Jennifer Bagwell balances lab manager and research scientist responsibilities

A 17dpf zebrafish notochord (green/red) and developing spine (blue).  Image by Bagwell
A 17dpf zebrafish notochord (green/red) and developing spine (blue). Image by Bagwell

Jennifer Bagwell

Our featured cell biologist this month is Jennifer Bagwell, a lab manager in the Department of Developmental Biology in the Bagnat lab at Duke Medical School in Durham, NC. Bagwell is interested in developmental biology, particularly vertebrate development. The Bagnat lab studies the cellular and physiological mechanisms controlling morphogenesis. They use zebrafish as a model to study the development of the notochord. The Bagnat lab recently discovered how sheath segmentation provides a template for spine patterning in the notochord (Wopat, Bagwell, et al. Cell Reports 2018). Recent work in the lab has also revealed how sheath cells invade the inner layers of the notochord to repair internal damage (Garcia, Bagwell, et al. Current Biology 2018). Understanding how the notochord forms is crucial to understanding both the developmental mechanisms of the entire phylum Chordata and to discovering fundamental breakthroughs in basic cell and developmental biology. Bagwell has been a part of the Bagnat lab for nine years and has been featured in almost half of the publications from the lab. Her work has been featured in regenerationNEXT, as well as Duke Research Blog.

Let’s start with your Name: Jennifer Bagwell
Location: Duke University, Nanaline Basic Sciences Building
Position: Lab Manager and Research Scientist
Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone 10
Current Computer(s): PC

What kind of research do you do? Developmental cell biology, specifically work around the development of the zebrafish notochord.

What is one word that best describes how you work? Chaotic (but also organized). I wear a lot of hats.

What excites you most about your current work? I really like discovery. I like the beginnings of a project. I like finding something interesting and going after it. That’s what’s exciting to me. I have had many exciting days since I have started working in the Bagnat lab, one being the day I noticed notochord segmentation. We had no idea at the time that it would turn into a beautiful story, but I knew it was really cool. Being able to watch the notochord develop in and of itself is really exciting and has led to a few really elegant papers. It’s so cool to be able to watch something come together in an animal as it is still alive.

Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path? My training is in marine biology. From when I was old enough to walk and talk, I said I wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up. Someone from high school told me that I was the only person they knew who did what they said they would do as a child. Now, I don’t do marine science research anymore. I finished my degree and I needed to find a job. Zebrafish aren’t marine animals, but I saw the research as a stepping stone to get back into marine science. I just fell in love with developmental biology. I think it’s just happenstance that I met the PI of this lab, and we immediately hit it off. His excitement and his mentorship are really what made me fall in love with this type of research. I always thought that I would be working on the Great Barrier Reef or saving the coral reefs or things like that, but studying things on a basic level and figuring out how things form is really interesting to me.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?  I really struggle with little tiny details to finish a story. I like big-picture work, doing experiments, etc. When it comes to sitting down and writing, that is really challenging for me. Tying up loose ends, I would say is the hardest part of my work. I think this might be because I really hate to sit at my desk. I love being at the bench and talking and teaching, but sitting at my desk and writing is not my strong suit. This is a reason why my PI and I get along so well as he is more story-oriented. He is like the brain, and I am the hands. As a lab manager, keeping the lab running and being a researcher is difficult, they can really run into each other and striking this balance is a challenge for me. For example, when the freezer goes haywire and you have to find a new freezer, that impacts me as a lab manager and as a researcher and can really slow me down.

Jennifer Bagwell’s workspace.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack? You develop all kinds of little tricks as you go. I try to be as organized as possible. But sometimes when you’re doing so many things, it can be kind of impossible. Being unorganized really slows me down. My life is “organized chaos”, my desk isn’t the tidiest, but I know where everything is and I know when something is missing. I don’t know if I have a particular trick. One thing my PI taught me when I was just starting was to swirl my cup of zebrafish embryos so that they are all in the center before looking at them under a microscope. To this day, I still use this trick quite often and it has been very helpful.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)? I write my to-do lists on Post-it notes and they are just stuck everywhere I need them. One of my to-do’s on my Post-it notes is actually to look for a digital to-do list. For now, though, my Post-it notes really work for me.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without? I don’t really use a lot of technology. I’m not that techy, but I couldn’t live without imaging software since imaging is my favorite part of the work that I do.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it? I love my coffeemaker. In the lab, we have a fancy espresso grater that I use every single day right after lunch and it really helps me get through my day. We actually have a French press, a drip cone, and the espresso machine. Coffee is a must for the lab, so we have a lot of different coffee gadgets in case one of them is unusable.

When/where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research?
In the imaging processes honestly. You never know what you’re going to see, you’re watching things form live. Most of the exciting and potentially crucial moments of a whole project have come from imaging. I love noticing new things and imaging new lines.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are?
Let my dog out. I have to take care of my dogs, every day regardless of how busy I am in the lab. I love my dogs very much; they are a huge source of stress relief for me. I also really enjoy playing pool. I have a lot of competitive energy, and I release it through pool. I don’t like feeling competitive in science. I feel like science should be more collaborative than competitive.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person? Michel Bagnat, my PI. As a scientist, as a mentor, and as a thinker, he has a brilliant way of taking things that are complicated and telling a simple story. I don’t know anyone who’s better at that than him. As a female scientist, I really admire Blanche Capel. She is always present at talks and always asks probing and helpful questions. She’s a great community member and always has herself together. She is an incredible female role model as a scientist.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab?
Taking care of dogs, dog sitting. I have a really amazing group of friends and they provide me with endless fun outside of the lab. We always have something new planned. In addition to this, maintaining a house is very time consuming, building things, painting, cleaning and fixing things up really takes a lot of time. Aside from this, I enjoy playing pool and hanging out with my nephew.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about?
I used to spend a lot of time working with kids. I worked with the Boys and Girls Club all throughout college. This is something I’ve been meaning to get back into as it is super rewarding. I think it is important to show at an early age that science is more than just looking at caterpillars. Kids need to understand the depth of science from an early age to develop that love and need to explore. I donate money to different schools, but I intend to donate my time to grow youth and engage minds.

What’s your sleep routine like?
Not the best, I stay up too late. I get a second wind around when I should go to bed. I need 7-8 hours of sleep at night. Sometimes I just have to force myself to get sleep, I function a lot better when I get enough sleep.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees? Just slow down. If you rush, you might miss surprises and miss little things that might take what you’re doing to the next level. At some point, you just have to slow down, take your time, look at the details and just pay attention because you will never know when something exciting will pop up.

How do your roles as a lab manager and a researcher interact with each other?

My roles constantly interact with each other. They also at times combat each other. Balancing time can be tricky, especially when we are finishing a paper or working against deadlines. Finding balance can be stressful, and sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But, I work with an amazing group of people who are always willing to help out. That is something I really love about our lab, we come together and work as a team when we need to.  I think we owe a lot of our success to that mentality.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Blanche Capel! I think you would have a great time talking to Blanche. She’s a special scientist.

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: