How Cell Biologists Work featuring John Wallingford

Our featured cell biologist this month is John Wallingford, the William and Gwyn Shive Endowed Professor and Principal Investigator in the Department of Molecular Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. Wallingford is broadly interested in the cell biological processes that underlie developmental biology. The Wallingford lab utilizes systems biology approaches and bioinformatics to study embryonic morphogenesis, with an emphasis on understanding human birth defects. They use Xenopus (frogs) and mice as models to understand the systems-level impacts of genetic manipulations in vivo. If you’re interested in looking into what the Wallingford lab has been publishing, check out these recent stories on mechanisms of vertebrate axis elongation (Huebner et al., BioRxiv 2020) and novel liquid-like organelles in ciliated cells (Lee et al., BioRxiv 2020). In addition to the lab’s scientific contributions, Wallingford has also contributed to the ideologies of the field of developmental biology, calling it “fundamental to the human experience” (Wallingford, Developmental Cell 2019). The wide range of interests and research work in the Wallingford lab is crucial to understanding human development, particularly in terms of human genetic disorders. With a career that dates back into the 1990s, Wallingford’s contributions and experiences in the field of developmental biology have helped to shape thoughts on the changing nature of science.

John Wallingford

Let’s start with your Name: John Wallingford

Location: Austin, Texas

Position(s): Professor

What kind of research do you do? Developmental biology

What is one word that best describes how you work? Fun

What excites you most about your current work? I’m an opportunist and can get stoked on pretty much anything a cell does in an embryo. That said, I think people in my lab would tell you that I’m generally most excited about the stories nearest completion. I really enjoy the paper-writing process, tying together the disparate strands of the work and framing it within the context of previous work. I straight-up love papers.

Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path? There wasn’t any one experience. Rather, I’ve had the good fortune to repeatedly end up with great teachers at just the right times: Alice Kagi in middle school and high school, Mike Danilchik in college, and Richard Harland when I was a postdoc, among many others.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging? Balancing my ambition with my mental health and helping people in my lab do the same.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty? Science is changing fast. No one of my vintage has the slightest idea how to start a lab right now  Go seek advice from a successful professor at least 10 years younger than me. Ask Danelle Devenport, Ann Miller, or Lucy O’Brien.

What (if any) are your preferred methods for training your students to become independent scientists? I polled two of my trainees today and they told me what I had already suspected: I have no methods. I set high expectations for myself and for the group, and then play catch-up, trying my best to help us all meet them. I frequently fail.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack? When I was still doing experiments, my mantra was “It’s important to do the right experiments, but it is way more important to not do the wrong ones.” So, I try to be very thoughtful in what I choose to start, and I’m very quick to quit projects that aren’t working. Quitting’s the best! There are always other cool things to go work on.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)? Scrap paper and a Pilot G-2 07 pen with lavender ink. (And Rebecca Fitch, my long-time lab manager).

Members of the Walllingford lab, 2020.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Uh…sorry, but there aren’t any. Do books count?

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it?  My cocktail shaker and my kids’ Xbox. I make a Gibson, then I play Star Wars Battlefront.

When/where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research? Pretty much every good idea I’ve ever had has come while I was reading someone else’s paper. Usually about Drosophila.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are? Walk to a coffeeshop at 3:00 pm every day; drink coffee; chat with people in my lab (preferably) or read.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person? My postdoc mentor Richard Harland. He modeled being a great scientist while also being a great husband and father. I’m still asking him for advice on a regular basis.

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

I’m a classic dilettante, and I enjoy learning at least a little bit about anything that is abstruse but not strictly important. These days, that means Olympic weightlifting and ancient Buddhist embryology.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about? In science, I do a lot of work with the Society for Developmental Biology, which I think is a great organization (as is the ASCB, of course!). I’m especially interested in securing a future for the next generation of developmental biologists. Outside of work, I’m very selfish: my only causes are my family and our friends.

What’s your sleep routine like? Religious. No electronics in the bedroom ever. Read a book in bed every night. Sleep eight hours a night during the week, and one longer stretch on the weekend. I’ve done this my whole career.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees? I’m skeptical of advice in a context like this, honestly. Everyone is so different. The best advice I got may be terrible for you! How about some insight instead? Failure is everything in this business. Most experiments fail; any effective lab meeting will see you criticized relentlessly; every paper will get at least one bad review, 80% of grants won’t be funded. This is the job. If you’ve decided to do this job, you have to get over it and just do the work. Year in, year out. For at least a decade. I love it.

This article is a collaboration: written by Vaishnavi Siripurapu, a junior at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and edited by Emily Bowie.

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:

Vaishnavi Siripurapu is an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is majoring in Biology and Women's Studies. Twitter: @VaishSiri Email:
Emily Bowie is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the lab of Bob Goldstein at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is interested in morphogenesis and embryology. Twitter: @docbowie Email: