Nasser Rusan on telling a story with your science

Cultured Drosophila cell: microtubules (orange); chromosomes (blue). Image by Todd Schoborg.
Cultured Drosophila cell: microtubules (orange); chromosomes (blue). Image by Todd Schoborg.

This month for How Cell Biologists Work, we feature  Nasser Rusan, an Earl Stadtman PI in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Rusan is originally from Jordan and moved to the U.S. in 1996 to attend college.

The Rusan lab studies cell division in the context of whole organisms to uncover the secrets behind cellular and tissue development. The lab studies the regulation of centrosomes (the anchors at either end of a dividing cell) and mitotic spindles (the long rods protruding from these anchors that grab hold of the DNA in the middle of the dividing cell). They use confocal microscopy to unveil mechanisms regulating these essential cellular structures in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and in Drosophila cell lines.

Nasser Rusan and family.

Recent work in the lab has elaborated on the regulation of spindle crosslinking at the mitotic midline (Swider, Z. T., et al., MBoC 2018). This work also reveals a genetic basis for disease susceptibility through loss of a non-essential but important regulatory protein, FIP (Fascetto/PRC1 Interacting Protein), highlighting the need to characterize such non-essential proteins.

The Rusan lab also recently released a preprint demonstrating how they apply micro-computed tomography to study genetic models of human disease in fruit flies, for example autosomal recessive primary microcephaly (Schoborg, T. A., et al., BioRxiv Preprint 2019). With these tiny x-rays for tiny organisms, the lab can see how different genetic perturbations can impact tissue development and inter-tissue connections in the context of an intact developing organism. As a PI, Rusan’s main tips are to stay focused, seek input from others, and master the art of multi-tasking. You can read more about Rusan at JCB.

Let’s start with your Name: Nasser Rusan, @RusanLab

Location: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD

Position: Senior Investigator

Current Mobile Device(s): LG-Stylo2, Cricket Model

Current Computer(s): Dell T3610 (always PC, never Mac)

Lab Website: http://www.rusanlab.com/

What kind of research do you do?

We’re a cell biology lab that uses Drosophila as our research playground. Most of our questions revolve around mitosis, centrosomes, and the cytoskeleton. We are also developmental biologists, almost geneticists, and aspiring biochemists.

What best describes how you work?

Organized. Always trying to stay three steps ahead.

What excites you most about your current work?

These days I’ve been obsessed with tissue-specific, protein-protein interactions that drive functional diversity in different cell types. Why does a mutation in a particular gene lead to disease in some tissues and not others? As it relates to our favorite organelle, the centrosome, we are trying to understand how unique centrosome architectures convey specialized functions in embryos vs. the nervous system vs. the reproductive system and so on.

Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path?

Moving from studying cells on glass coverslips to using an animal model during my postdoc was transformative. It revealed an entirely new research world to me that is focused on studying cells in context. With CRISPR, modern imaging modalities, and a wide range of fly genetic tools, we can investigate almost every process in vivo, and it is only getting better.

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

Recruiting people. The success of the lab relies on its members, and here at the NIH, that means postdocs. I’ve been extremely lucky to have so many great people join my lab, but I’m always worried that my luck will run out.

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

I’ve seen so many people with different approaches make it work, so I don’t presume I know any magic formula. What worked for me was to make sure I had more than sufficient resources (people and money) for each project. This model would scale for each lab; for me, that meant 3 projects each with 2 people. Those 3 projects turned into my first 3 papers at the end of year 1, 2, and 3. I basically hyper-focused on a small number of projects.

Rusan’s office.

What (if any) are your preferred methods for training your students to become independent scientists?

This question made me think “what do I actually do to train people?” My lab is mostly made up of postdocs with the goal of running their own labs. Experimentally, at this stage, they either know how to do stuff, or they know how to learn how to do stuff. My job here is to direct them to experts and resources that can help; in that sense, maybe I’m training them to be more resourceful.

As far as the science, I do my best to ask questions that help focus and guide projects, which could be considered training someone in the art of asking questions. I think I also train them to be resilient; I do my best to brainwash them to forget and move on. One thing that I do train my people to do is how to tell a story. I cannot emphasize enough how critical this skill is to the success of a scientist. You could have the most fascinating results, but if you don’t know how to arrange them into a cohesive, digestible story, then life as a scientist will be much more difficult.

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

I focus on fully completing one thing each day. One recommendation, one paper review, organizing one seminar speaker visit, commenting on one manuscript draft, preparing and meeting with one lab member, or anything else. It might be the case that that one thing is spread across the entire day and is interspersed with a dozen other things, but I will complete it.

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

Analog. I have a clipboard with blank printer paper sitting to left of me at all times. The top sheet is my to-do list, which is rewritten each Friday before I leave.

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

Word, Outlook, Powerpoint, Illustrator, and ImageJ. What else would a cell biologist need?

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

None. I don’t own any other gadgets.

When/ where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research?

The NIH is such an incredible place where we are exposed to a constant stream of seminars from both intramural and extramural researchers. I am literally at a never-ending scientific conference. These seminars have been a great way to keep up to date on the latest and greatest while offering endless inspiration for new ideas and directions in my lab.

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

I never ‘never fail’ to do something. At home, I try to get my kids on the bus in the morning each day. At work, I try to walk through the lab once a day to randomly engage folks. I enjoy the ‘what do you want?’ look I get from my people.

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

There are many scientists I admire for a trait or for an accomplishment, but I don’t ever think of anyone as a hero. I like rigorous, creative scientists who are genuinely nice people with low to no ego.

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

This changes all the time. These days, woodworking and running a home business take up most of my non-lab time. Both involve learning a lot of new skills in areas that are vastly different from each other and from what I do at work.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Sleep between 12-1 am, wake up at 7 am

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

These questions are funny in that they are quite extreme – the ‘best’, the ‘hero’, the ‘one thing,’ ‘never fail’ to do. Nothing in life can be boiled down to anything singular. I have no idea what the best advice would be. At this very second, my advice is: Sit down with people face-to-face, ask them what they think, and then just listen.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

PIs – Dorothy Lerit (Emory), Catarina Homem (University NOVA of Lisbon), Don Fox (Duke), Stephanie Gupton (UNC-CH), Bill Sullivan (UC Santa Cruz)

Read more profiles from How Cell Biologists Work here:

Daniel Colón Ramos

Amy Gladfelter

About the Author:


Vaishnavi Siripurapu is a freshman at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Kira Heikes is a graduate student in Bob Goldstein's laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is currently studying embryonic development in tardigrades. Twitter: @KiraTheExplora Email: kiraheikes@gmail.com.