Shirin Bahmanyar: repairing the nuclear envelope; dismantling biases in STEM

Shirin Bahmanyar in action during a summer workshop for local New Haven high school students sponsored by Yale Pathways to Science. Photo credit: Karen King
Shirin Bahmanyar in action during a summer workshop for local New Haven high school students sponsored by Yale Pathways to Science. Photo credit: Karen King

Shirin Bahmanyar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology at Yale University. I had the pleasure of hearing her give a fantastic talk on nuclear envelope dynamics and repair during the Embryology Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. Her talk exemplified how textbook depictions of biology inaccurately portray the extent of error that naturally exists in living systems.

The Bahmanyar lab takes advantage of natural tears that form in the nuclear envelope during interphase to learn how the nuclear envelope is repaired and even initially formed. They pair high-resolution imaging with powerful genetic engineering to study the genome-protecting organelle in both mammalian cell culture and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. The lab published a recent paper on their work demonstrating that nuclear lamins and dynein motors are in a molecular tug-of-war during nuclear envelope repair (Penfield et al., Molecular Biology of the Cell, 2018). This work also reveals that the balance between lamin and dynein forces on the nuclear envelope is tuned throughout the cell cycle. In collaboration with the Bewersdorf lab at Yale University, the lab published a paper that uses super resolution microscopy to survey ER structure and dynamics in mammalian cells, revealing “nanoholes” within ER sheets, the subcellular organelle that is contiguous with the outer nuclear envelope (Schroeder et al., Journal of Cell Biology, 2019).

Bahmanyar is a vocal advocate for promoting diversity in STEM, both at Yale and in the cell biology community at large. She recently wrote a piece for The Royal Society blog that eloquently elaborates on her background and advocacy for diversity. She has received many honors for her scientific achievements, and was most recently awarded an NSF CAREER award as an early-career faculty with great potential as an academic role model.

Let’s start with your name: Shirin Bahmanyar @Bahmanyarlab

Location: Yale University

Position: Assistant Professor

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone X (purchased because my then 2-year-old dropped my iPhone 7 in a pond)

Current Computer(s): MacBook Pro

Nuclear envelope and ER in a one cell stage C. elegans embryo. Photo credit: Shirin Bahmanyar

What kind of research do you do? My lab is interested in understanding how the nuclear envelope establishes and maintains its unique identity and structure. One of our major goals is to elucidate the molecular mechanisms that control membrane dynamics at the nuclear envelope and maintain genome integrity. We use cell biological approaches in both C. elegans and mammalian cells.

What is one word that best describes how you work? Passionately.

What excites you most about your current work? We are only at the beginning of understanding the functional relationship of the nuclear envelope and the rest of the ER. I am excited for the potential to make surprising discoveries about how cells work by studying this relatively unexplored area in cell biology.

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

I fell in love with research as an undergraduate looking through a microscope at budding yeast dividing. At that moment, I became enthralled by the possibility of discovering something completely unknown about how life works.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?  Balancing my time between what I am passionate about (research and mentoring) and the obligation of administrative tasks (email, etc.).

Shirin’s office at Yale University. Photo credit: Shirin Bahmanyar

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty? Hire people whose values align with yours and go for it! Your early investments are critical to setting the tone of the lab so don’t hesitate to hire good people, buy the necessary equipment, and fearlessly pursue your interests because it will pay off.

What (if any) are your preferred methods for training your students to become independent scientists? Communication is a critical component of successful mentorship and training in my lab. By establishing an open line of communication with each member of the lab, I can tailor my mentoring approach so I can train each student with their individual needs and goals in mind.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack? Walking or riding my bike to/from work. I get exercise and it helps clear my mind.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)? Passion Planner because it has a creative design for mapping out short- and long-term goals. The planner also includes space to reflect on “good things that happened this week,” which serve as a reminder to celebrate every achievement, no matter how big or small.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without? Tools that expedite sharing science and science communication. Right now these tools include Box, Google docs, and Twitter.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it? Airpods. I use them to listen to music while I work, commute, and travel.

When/ where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research? Brainstorming with people in the lab and close colleagues helps me to consider different viewpoints and think about our research more openly and creatively. I also enjoy the process of putting together presentations because it helps me think about different ways our data fit together and often leads to new ideas.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are? At work, drink coffee. Outside of work, make time to check in with my family and friends.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person? Among all of my many scientific heroes, one is Jo Handelsman.  She is a leader in her field, did pioneering research that brought gender biases in the sciences to the forefront, has developed training tools for effective mentorship and inclusive scientific teaching, and is a policy maker. She is an amazing role model who embodies what I value as an educator and scientist.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab? I like to travel to learn about new places and cultures and to make connections with new people.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about? I am passionate about doing my part to help increase inclusivity in the sciences. My lab is involved in an outreach program sponsored by Yale (Pathways to Science Summer Scholars) in which we run a week-long summer workshop for local high school students to provide a lens into what it’s like to do research. I also initiated a Women, Transgender and Gender Non-Conformist group in my department that meets on a monthly basis over tea for networking, advocacy, and community. As I progress in my career, I am excited to continue and expand my involvement in activities that promote inclusivity and diversity in the sciences.

What’s your sleep routine like? I mostly live on a sleep deficit and I am striving for a good sleep routine!

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees? Don’t template your path onto someone else’s because there isn’t a single path to a successful research career. Also, failure is integral to science so failing does not mean that you are not good at science or don’t belong in science.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Clare Waterman

About the Author:

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: