the vertebrate epithelium during development and regeneration. Devenport is a Searle Scholar (2013) and the recipient of a Vallee Young Investigator Award (2014).

Danelle Devenport

Name: Danelle Devenport

Location: Princeton University

Position: Assistant Professor

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone 6. I once had an iPad, but my kids dropped and smashed it…twice.

Current Computer(s): 2016 MacBook Pro

What kind of research do you do?

We study how cells assemble into patterns during development, focusing on how planar cell polarity is established in the vertebrate epidermis.

What is one word that best describes how you work: task-oriented (I guess that’s two words.)

What excites you most about your current work?

I’m particularly excited by our recent ability to generate long-term movies of epidermal development and pattern formation. There is so much more complexity and movement and communication among different cell types than I ever imagined. The number of questions that we can now address has just exploded.

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

About two years into grad school, I made a very risky decision to move to England with the intention of continuing grad school but without a position or fellowship firmly in hand. In retrospect, this was so impulsive and naïve because there was a very good chance that, as a foreign student, I wouldn’t be able to secure a funded position. But I went anyway. Somehow, I landed in Cambridge at what is now The Gurdon Institute, and it was just an incredible scientific and life experience. It certainly set me on my current scientific path of doing cell biology in the context of development, and it’s where I first heard about this neat phenomenon called planar cell polarity. Overall, I think the experience taught me that, at least sometimes, it’s ok to dive into something without fully thinking it through. If we overthink everything, we’d never try anything new.

Devenport’s office.

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

I think all new faculty find time management a real challenge when transitioning from a postdoc to assistant professor. Your daily responsibilities increase tremendously, yet your research program remains the greatest priority. It’s a tricky balance, and I’m still figuring it out.

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

For aspiring faculty–trust your instincts and pursue the questions that are most fascinating to you.  For new faculty–take control of your time from day one. Pencil in time for research first–experiments, reading, brainstorming, meeting with lab members, writing–and work in everything else around that. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get swept away with other stuff, like answering emails.

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

Outside of work–Whitman College Dining Hall where fellows and their families can eat. In my family, Tuesday night is college night–no cooking. The less prep and clean up we have to do in the evening, the more time for fun and games with the kids.

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

I usually have two running to-do lists–a digital plan for the week (word doc) that helps me block off chunks of time for specific goals in iCal, and an analog paper list for small tasks.

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

EdX for teaching. All of my course materials are organized on this online platform. Even homework is submitted and (partially) graded online.

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

I spend so much time with my phone and laptop that I need the rest of my life to be pretty gadget free. Anything that tracks my physical activity, for example, just induces obsessive behaviors, and that’s not good. Does a coffee maker count? I definitely can’t live without one.

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

Spend time with my kids.

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

John Wallingford of UT Austin. His upbeat energy is a great reminder of how much fun it is do science.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab? I devour political news and opinion, always read the New Yorker, and pick up a fiction novel when I’ve got some downtime. Ever since I moved to Princeton and have some green space around my house, I’ve been trying to learn how to grow things outdoors, mostly flowers. I can’t say I’m very good at it though.

Has the current political situation affected how you approach your role as a PI or your science?

It does in that I think now more than ever we need scientists – people trained to make decisions based on evidence – working in all realms of society like journalism, digital media, teaching, um…voter polling. I’ve started to encourage PhD students to realize that research isn’t the only way to make a scientific contribution. If we had science PhDs working at all levels of government and media who problem solved based on evidence and scientific reason…wow, I think it would change politics and make our world a much a better place.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Sit with my daughter while she falls asleep, try not to fall asleep alongside her, fail, wake up in the middle of the night. I do not recommend this routine.

What would you do if you weren’t doing research everyday?

Probably cry and wonder what to do with my life. I guess I’d probably be doing a different type of research. I’m really drawn to astronomy/astrophysics, for example. Instead of microscopes, telescopes. I also love clothes and textile designs. When I was a kid I wanted to be fashion designer, but I don’t think the fashion world suits my personality.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

John Wallingford! Geraldine Seydoux.

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

When you’re at work, focus on work. When you’re at home, focus on home. For the working parents out there, this a helpful mantra to repeat.

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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