Amy Gladfelter on the ‘random-skip,’ using your intuition, and crossing things off

The cell biology field is full of creative people and just as many creative approaches to doing great science. As a graduate student and aspiring cell biologist, I have always been curious about how people approach the multifaceted career of running a research lab. Unfortunately, we trainees rarely have opportunities to ask detailed questions about how established cell biologists run their labs and make discoveries.

After giving some thought to how I might convince some of my cell biology heroes to answer intrusive questions about themselves, I stumbled across Lifehacker’s “How I Work” blog, and Rob Denton’s great series: “How Molecular Ecologists Work”. These were a series of survey-style interviews where people answered a diversity of questions about “how they work”–  anything from what software or gadgets they use to who their personal heroes are. I noticed they tended to reveal practical, philosophical, and personal details about how different people approach a challenging field. Those details also made them completely addicting to read. So, with very little change to the original format (or title), I present the first installment of How Cell Biologists Work.

Dr. Amy Gladfelter gamely agreed to be my first guinea pig for this series. Amy is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She is also an HHMI Faculty Scholar and a 2015 ASCB WICB Award winner. Amy and her lab study how cells are organized in space and time, using cutting-edge microscopy and computational techniques, along with other innovative approaches. Thanks, Amy for telling us about how you work!

Name: Amy Gladfelter

Location: UNC Chapel Hill

Position: Associate Professor of Biology

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone 6, iPad 2 (without email installed)

Current Computer(s): MacBook Pro

What kind of research do you do?

We are interested in how the physical properties of molecules contribute to cell organization and dynamics. In particular, we are interested in how cells pattern their cytosol and how they perceive their shape. We use a variety of microscopy methods, genetics, biochemical reconstitution, and biophysical approaches in a number of different cell systems including fungi and mammalian cells.

Can you use one word that best describes how you work:

Random-skip: like a random walk but bouncier

What excites you most about your current work?

This is tough—I am so excited about too many things we are working on right now! I am really excited by and stimulated by thinking about RNA and how features of RNAs influence the material properties of cell structures. I am also really interested in how cell structure information crosses scales and recently we have thought about how septin filaments allow the nanometer and micrometer scales to be linked, but I’m curious about other mechanisms beyond polymerization that allow for scaling across length scales.

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

I just moved my lab from Dartmouth, where I was for 10 years, to UNC a few months ago so many of my challenges are very finite and revolve around logistics of getting microscopes assembled. My bigger picture challenge remains how to find the right people for the team so that we have a blend of talents, training, and personalities that make this a stimulating lab for discovery.

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

Don’t question if you are doing something the right way—just use intuition, research options, and act without too much anguish. Always wait 24 hours before saying yes to something.

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

I probably need a lot more of these—I don’t really know that I have many but I do try to walk to work most days and this takes care of exercise and thinking and commuting in one step so to speak.

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

My moleskin notebook. I find I have to still have a paper list although I do use a digital calendar. Something about physically crossing things off it with a pen is critical to my mental equilibrium.


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

Slack has changed the way I communicate with my lab. Now I don’t have to wade through my email for messages from my people and instead sharing images, movies, gels, ideas, planning, etc., all happen through series of conversations on Slack. Without having to see all the many things in my inbox, I can prioritize needs, issues, and communications with my lab. It lets me focus on the work of my groups without getting lost and distracted in the myriad of requests in email.

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

My apple corer from Ikea. I use it every day to cut apples very quickly for kid’s lunches.

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

Take a walk each day and look at the trees and the sky.

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

Tim Mitchison, and I admire how he continues to work at the bench—generating ideas, playing, and gazing in the microscope despite all the pulls on time. 

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

I like fiction that is as much about how the sentences are built as the stories themselves. I love to garden and I like thinking about what plants are going into my new garden in Chapel Hill. 

What’s your sleep routine like?

I try to be in bed reading by 11 and up at 6. In some phases, I wake at 4:30 to work before the family awakes but this is seasonal behavior.

What would you do if you weren’t doing research every day?

My plan B careers that I still consider on overwhelming days are to be a writer, to be a midwife, or to run a plant nursery.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Eva Nogales—I really admire her science and her humanity.

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

We all are juggling many balls at one time. Learn what balls are made of glass and will shatter if dropped and learn which once are made of rubber and will bounce. Michelle Momany of University of Georgia told me this.

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