Member profile: Needhi Bhalla

Needhi Bhalla

Needhi Bhalla is a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also recently joined the ASCB Council. Bhalla’s research focuses on both meiosis and mitosis, cellular processes that have provided her with endless puzzles to solve.

“Meiosis evolved from mitosis and the thing that I find so amazing about meiosis is the redundancy: there are mechanisms layered on top of both mitotic and meiotic mechanisms, especially with regards to responding to errors,” Bhalla said. “It’s so clear, at least to me, that it’s not parsimonious but actually incredibly baroque, mechanistically. The other aspect of meiosis that I really appreciate is the diversity of approaches to essentially accomplish the same goal: crossover recombination so that homologs segregate properly in meiosis I. I’m particularly excited about CRISPR as a tool to further interrogate this diversity of meiotic mechanisms.”

Recently her lab began performing experiments on mitosis using Caenorhabditis elegans during early embryogenesis. This new context brings about novel questions.

“Now we have to contend with questions about mitosis and development, cell fate, and embryology, topics I have little or no previous experience with. One of the best parts of being a scientist is always having the opportunity to learn something new,” she said.

With regard to Council, Bhalla aims to “bring a sense of urgency” regarding equity in the community of cell biologists. “For ASCB to be an important part of the changing scientific landscape, it has to shift its priorities so that it appropriately reflects that of its constituencies,” Bhalla said. “Currently, those constituencies are more diverse than its leadership, and (they) deserve to see themselves reflected in that leadership, whether that’s on Council or as speakers at the meeting. My plan is to use my position on Council to promote that shift.”

Even before joining Council, Bhalla valued ASCB’s annual meeting for providing opportunities to socialize and learn from like-minded scientists. “I’m also beginning to appreciate the policy wing of ASCB. The amount of time and energy spent advocating for basic science, and promoting its use in policymaking with our members of Congress is incredibly important work. I am grateful for the ASCB’s leadership on this issue,” she said.

In her lab, Bhalla works to inspire her trainees with the same sense of adventure she has found solving scientific puzzles. “Everyone has different reasons to be motivated to work in the lab. For me, it’s figuring out how things work, talking about it with postdocs, grad students, and other PIs to figure out the puzzle and helping undergraduates and graduate students realize that their work is contributing to our knowledge and understanding of how biology works,” she explained.

Not losing sight of how an individual’s efforts contribute to broader understanding helps her stay on target.

“I once heard Cori Bargmann compare experimental science to building a medieval cathedral: while she acknowledged the conceptual leaps, comparing them to stained glass windows, she also pointed out that every brick lays the foundation for progress,” Bhalla said. “The analogy extends even further in that we may not be able to predict or observe the impact of our scientific labor for a long time. This can be hard to acknowledge, especially when we consider our impact in the context of a career. But it is also freeing: If I can’t necessarily predict what might have the capacity to fuel future scientific progress, then any progress made in my lab may be worth following up on and communicating, assuming I can fund it!”

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Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.