What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
My lab is focused on understanding how the coordination of molecules and cells in space and time can change an injury’s outcome from scarring to regeneration. We use the Mexican axolotl as our research organism because it lets us study the “best case” outcomes – regrowing entire limbs as well as regenerating portions of spinal cords, hearts, and brains. We love to use microscopy to visualize how cells make decisions (individually and as a collective) and the functional consequences to cell behavior when you perturb regenerative processes.
It’s exciting that the axolotl is becoming more accessible with the advent of molecular and genomic tools, and yet many unknowns still remain about how regeneration happens and why it isn’t a more widespread trait across the animal kingdom. One of the most rewarding aspects of our work is delving into those unknowns and regularly seeing something in the lab or at a meeting that is new and exciting. Experiencing that sense of discovery and sharing it with trainees or colleagues is really fun.
My lab recently moved to Wake Forest which has a strong mission toward undergraduate research. Training and mentoring students is one of my favorite parts of being a faculty member, and it’s especially nice to be part of a University that emphasizes those early, formative research experiences.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
Two very disparate experiences led me to bench science - a general love of biology and a part-time job in college fixing computers. Growing up, I could not get enough of animals and understanding how living things worked. It was a forgone conclusion that I would study biology in college, but at that time I was thinking about wildlife biology and ecology. To make ends meet, I got a job doing computer support on campus. I really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of that job and the accomplishment of fixing persistent problems. When I had my first molecular biology experience as a summer Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) student, I realized that bench research was very similar, involving constant challenges in problem solving. After I made that connection, I was sold.
As far as stem cell research, I would say that I fell into the field as a cell biologist. I really enjoy thinking about how cells move, interpret their environment, and change within tissues under different conditions. The stem cell field has 1) some very compelling contexts to study cell biology in development and regeneration and 2) a mission to improve the outcomes of human aging, disease, and regeneration. My favorite part of the ISSCR annual meeting is seeing both things presented front and center.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Regenerating an entire limb is such a fascinating phenomenon. What I think is most exciting is understanding how a catastrophic injury can trigger cells at the amputation site to both dedifferentiate into progenitors and take part in a very elaborate morphogenetic process to re-make lost limb segments. All that cool biology related to reprogramming, self-organization, and tissue patterning is inside a single post-developmental organ - the axolotl limb!
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
I would give two pieces of advice. For students- look for good mentoring and training. The benefit of having a supportive mentor and a good training environment can easily outweigh the lab’s eminence or cool scientific questions, in my opinion. Focus on learning how to design rigorous experiments and think creatively and critically. With that skillset, my second advice directed toward postdocs or future postdocs is to not “fear the leap.” Many sub-disciplines of research as well as non-academic workplaces stand to benefit by bringing in scientists trained with unique scientific perspectives and expertise. So, don’t feel that because you don’t have a background in a particular problem or discipline that you won’t succeed or can’t contribute. Quite the opposite, I would argue!
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
I would definitely credit my postdoc advisor, Elly Tanaka. She is a talented scientist who has pushed a lot of technology development in the axolotl. I’m happy to have experienced that and helped contribute to that endeavor. As I was developing live imaging and clonal tracing in the axolotl, I took a lot of inspiration from the labs of Valentina Greco and Mark Krasnow. It was a great privilege that I got to meet Valentina a few years ago, and I have continually learned from her research as well as her dedication to mentoring, equity, and inclusion (as showcased in this year’s ISSCR Early Career Group Leader Panel).
How do you spend your free time?
These days, I spend my free time pandemic-schooling a kindergartener. I have a lot of empathy and compassion for colleagues that are also trying to balance care-related duties right now. Otherwise, our family has spent the summer getting back into camping and hiking. I was an avid backpacker in college and grad school, and I’m excited to revisit old haunts now that I’m back in Appalachia.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I speak and understand Korean! The summer prior to starting my postdoc, I took part in an immersive summer school funded by the U.S. government. I lived with a host family and did language school five hours a day. Even after living in Germany as a postdoc for seven years (but working in an English-speaking environment), my Korean is still better than my German!
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
Experiencing the entire breadth of the ISSCR during the annual meetings makes me proud to be a society member. To see the translational work, fundamental science breakthroughs, and public policy and ethics advocacy is great inspiration. I serve as the Chair of the Early Career Scientist Committee (formally the Junior Investigator Committee). I’d like to take this opportunity to solicit help from my fellow early career members. Our committee works to represent and support students, postdocs, early career non-academics, and group leaders within 8 years of starting. If you have suggestions or feedback on how we can better fulfill our mission, please reach out! We hope to increase communication and community among early career scientists as well as organize resources for career development and mentoring best practices going forward.