Jessica Henty-Ridilla

Dr. Jessica Henty-Ridilla, Assistant Professor, SUNY Upstate Medical University

Tell us about your research

What do weight gain, white hairs, and wrinkles have in common? They are all common undesirable self-discoveries that usually go undetected until a threshold much higher than the first couple of pounds, the first white hair, or individual wrinkle. Similarly, the symptoms of neurodegenerative decline often go unnoticed, particularly in the uncurable and untreatable disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). My lab studies the dynamics of specific cytoskeletal proteins in neurons (i.e. actin and microtubules). We study these proteins individually and together and in the presence of other disease-specific regulatory factors by combining observations from biomimetic biochemical reconstitution assays visualized on a microscope and super resolution microscopy of individual proteins in neuronal cells.

What were your challenges of being a NewPI and how you overcame them?

My biggest challenge has been feeling supported and overcoming imposter syndrome. I learned that there were many people near and far (and sometimes unexpected) who have been my cheerleaders providing the hidden support all new PIs need. It has taken some time to find out who these cheerleaders are (and I suspect there are even more than I am currently aware of). I am so grateful for these people. I have no specific advice for finding this network of helpers, except be reassured that they are there for all of us and it is normal and OK to reach out to other people you admire in your field and ask them for help/advice. Another challenge was identifying university wide resources for NewPIs, like myself, and connecting with other NewPIs who joined around the same time as me. I overcame these challenges by creating a peer-mentoring group. I have to admit that it was a lot of work and a challenge in itself to go outside the confines of my lab and meet like-minded peers. This required asking “strangers” for mentoring or advice. As an awkward person, rather than just boldly state this, I would commonly ask identified mentors for lunch or coffee to see this advice. I also was not shy in asking questions to find answers for clarity (but admittedly this may have bordered on being intrusive at times). For example, in the beginning I asked for clarity in calculating grant indirects, and how that money got appropriated. I learned that there are times where I would need a filter to sort out honest advice from the unsolicited more manipulative versions. I think I am starting to get better at sorting out the helpful and unhelpful forms.

How have you been coping with the pandemic in terms of mentoring and research?

I think everyone has their own brand of “hard” or “barely” in terms of pandemic coping. I am a perfectionist and have high anxiety (which I get treated for). To say that I feel guilt or shame right now for not “getting enough done” is an understatement. It has been difficult, but I have tried to reduce expectations of myself and my lab members. We are trying to be proud and celebrate any versions of forward progress. For example, celebrating the purification of a new protein, a successful assay, new skill… rather than waiting until an entire figure or whole paper is composed.

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

My superpower is my enthusiasm and high energy. I am also never embarrassed to ask questions or not know something. There is a lot that I do not know. Also, how am I going to learn, otherwise?

Also, I come from an extremely rural place in Upstate New York (not the city). In many ways this has left me culturally estranged from the people I grew up with and from many in academic spaces. It is a superpower because I truly believe this upbringing allows me to approach and solve problems differently than the academic status quo.

In this academic rollercoaster ride, words of motivation for others?

  1. Comparison is the thief of joy. I didn’t come up with that saying but it is not wrong.
  2. Sometimes I have felt that my best wasn’t enough for other people. Honestly, if at the end of the day you feel like you did the best you could, that is good enough. Most people are trying the best they can, too. Keep that in mind in as many interactions as you can.
  3. Kindness and authenticity do matter.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to your past self, on the day 1 of this job?

  1. Your thoughts and scientific ideas diverge from what you did before so much faster than you anticipate (weeks to months, rather than years).
  2. Be a good listener (actively listen, undistracted to what people tell you… it may be different than what you are literally hearing).
  3. It is OK to reply a request with “unsubscribe”. It will likely confuse the recipient and bonus you will not have to do the thing they were asking you to do.

Bonus Question:

What’s the coolest factoid about actin-microtubule interactions that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

Actin-microtubule interactions underlie *almost* all cellular processes. At least one group has even suggested these proteins ultimately control consciousness. Also, the narwhal’s horn twisting is determined by its microtubules!

Watch out for “A Day in the Life of New PI” on Twitter by Dr. Henty-Ridilla scheduled on Thursday (Eastern Standard Time) 5th August 2021:

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