Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz has spent most of her career as a cell biologist devising live cell imaging techniques for studying how cells are organized and dynamically function. Most recently, at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, she’s been studying how organelles communicate with each other through inter-organelle contacts and the role this plays in maintaining cell homeostasis. This professional focus has yielded many intriguing discoveries and countless beautiful images. ASCB is pleased to announce that Lippincott-Schwartz will present this year’s E.B. Wilson Award Lecture at Cell Bio Virtual 2020–an Online ASCB|EMBO Meeting. I recently had an opportunity to speak with Lippincott-Schwartz about her work and approach to science and scientific societies like ASCB.
Neurons and Astrocytes
All too often cell biologists use only a single cell type when addressing a question, but when Lippincott-Schwartz and recent postdoctoral fellow Maria Ioannou looked at neurons co-cultured with astrocytes they were in for a surprise. The two cell types exhibited an interdependency on each other’s specific functions. The neuron, especially after electrical excitement, cleared itself of harmful lipids by releasing lipoprotein particles, while nearby astrocytes took up the particles and digested them. Without such intercellular collaboration, the neuron deteriorated. This discovery, Lippincott-Schwartz said, sparked her interest in whether there is interdependency among other cell types in physiological environments such as tissues. “Could intercellular collaborations be continuously underway within tissues that enable specialized and system-wide activities?” “If so,” she added, “this is our next frontier in cell biology—to understand what these collaborations are all about.”
“Could intercellular collaborations be continuously underway within tissues that enable specialized and system-wide activities?”
The many advances in imaging now available make it feasible to begin examining cells in tissues, Lippincott-Schwartz said. At Janelia, she and others have benefited from using new technologies such as focused ion beam milling with scanning electron microscopy (FIB-SEM) honed for 3D analysis by Harald Hess. FIB-SEM, Lippincott-Schwartz said, is an amazing technology for obtaining unparalleled 3D views of organelles throughout an entire volume of the cell. “Every FIB-SEM volume set whose organelles have been segmented I’ve looked at has led to surprises and questions I would have never asked before.” Another advanced technique Lippincott-Schwartz’s team is using lets them image cells at sufficiently high spatial-temporal resolution that single proteins can be individually tracked as they diffuse across an organelle. “This has allowed us to study how proteins on one organelle change their motion in response to interactions with proteins on a different organelle,” Lippincott-Schwartz said.
Coronavirus and Kayaks
Lippincott-Schwartz is looking forward to getting back into her lab once the pandemic-induced shutdown has abated. “I never realized how important the everyday chit-chat in our lab was to our coming up with fresh ideas and approaches,” she said. Her research team at Janelia has returned in shifts to ramp back up following the pandemic-induced shutdown. “We’ve decided to join the rest of the world in trying to figure out how the corona virus is working inside cells,” Lippincott-Schwartz said. “We are taking small steps now, realizing that the intracellular pathways followed by this virus are likely diverse, with only some leading to an effective assembly and exit pathway. Hopefully, any findings we come up with can help others working in this area.” Lippincott-Schwartz describes Janelia as a place that provides her with the “perfect environment for doing fantastic science. We have free coffee all day, food easy to come by, no worries about grant writing, and administrative staff who are amazing,” she said. She even sometimes has the opportunity to commute to work via kayak across the Potomac River—a rare treat. “It’s not any faster than driving, but it gives you a chance to contemplate and transition from the day,” she said.
Creating the Scientific World
Lippincott-Schwartz has had a long relationship with the ASCB, serving as president in 2014. She first joined when she was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.
“From the very beginning, I knew that this was my society,” she said. “Everything that I was interested in was discussed at the meetings, and I had incredible opportunities to hear people I had read about and to meet people that I looked up to. Eventually, I had the chance to present my own research! I used to live in the poster hall and was always disappointed when they closed it every evening. The relationships I have made through ASCB are incredible.”
[W]hat we really are doing as scientists is constructing a vision of the world built on common language and agreed-on concepts….
Part of the importance of scientific societies, Lippincott-Schwartz added, is that they offer opportunities to interact with colleagues in an informal way—something you cannot do by reading the literature. She looks forward to finding ways for informal discussions during this year’s virtual meeting.
“You create relationships that are important for your career development and you create a trust network,” she said. “You learn why particular scientists think the way they do. It all starts making sense in a bigger way.”
Moreover, Lippincott-Schwartz said, participating in a scientific society provides the scaffolding upon which science itself is constructed.
“Young people might think science progresses steadily by simply accumulating facts. But what we really are doing as scientists is constructing a vision of the world built on common language and agreed-on concepts that can make sense of the facts we uncover. What scientific societies do in this scheme of things is to provide a forum for researchers to develop agreed-on language and concepts, and to assess the significance of unexpected observations that often can pave the way toward transitions in how to think about the world.”
About the Author:
Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.