This installment of ASCB’s “How Cell Biologists Work” features the career of Megan King, associate professor of Cell Biology and Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at Yale School of Medicine. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, the King lab works to discover the mechanistic relationships that exist at the interface of cell biology and biophysics to explain the control of genome dynamics found within the cell nucleus. King has been the recipient of the New Innovator Award from the NIH, a Searle Scholar, and most recently was named an Allen Distinguished Investigator. These accolades highlight the pioneering spirit found in King, which has been shaped by many years of experiences both in and out of academia. Below, King has shared with us her scientific journey, inspiration, and a passion for her research on a daily basis. For further reading on what the King lab (now the joint Lusk-King lab) has been up to recently, see their publication list here.
Let’s start with your Name (if you would like to include your pronouns, please feel free to do so):
Megan King (she/her/hers)
Yale School of Medicine
Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology
What kind of research do you do?
We work at the interface of cell biology and biophysics to define the mechanisms that underlie nuclear mechanics, dynamics, and integrity.
What is one word that best describes how you work?
What excites you most about your current work?
I am particularly excited about how we have recently been combining simulations and experimental approaches thanks to my long-time collaborator, Simon Mochrie. On a conceptual front, I am currently intrigued by the concepts of friction and osmotics in cell biology.
Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path?
I would actually like to challenge the idea that we have one singular path that can lead to success and happiness. I adored my time working in industry, and in retrospect, the real switch that flipped for me and opened up the possibility of an academic career (which I was very much against when I received my BA) happened when working in a start-up, before I went to grad school. It was there that I first appreciated the joy that a mentor can take from the accomplishments of her trainees. I still very much expected to return to industry until well into my postdoc and I believe I could have had a different but also highly rewarding career there.
What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?
The pull of wanting to recede into our projects in the lab and spend all of my time with our team members with the push that my position of relative power gives me a responsibility to take on systems-level issues at the level of the institution and beyond.
Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty?
It’s all about the people. Personally, I want the lab to be filled with people who come in every day for themselves to quench their desire to uncover new biology, not to be seen by me as “working hard.” I’ve learned to appreciate that each individual brings their own strengths to the lab—this diversity is key to a great ecosystem. And it needs to be protected. Beware the dominant-negatives!
What (if any) are your preferred methods for training your students to become independent scientists?
I am the cheerleader. I am ultimately on the sidelines, but my face is the one that you might need to see when you are asking yourself: “Can I do this?”. Everyone has their insecurities, and as a mentor I see my role as helping people face them so that they can, in an evidence-based way, rewrite their internal script. Importantly, I also have to reinforce that we are not trying to avoid rejection and failure. Instead, we are building the reservoir of strength, tenacity, and support to transcend the many aspects of science that will never be in our control.
What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?
No one will care when you show up with a box of store-bought cookies. (This took me until kid #4 to truly embrace).
What is your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)?
I actually use an old-fashioned planner. For me nothing can take the place of a handwritten list and crossing items off of it. My kids are used to helping me locate “my book”—without it I don’t know what needs to get done…
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it?
My Tile. A gift from my husband, now as long as I have my phone OR my keys I can find the other one!
When/ where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research?
I have the privilege of being married to a scientist (Patrick Lusk) who indulges my tendency to frequently hijack “downtime” to kick around ideas. Having a space where one can muse without filter but still receive critical feedback (most new ideas can and should die, let’s face it) is a gift.
What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are?
Making it to my children’s activities—concerts, races, games, etc. Setting your own schedule means that you can offset working late into the night on a grant or lecture by stepping out at 3:00 pm to see a track meet. I constantly make the case that academia is a family-friendly career (truly, there are few that are more flexible), and this is one of the big perks. The time spent with my kids is also essential to my success—it is the reset button and reframes my perspective every day.
Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person?
Without question my postdoc mentor, Günter Blobel. He embraced intuition and worked with a fearlessness that I constantly try to realize. I miss being able to share new ideas with him.
What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab?
I end every day by reading, if only for five minutes—usually fiction, and often a book I have read before. So many books deserve to be read over and over again. Favorite authors include Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and Haruki Murakami.
Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about?
Many! If only I had as much time as I have passion! Working on efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM is at the forefront for me right now. I have been particularly focused on creating opportunities for first-generation, low-income students by devising an introduction-to-research class for first-year undergraduates here at Yale, organizing and supporting a mentored summer research program supported by the NSF, and promoting what I think of as a change of philosophy toward paid research positions for undergraduates in the lab. Many PIs don’t realize that expecting undergraduates to volunteer to gain research experience sets up a system that disadvantages students who are not from families of means. It’s a tradition we need to break.
What is your sleep routine like?
I’m kind of like a camel with sleep. I will take it when I can get it and, when necessary, I will stay up all night (read: grant deadline). I can literally fall asleep anywhere, anytime (even right after drinking an espresso!) and have perfected the power nap.
What is the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees?
If you aren’t failing with regularity, then you don’t know what you can accomplish.
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: email@example.com
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: firstname.lastname@example.org