Dr. Annika Barber, Group Leader, Department of Molecular Biology & Biochemistry, Waksman Institute, Rutgers University
Tell us about your research
My lab investigates circadian behavioral rhythms. We study behavioral rhythms like locomotion, sleep and feeding, as well as molecular rhythms of gene transcriptions in various tissues. We use Drosophila as a model system to investigate how time-of-day signals get from the brain clock all the way out to peripheral tissues to drive circadian behavioral and transcriptional rhythms. We are also interested in mechanisms driving the breakdown of circadian rhythm regulation with aging, nutritional stress and traumatic brain injuries.
As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?
I’m really organized! If you’ve run into me on NPIS, you may have used one of my checklists or questionnaires. I have a system for everything, which helps me set-and-forget. I also have an extensive lab manual (available publicly on my lab website) to help everyone in lab get up to speed with my organizational systems. My organizational systems help stay productive as well – things like blocking out a 2h writing block every week have been amazing.
Also, I read a lot. I have read a paper a day since June 2020, and I tweet summaries of everything I read @papersofnote. This has sparked some really fun IRL conversations and collaborations!
In this academic rollercoaster ride, words of motivation for others?
Don’t wait until tenure to be the kind of scientist you want to be. So many people will tell you to be cautious, don’t spend too much time on X or Y, don’t be open about your projects or you’ll get scooped, etc. But if I have to compromise my scientific ideals to get tenure, then I don’t want it. It makes me a happier and better scientist and mentor to do what I think is right from day 1.
What were your challenges of being a NewPI and how did you confront them?
Um, I started my lab January 2020, so you know. The usual COVID catastrophes. Being a PI can be very lonely in the best of times, but two years in, I still haven’t met some members of my department. I have maintained close friendships with some of my postdoctoral lab colleagues, and have weekly “girls chat” with them to debrief. I also hung out here a LOT my first year, and in other online communities. In nice weather, I’ve also organized new PI get-togethers at my own institution. Building a supportive science squad, whether it’s online, in person, on zoom, on slack, has been essential to my success and my sanity.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to your past self, on the day 1 of this job?
Order more filter tips while you still can!!!! But more seriously – pick one project and really invest in that, rather than trying to get multiple things off the ground simultaneously while your lab is still just two people.
You tweet about the primary literature in a very systematic way. Why? Has that led to any serendipitous interactions or discoveries?
Early in COVID lockdowns, I was really lonely and really uninspired about science. I had started my dream job and then gotten locked out of my own lab 10 weeks later. I was trying to write grants with no data, and everything felt hard. I wanted to try to get back to finding joy in science – so I decided to try to read a paper a day until lockdown ended. Which ended up being extended to a year, and now I’m well into my second year. And it really is a joy.
Also, after too long in academia, I’m actually caught up on the literature that I’m “supposed” to read! Which means I can read more broadly in adjacent and even unrelated areas, which helps me make new creative connections. Using Twitter has also helped me make a name for myself in the Chronobiology online space in the absence of conferences, and in fact has led to a collaboration that will yield a first senior author publication for me later this year!
What’s the most amazing piece of data you’ve ever seen?
It wasn’t earth shattering, but the very first genotyping confirmation done in my own lab by my own students is printed and framed on the lab wall. It was Valentine’s Day 2020 – just before it all came crashing down, but remains a fond memory of feeling like I was on my way to being a Real PI™
Care to dispel any common mistaken assumptions by or about New PIs for the internet?
I don’t have anything to say here, though I’m curious what the common assumptions about new PIs are…
How have you been coping with the pandemic in terms of mentoring and research?
Poorly. It’s been difficult to recruit and train in a pandemic, and expectations have had to be incredibly flexible. More recently, that’s led to frustration for both me and my trainees about progress. However, we had a goal-resetting meeting, and established a quarterly SMART goal development process that has really helped get them back on track with putting in consistent time and effort on their projects.
I also know the pandemic has been super rough on everyone’s mental health. I’m open with trainees about the fact that I use medication and therapy to cope. I open every bi-weekly meeting with questions about their lives and how they’re doing, because for a while lab mates were the only people they saw regularly in real life, as all classes were virtual. While I do want them to make progress in lab, I’m also really clear that you shouldn’t sacrifice your happiness, or put the rest of your life on hold for science. I try to model taking days off, having hobbies, and talking openly about time I spend with friends and family.
Coolest factoid about your research?
When most of us think about circadian rhythms, we think about sleep/wake cycles. But because circadian rhythms affect gene transcription in almost all organismal tissues, controlling for circadian time in your experiments, even if you don’t study rhythms directly, can help remove noise in your data!
How do you read? Any apps or hacks
I get this question a lot because of the #papers365 life. I actually wrote a guide to how I read: https://docs.google.com/document/d/15EB1d7xXIZ3pdtC–3txhEO8C6BHbGyMwP-LbsScdZ4/edit