Let’s start with your name, location, and current position:
My name is Adelita Mendoza. I live in St. Louis, Missouri, where I am a Postdoc at Washington University in Saint Louis in the Departments of Developmental Biology and Cardiology.
What kind of research do you do?
I am interested in understanding how lysosomes and lysosome-related organelles play a structural role in zinc metabolism and zinc trafficking using C. elegans and human cell culture models. Lysosome-related organelles form an interesting projected compartment we named the expansion compartment that changes its shape in response to zinc. I am working to characterize this compartment and uncover the mechanisms that govern how it is formed. This compartment contains a zinc exporter on its membrane called CDF-2, which we think loads the lysosome-related organelles with zinc, while the zinc importer localizes to another sub-compartment called the acidified compartment. Expression of these two transporters are reciprocally regulated, allowing for either a net storage or net release of zinc. I am also working to determine if lysosomes alter their morphology in response to zinc in the human model. As a zinc biologist, I am able to use a wide range of tools to conduct my research. One of my essential tools is super-resolution microscopy and it has allowed me to visualize these lysosomes/lysosome-related organelles. It is really amazing how advanced microscopes are today!
What is one word that best describes how you work?
What excites you most about your current work?
My work is at the interface of different areas of biology, so understanding how lysosome structure is impacted by cytosolic zinc levels can have an impact in different areas of human health, particularly lysosomal storage disorders, and zinc dyshomeostasis. I’m also excited that I get to collaborate with many colleagues to do my research.
Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path?
I will always remember what inspired me to become a biologist. I was born and raised in Colorado. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time exploring our backyard. It was full of many plants and animals constantly. I spent many hours observing the insects, worms, birds, and squirrels. I also noticed the different leaves from our trees. Maple leaves looked different than the ones from the pine tree, which were needle-like. What really fascinated me the most was that all of these creatures were alive like me, yet, they were not me. They seemed to have built-in programs that made them different. I wanted (needed?) to know why.
What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?
Like every trainee, I am constantly learning new techniques and concepts. Being a postdoc means that the volume of work I do increases, and I mentor multiple student trainees. This is all preparation for my career path. I also am very dedicated to diversity and inclusion initiatives, so balancing my time doing advocacy work with lab time can be challenging at times.
Do you have any specific advice for students about choosing this career path?
I have three tips. First, join a lab that provides a positive learning environment with a mentor who will support you. Your mentor’s leadership style dictates the culture in the lab and, since you will be spending the majority of your time there, you want it to be a rich, supportive, learning environment. Second, identify your personal goals and priorities so you can spend your time wisely. Third, take care of your physical AND mental health. This means different things to different people. For me, I need a strong mentor network to provide advice and support. I make sleep, exercise, and eating healthy a priority. I spend time with my loved ones and pursue interests outside the lab. When the stress is way too much, I talk to a mental health professional to help me with coping strategies and reducing negative thought processes. I strongly advise this in particular for students belonging to underrepresented communities.
What are your preferred methods for training for your trainees to become independent scientists?
I have a couple of methods. First, I refresh them on basic bench skills like calculating dilutions. They learned it in school, but it never hurts to refresh in a real-world application. When we do new techniques together, I do a “show one, share one, do one” method I learned while I was a lab tech. I first show them the protocol while they shadow me. The next time, we do it together. The final time the student does it with minimal supervision. After that, they are independent, depending on the complexity of the techniques. Through this method, we work out most of the kinks, and there is time for questions. I have generally observed this helps build confidence too. I have trained many undergraduate, graduate, and medical students this way.
What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?
That is a question that I am asking everyone! When I am in a jam, I order my groceries from Amazon or Instacart. Basically, I outsource as much as I can so I can spend my time doing the things I care about. Being organized helps a lot. I try to organize everything from my finances to my sock drawer. You can waste a lot of time looking for lost things or cause yourself stress from being lost in your life.
In your opinion, what makes a successful scientist?
I think a successful scientist is persistent and savvy. Conducting research itself is challenging, which requires a scientist to be thoughtful, thorough, and rigorous. In addition to that, researchers interact with each other as members of a community, which injects another layer of complication (and opportunity), so learning to navigate lab politics and power structures is important. I think we are learning more and more how critical diversity initiatives are, so I see more efforts in this area as a part of the future.
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without (this can include any gadget that’s not a phone or computer)?
I use Twitter a lot. I have used it to build my scientific network and it has been great for finding literature. Also, for literature, I use the Researcher app, Research Gate, and Connected Papers. I also frequently use Slack. I use it for my GSA activities, interactions with the C. elegans community (for all wormy things), and other interest groups. The apps I use outside of work include MyZone (THE best heart rate monitor), HRV4 Training to monitor my workout efforts and recovery, and Strava. To integrate everything I do, I use Outlook calendar, which integrates with my to-do lists.
When/where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research?
I believe that inspiration can come from anywhere! I thought of ideas for my research by attending talks, talking to colleagues, and even outside of the academic environment. I have been inspired by art, particularly modeling clay, which was a key in the early stages of trying to understand lysosome structure.
What is one thing you never fail to do in or outside of the lab, no matter how busy you are?
There are actually two things! I always make time to train at the gym to channel my stress in a positive way. I also always tell my husband that I love him. Showing gratitude for the people in my life and for what my body can do has had a really positive effect on my life.
Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person?
I admire Rita Levi-Montalcini. She is the epitome of courage and persistence in the face of danger. She didn’t let any of the dangers of war distract her from her love of science and making the important discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). The Washington University Medical School has a wall dedicated to Washington University Nobel Laureates. I say “hi” to Rita every day when I enter my building on campus.
What are your interests outside of the lab?
I try to keep my body moving, so I am an active member of the BARx CrossFit gym, and I also started participating in triathlons last year. I like to spend time with my husband and just be silly with him. He makes me laugh all the time so I look forward to coming home to him every day. He’s a great guy! We have three cats who are all nuts and do crazy things so they make me laugh too. I love science fiction/fantasy books and movies, and stand-up comedy as well.
Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about?
I am passionate about science communication, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in science. I have been involved in many different initiatives and programs since I was an undergraduate, and that passion continues today. My latest efforts involve participating in the Genetics Society of America (GSA) Early Career Leadership Program (ECLP) as co-chair of the Accessibility and Disability Subcommittee. My job there has been to work with colleagues to establish a subcommittee dedicated to improving the experience of scientists with disabilities by catering to their needs in order to help them focus on science.
How do you balance your personal life with your work life?
I identify my priorities and then plan my time based on those priorities. Once I’ve done that, I figure out how I can achieve the goals that are a part of those priorities. Sometimes even though I plan nearly everything, surprises happen and I have learned to pivot so that I can make the most of my time and resources. For me, there really isn’t a balance. Some days I work a lot. Other days I work less. Success to me is having made it another day as a scientist making new discoveries while being able to maintain my personal life outside of science.
What is the best advice you’ve received that you’d like to share with trainees?
Be yourself. It’s a very simple piece of advice but you are the only person who can bring your own unique perspective to science. Realize that you have a lot to offer and get to it!
About the Author:
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