A whole new arena of questions
Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz is a tenured investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, United States. Her research focuses on visualisation, tracking and quantification of organelle pathways and dynamics within living cells and whole organisms. In an interview with EMBOencounters she talks about her new job as President of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) for 2014 and evolving topics in cell biology.
Professor Lippincott-Schwartz, how exciting is the task of guiding such a large organisation as ASCB?
It is thrilling. I have been part of the ASCB throughout my whole career, going to the annual meeting every year since I was a graduate student and participating in many of its activities, from programming planning to serving as President. I have seen ASCB grow as a society. Being at the helm of the organisation this year is very gratifying but intimidating given its size. Fortunately, I am helped by a terrific professional staff at ASCB, including Executive Director Stefano Bertuzzi.
The ASCB president is changed every year. How would you like to set yourself apart?
I see that cell biology is changing. For the first time, we have the tools to interface with physical science in a big way. This is mainly due to the improved computational capabilities for predictive modelling of data. Another factor is the advanced microscopy techniques that allow us to look at cells and tissues at higher resolution and in a dynamic fashion. These new computational and imaging techniques are revealing aspects of biology that have never been seen or described before. This is opening up a whole new arena of questions for cell biologists. Since answering many of these questions will require bridging biological concepts with physical science principles, I am trying to provide ways to better build this bridge.
One of the things that I have initiated this year is a special issue of our flagship journal Molecular Biology of the Cell, which will be devoted to papers at the interface of cell biology and physics, as well as papers that incorporate modelling and predictive aspects of modelling involving big data analysis.
In addition to bridging with the physical sciences, we also need to integrate cell biology with the translational sciences. For this, we have designed several symposia at our annual meeting that will focus on the cell biology underlying different diseases – from infectious diseases to cancer.
What does your job look like?
My job is to run the ASCB together with Stefano Bertuzzi and his excellent staff. We work on initiatives that range from improving our journals – Molecular Biology of the Cell and Life Sciences Education – to interfacing with our large number of committees, including education, international affairs, women’s issues, and public policy. The biggest job so far has been organizing the programme of the annual meeting, held this year in December (www.ascb.org/2014meeting), which I have done together with my Program Chair Wallace Marshall. ASCB will be partnering this year with the International Federation of Cell Biology. I also had to recently select biology artwork from our members to be displayed at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.
How do you define the role of ASCB?
Its main role is to facilitate interactions between cell biologists and to help them position themselves for opportunities in the wider field of biomedical and biophysical sciences. The society acts as a way for cell biologists to learn about other scientist’s work and to communicate their own research. The annual meeting also hosts a huge group of vendors, who themselves play an important role in providing the technological developments for doing our science.
How much time remains to pursue your research?
I still find time to run my lab and continue research. That said, there are times when the job is full time. For example, several weeks ago we had our biannual two-day Council meeting, discussing new projects and goals of the society.
Does your position also involve political lobbying?
One day each year, the ASCB Council spends a day on Capitol Hill to talk to congressmen and senators to encourage them to support legislation and give greater financial support to the biomedical profession. I have to recuse myself for some of these activities because I am a government employee and I am not allowed to lobby. But council members and committee heads go out and meet individual senators.
Political lobbying is something that ASCB has been doing for at least fifteen years. For a good reason: it is important for the politicians to be aware of what is happening in cell biology. Most of our scientists believe that the big crisis and the budget cuts are major problems facing all of biomedical research right now in the United States, impacting our science in a very big way.
What is your current research project?
I use live cell imaging to address fundamental processes within cells including cell compartmentalization, cell motility, protein trafficking and organelle inheritance at different scales in space and time. My lab has introduced new approaches for visualizing and analyzing these processes, including the use of photoactivatable fluorescent proteins for photohighlighting and superresolution imaging of single molecules at high density. While I have spent much of my career focused on understanding secretory organelles like the Golgi apparatus and the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). More recently, I have also studied more obscure organelles, like lipid droplets, peroxisomes, primary cilia and autophagosomes, and I am now fascinated with mitochondria and their relationship to other organelles. This has caused me to begin thinking hard about cell metabolism – how it relates to the behaviour and dynamics of organelles, in particular mitochondria, and the cytoskeleton, and how this all might be studied using microscopy.
Which were the key factors that contributed to your successful career?
I like to focus on questions that are simple but take a topic to a new level or direction. I also have a philosophical penchant for studying process and relationships between things. This explains why I am so attracted to fluorescence imaging, since a whole world of dynamics and relationships is revealed every time one looks down a microscope. I was an early user of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) – and helped develop some new imaging approaches using it, including confocal photobleaching, photoactivation and photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM). These new techniques help us image more dynamically and with higher resolution. Everything I am well known for came from being able to visualise at a better level.
How do you help people understand your research?
Science is about communication. All successful scientists that I know are excellent communicators. Before I went into science, I spent three years teaching at the high school level: one year in Africa, two years in California. In 2013, I co-organized the EMBO | EMBL Symposium Seeing is Believing. It was absolutely fantastic. I am also speaking in a concurrent session on Membrane organization & super resolution at the FEBS | EMBO 2014 meeting in Paris this year.
We all have different ways of thinking. When I talk about my research, I try to understand the perspective of the listener and be as simple as possible. I also try and use analogies and relate my findings to other fields and viewpoints.