Annika Barber

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:–3txhEO8C6BHbGyMwP-LbsScdZ4/edit

Constanza Cortes

Dr. Constanza Cortes, Group Leader, Brain Aging Physiology Lab, University of Alabama, Birmingham

Tell us about your research

We work in an inter-sectional field between exercise, aging, and neurodegenerative diseases. We use mouse models to investigate how exercises are good for the brain and how we can use it to discover new therapeutics to prevent neurodegeneration. We collaborate with labs that use human samples, as well. Specifically, we get human datasets and samples from Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC) a NIH common fund initiative.

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

I became a NewPI in October 2019 and few months in, we went in to quarantine. The biggest challenge was navigating the COVID world. What does it mean to train someone when they are five feet away versus online mode of training? How do we hire people? How does one connect with students in the virtual mode? By the end of it we got pretty good at dealing with these challenges. We learnt to navigate the complexities. Currently, the challenge is the cost of consumables. For some, the cost has tripled. It has made me as a NewPI, resilient and adapt incredibly well. Despite the pandemic and some of my lab members getting COVID, students in my lab have been successful, we wrote lots of grants, published reviews, guest edited a special issue. We are looking forward to what comes next!

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

I had hired three undergrads and two staff before the shutdown. We transitioned to the virtual mode soon and it was difficult for all of us. Communicating and engaging with the team was a learning curve, and the students were fantastic, we all got together and wrote a review. Hardest part was the transition back after the shutdown. Adjusting the classes in person, research in person, learn about the techniques they had been reading about in the papers. Factoring in the commute in our schedules also played a role in getting adjusted back. It has been interesting to watch the two batches of students blossom in different ways.

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

I would say Empathy! Apart from being a NewPI, I am a woman and latina, which is not common in the deep south. Before the shutdown, students not from my lab and not in my classes would come to me and speak with me, as they saw themselves in me. My struggles in navigating COVID world helped me connect with my students, who were also going through the same emotional stress.

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

Find your community. In this job, the lows are very low and highs are very high. The only way emotionally stable and healthy is to have a community around you, who can hear you and understand each other.

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

  1. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the time and space to grow and learn.
  2. Be open to change, even if it is scary. Embrace it!

Bonus Question

What’s the coolest factoid about immunology that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

Vampires were right! There is something in your blood that makes you old. If you take young blood and put in to aged mouse, the mouse gets younger. What is even cooler is if you exercise a mouse and takes its blood and put in to a sedentary mouse, the brain of the latter thinks it is exercising. If we identify what these factors are, a big goal of my lab is to develop therapeutics that would give benefits of exercise to patients suffering from immobility, Alzheimer, paraplegic and related illnesses. 

Victor Greiff

Dr. Victor Greiff, Group Leader, Institute of Clinical Medicine (University of Oslo), Norway

Tell us about your research

My research focuses on studying the specificity of adaptive immunity using computational (70%) and experimental (30%) methods. In other words, we are trying to find out how a limited number of antibodies and T cells can recognize so many pathogens. The resolution of this challenge is of incredible importance for rule-based therapeutics and diagnostics design.

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

I think one of the main challenges is to hire PhD students/PostDocs. Starting a lab with the wrong people can really slow down the starting up process. I still don’t know how to predict who is good and who is not. I learned that trialing students in their Master’s studies (in Europe almost everyone needs a Master’s in order to enter a PhD program) is a good way of finding out if a student is compatible with my lab. The other big challenge is trust and patience. As a postdoc, one is used to do things quickly and efficiently. But when starting a lab, one is no longer the main data producer in the lab and that takes time to adjust to. I still need to remind myself to have more patience.

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

We are predominantly computational, and we are in Norway. So, things were not that bad for us. Group meetings are still via zoom though. I would like to have more face-to-face meetings.  As of this year, all 1:1 meetings are in person again because I think zoom decreases creativity to some degree. Given that there was minimal traveling, we were actually quite productive research-wise. The downside of this is that a number of PhD students have never been to a conference (or only very few). But this will change this year.

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

Discipline and perseverance.

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

I always tell my students that there are many things that are out of our control. But the one thing one can control (to a very large degree) is how hard one works. And for people that work, opportunities will emerge (see also 4.). At the beginning, one worries about having too little output, but over time, it will be increasingly difficult to keep up with all projects (and all other stuff: conferences, administration, grant writing, …). Not sure if this is motivating, though :D.

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

Don’t worry so much. Just work and things will be fine.

Bonus Question

What’s the coolest factoid about immunology that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

Each antibody can recognize and bind many different antigens. That’s why we don’t need as many antibodies as there are pathogens. Very clever, evolution! 

Aaron Engelhart

Dr. Aaron Engelhart, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota

Tell us about your research

We study forms of nucleic acids outside the central dogma of DNA-RNA-protein. We’re especially interested in four-stranded forms of DNA and RNA called G-Quadruplexes, and these turn up in some really interesting places in biology, nucleic acid tools for synthetic biology, and the origin of life and space biology.

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

One of the most challenging things about being a new PI is starting the lab from scratch. Up until now, I came from labs where, for example, procedures for ordering things, infrastructure in the lab, and even little things like where to find a screwdriver were all things I took for granted. Getting all this in place is a lot to do starting out! Being fortunate enough to have some talented and dedicated first trainees in the lab and talking with peers that are going through the same thing both helped us get up and running.

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

I feel like one of the positive things that’s come out of COVID is that it’s encouraged us to have more empathy for one another. Every one of us has been affected in some way or other by the pandemic, and it’s been different for each of us. As we’ve progressed from the earlier stages of pandemic to whatever this new normal is, we’ve been adapting and adjusting, both as mentor and trainees. The changes that have come about over the last couple years (and that are continuing) have been really challenging, but I think overall there’s been some really positive impact in this regard.

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

Empathy! As a new PI, you were in the trainee seat not that long ago, and I think that this makes it easier to understand trainees’ concerns and goals when they come to you with them.

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

Oftentimes our most challenging days are experiences we have in common with many others. It’s very easy to look at a finished piece of work or the career trajectory of someone you admire and to forget that hard days and rejection were and are a component of it for them too.

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

Get lots of advice from lots of people with a diverse array of perspectives! Hearing from someone who’s done it before is critical, and every PI has lived this experience in a different way – so they’ll all have a different perspective on the paths to success. Everyone’s experience has something to teach you, but it’s important to remember we’re all living N=1!

Bonus Question:

What’s the coolest factoid about nucleic acids that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

The G-quadruplex structure we study forms at the level of the monomer. That is, if you take guanosine or guanosine monophosphate, heat it up in salt solution, and cool it back down, it will form a gel because of long-range interactions between guanosines. This was actually observed in the early 20th century (i.e., decades before we had much clue about what was going on with atomic structures) by a Norwegian physician named Ivar Bang (

Watch out for “A Day in the Life of New PI” on Twitter by Dr. Engelhart.

Michael D. L. Johnson

Dr. Michael D. L. Johnson, Assistant Professor, Immunobiology, BIO5 Institute

Tell us about your research

My research looks at how biological systems process metals. Metals are co-factors for 40% of proteins. Apart from humans, there is bacteria, viruses and many other organisms that use metals for enzymatic process or capsid proteins. I am specifically looking at the host-pathogen interface. Bacteria keep looking at sources of metal such as Iron, Manganese, Calcium, etc. Also, there are metals that human body uses that bacterium don’t, especially copper. The bacteria at the host-pathogen interface that ends up infecting humans use very low amounts of copper, thus copper in even low concentrations can be detrimental.  This brings the focus on how the body uses Copper to kill the bacteria. Also, humans have been taking advantage of the bactericidal property of Copper. For example, in Bordeaux mixture in vineyards and to eradicate potato blight disease. Our body also uses nutritional immunity, where bacteria are restricted from getting the metals they like (Iron, Manganese, etc.) and bombard them with copper. This mechanism is seen in macrophages. My laboratory focuses on three major questions surrounding Copper:

  1. Using Streptococcus pneumoniae as the primary bacterial model we study the toxicity of copper,
  2. the bacterial defense mechanism against copper toxicity, and
  3. Weaponizing Copper as a therapeutic. 

We know that Copper causes mis-metalation and destabilizes the protein by disrupting the active site. At the same time, bacteria have copper exporters that acts as defense mechanism. Finally, we now can use Copper as a weapon by utilizing a Copper chelator or Ionophore that binds with copper and increases the amount of copper inside the cell by 60-fold! Going a bit deeper on the second aspect, we have discovered the relationship between sugar uptake and the redox reaction of Cu2+ to Cu1, where the latter leaves the bacterial cell. In other words, the sugar acts as an electron source for reducing Cu2+ to Cu1, and there is an upregulation of the gene responsible for sugar uptake. Where is the sugar coming from? Since, the capsule of S. pneumoniae is made of sugar, it became clear that the bacteria use the nearest source of sugar as electron source. In a way, cannibalizing its own protective capsule for exporting copper out of its system

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

As a new PI, the biggest challenge was figuring out which expectations took priority at a given point of time: The institution’s priorities or the department’s or myself. The reason is that in the first year of a NewPI, there are lots of sucker punches that come along the way, in terms of everything going as per plan. In these situations, my expectations then have to change with the times I was dealing with. And, that by itself was a challenge. With changing expectations and fulfilling my own, there had to be a comfort in the chaotic nature of what those changes look like. How to deal with changes and still feel confident in the realistic expectations, becomes the key to look at things. Coming from a high (I am going to save the world, 10 times over!) to the realistic expectations of all encompassing of what other people need from you and what you want from yourself. This was the biggest challenge for me.

In order to overcome these, I work with my expectations and I ask myself “Did I address a research question to the best of my ability?” “Did I make a fundamental contribution in research/mentoring/outreach/teaching?” and what level of satisfaction I get in this position. Basically, a refocus of priorities inside-out.

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

The pandemic led me to create something that is far more valuable than my research in the laboratory. I saw that many were missing on research opportunities, and I decided to do something about it. I made the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project that connect mentors to mentees, virtually. COVID-19 made this program possible in 11 days! In the first year we had 250 students in two different cohorts, and 170 mentors world-wide participate. These students got an opportunity if not for this program. In the next year, we go NSF RAPID award for providing a full-time stipend to 66 students matched to 63 mentors! And this program is now a three-year REU for microbiology and immunology that got funded by the NSF. We are looking at areas to expand and incorporate other disciplines such as cancer biology. One of the important questions asked to the students was if they are interested to travel for an in-person program, if COVID goes away. A third of them said no and others said they were unsure, as they had family of their own, financial obligations, caring for parents, etc. So, this program is meeting the people where they are at, rather than the other way around and find a seat at the table. Our program will always stay virtual to provide the opportunities for those who want to get research experience. Outreach is more transformative part of my research and I channelized COVID challenges into this successful, transformative, and a positive program.

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

The ability to connect people and connecting ideas are my superpowers!

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

Celebrate everything! We want to wait until the finish line before we celebrate. But there are many things to celebrate to give a peace of mind. So, every small thing is a moment for celebration and we need to reward ourselves to motivate ourselves. The people around me, my lab members need to see me celebrate like that, because small victories, medium victories, large victories are all victories. Don’t wait for big events! You earned it! The #humblebrag channel is the best, it is best antidote for a bad mood. It makes you feel better seeing other people’s victories and successes. We can get it together.

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

Go for the equipment you need to get the job done. Don’t wait! No buyer’s remorse. There is a story from childhood when I was in the little league that I never forget. I didn’t get one single hit in my first two years of baseball. I was either ducked or struck out. It was the playoffs and I was crouching as small as possible and I thought the ball that came was way outside and didn’t swing. The umpire called “Strike three!” and I was dejected since I thought it was outside! But, as I was walking away, the umpire said “You gotta swing the bat, Son”. It was good life lesson for me.

Bonus Question

What’s the coolest factoid about copper and bacteria that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

The coolest thing about copper is that it exists in the interface between our body and bacteria. Copper intoxication happens very quickly with microbes! There is certain level of elegance in living in that crevice. It is a pretty looking metal. There is this wonderful unknown that exists about near and dear things we use everyday and keep exploring those environments/platforms related to copper.

Watch out for “A Day in the Life of New PI” on Twitter by Dr. Johnson: 9th March 2022, Wednesday from 9AM Eastern time

Amber Stratman

Dr. Amber Stratman, Assistant Professor, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

Tell us about your research

We study cardiovascular development, how blood vessels and the heart are built and stabilized, using zebrafish as a model organism. We are interested in how vascular cells interpret and respond to mechanosensitive forces to alter their behavior, signaling, and interactions with their microenvironment.

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

The biggest challenge for me as a New PI has been facing down imposter syndrome and the feelings of isolation. I have tried to overcome this by confronting these feelings head on, actively talking to others about it, and realizing that this is common. Knowing that many people experience these same feelings, yet still manage to find their own footing, has been extremely helpful in fighting off the self-doubt that can come with this job. 

I think another huge challenge of this job is the feeling that you are behind (even if you aren’t!). That successes will never happen, that you’re not going to finish that paper or get funding; that your research is moving too slowly or that you just can’t pull your ideas together to submit that grant. I don’t have all the answers on how to overcome this feeling, but for me, the best antidote has been leaning into celebrating the successes of others.  Often, we only see the end product of people’s stories (i.e. the successful grant, the published paper), but when you really begin to celebrate with others, you get to hear more about their journey to that success. It’s amazingly helpful to see successes after people have been through struggle—and even more fun to celebrate! 

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

I have to say that my trainees are doing much better job coping than I. They have been very resilient, working together as a team to keep the lab moving forward. From my side, trying to maintain productivity through the pandemic has been more focused on accepting the need to delegate tasks and ask others for help. I have been lucky to have senior mentors who are supportive, and have helped off set some of my teaching load, for instance when childcare issues have come up. This has allowed me to try to prioritize my limited time during difficult weeks towards mentoring and research activities in the lab.   

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

This is a tough one! I would like to think empathy is my superpower—understanding that my needs are not the only priority. I hope this superpower has helped me be more attuned as a mentor.

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

Don’t let imposter syndrome rule your decisions. Don’t second guess if you belong. There will be days where you question this or have doubts, but know it is ok to not have everything figured out.  No one does.  Trust yourself!

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

There’s no way to fully prepare for what it is going to be like to run a lab. It’s hard, and management is not something most people are trained in before starting this position. Accept that you are going to make mistakes. You’re going to have a lot of days with rejections, days you aren’t sure what you’re doing, and possibly even days you want to quit.

But there will also be successes, and days that remind you why you chose science in the first place. The important thing through this, is not being afraid to ask for help from your network and giving yourself grace! Spend time building the culture and community of people around you, both near and far. These are the people who will not only help you navigate the hard decisions and days, but who will give you genuine advice and celebrate your success. And do the same for them!

Bonus Question!

What’s the coolest factoid about vascular biology that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

If you lay out a single person’s blood vessels from end to end in a line, it would wrap the earth 2 to 2.5 times!

Watch out for “A Day in the Life of New PI” on Twitter by Dr. Stratman scheduled on Wednesday 6th October 2021 (Central Standard Time):

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:

John Barton, Ph.D.

Dr. John Barton is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside. His research uses ideas from statistical physics to study evolution and the immune system. In recent years, much of his work has focused on HIV: understanding how the virus evolves within humans, how populations of HIV-infected cells persist over decades despite intensive drug therapy, and how the immune system works to fight infection.

John was born and raised in rural Georgia. As a high school student, he was mesmerized by Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which inspired him to study Physics at Duke University. He graduated magna cum laude with B.S. degrees in Physics and Mathematics in 2006. With the opening of the Large Hadron Collider close at hand, he began graduate school in Physics at Rutgers University eager to start research in particle physics. However, he shifted to statistical physics after taking an inspiring course with his future Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Joel Lebowitz. Specifically, he enjoyed how work in statistical physics could combine mathematical and computational analyses, and how statistical concepts could be broadly applied beyond the traditional confines of physics. His Ph.D. work focused on the mathematical description of phase transitions in models of particle motion in one dimension. After a few years, John was almost sure that he loved probability theory, but he also longed to connect more directly with experiments and data.

John was first exposed to immunology and evolution as a postdoc with Dr. Arup Chakraborty at MIT, and their intersection has been the primary focus of his research ever since. He applied ideas from statistical physics to investigate the evolutionary struggle between HIV and the immune system. He developed models to predict the replicative fitness of never-before-observed strains of the virus, which were experimentally validated by collaborators in Dr. Thumbi Ndung’u’s lab at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. John then used estimates of viral fitness to predict how HIV evolves to escape from immune pressure in vivo in a clinical cohort of 17 HIV-infected individuals. This line of work ultimately culminated in the design of a therapeutic, T cell-based vaccine immunogen to direct immune responses toward “vulnerable” parts of the HIV genome where escape should be challenging for the virus. 

Since starting his lab in 2018, John has broadened his research into HIV and evolution while developing new research directions in immunology. Using ideas from physics and population genetics, he developed a new way to infer the fitness effects of mutations from temporal genetic data (reported in a recent paper), which he and collaborators used to study the dynamics of immune escape during within-host HIV infection. This work is a major research direction in the lab, which is supported by a Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (R35) from the NIH. In addition, John’s lab is working to quantitatively model the population of immune cells that are latently infected with HIV, known as the latent reservoir, which is the most significant barrier to HIV cure. In collaboration with fellow outstanding PI Dr. Emily Mace at Columbia University, John is also developing theory to understand how natural killer (NK) cells, a crucial component of the innate immune system, can accurately distinguish self from nonself. These lines of research share common themes: close collaboration with experimentalists, data analysis, and the use of methods inspired by statistical physics.

John is excited for the future as the lab matures and continues to work toward their ultimate goal: using quantitative methods and theory to improve human health. He is actively recruiting postdocs and graduate students from broad backgrounds to join the team in this work. For more information on research in the lab and opportunities to join, see the lab website or find John on Twitter @_jpbarton.

Evren Azeloglu, Ph.D.

Dr. Azeloglu and lab.

Dr. Evren Azeloglu (pronounced: oz-el-oh-loo) is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He has a secondary appointment in the Department of Pharmacology. His Systems Bioengineering Lab aims to uncover fundamental mechanobiological principles underlying complex diseases, such as chronic kidney disease, by using a combination of engineering and systems biology tools. His lab is funded by multiple NIH grants, including an R01 from the NIDDK, and the Department of Defense.

As his tongue twister name suggests, Dr. Azeloglu hails from Turkey. Born to an eternally blue-collar family of miners and union foremen, he grew up by the Aegean coast hoping to be the first to go to college in his family and become an engineer. Thus, he came to the U.S. on a scholarship to study engineering; however, after losing his mother to breast cancer at an early age, his aspirations quickly turned into building tissues and organs instead of machines.

He graduated from Stony Brook University summa cum laude with a degree in mechanical engineering. During his time at Stony Brook, he worked on machine vision and cardiac mechanics under mentorship of Drs. Fu-Pen Chiang and Glenn Gaudette. He later joined Dr. Kevin Costa’s Cardiac Biomechanics Group at Columbia University in New York City for his doctoral studies. Throughout his Ph.D., Evren published several influential papers on the biomechanical principles of multiscale tissue organization, particularly focusing on cytoskeletal dynamics and cell-extracellular matrix interactions in the vasculature. He completed his postdoctoral training at the Icahn School of Medicine as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation at Ravi Iyengar’s lab, where his research focused on cell signaling dynamics. Synergizing these concepts, Dr. Azeloglu founded the Systems Bioengineering Lab to study how the interaction of biomechanics and systems biology affects disease processes. He has received numerous awards including the Stony-Wold Herbert Fund, LSRF and American Heart Association Fellowships and the ASN-NephCure Career Development Award. He serves on the editorial board of Kidney International, and he is one of the lead investigators within the NIDDK Kidney Precision Medicine Project consortium that aims to build a cell type-specific molecular kidney tissue atlas.

Dr. Azeloglu’s lab has three major research areas: (1) cytoskeletal dynamics and cell biomechanics, (2) tissue engineering, and (3) systems biology of glomerular disease. His long-term hope is that the synergy of these three foci will ultimately lead to an improved drug discovery pipeline, which is sorely needed in kidney disease.

In addition to research, Dr. Azeloglu is fiercely passionate about teaching and equitable training of the next generation of scientists. He directs the graduate-level Fundamentals of Microscopy course and teaches courses on introduction to systems biology and open data sciences at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Mount Sinai. He is actively involved in both the Pharmacology predoctoral and Nephrology postdoctoral T32 training programs. He is also the co-founder and director of the NIH-funded MERRIT Fellowship Program, which is a joint training program between Mount Sinai and the Cooper Union that aims to recruit engineering students and researchers into nephrology.

His lab is actively recruiting graduate students and postdocs with broad scientific interests from all walks of life. You can get more information about their research and joining the lab at

Yvette Yien, Ph.D.


Dr.  Yvette Yien is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Delaware.  Dr. Yien grew up in sunny Singapore, where she received her B.Sc. in Life Sciences from the National University of Singapore.  During her undergraduate work, she carried out research in the field of x-ray crystallography.  This research experience sparked a life-long interest in the role of protein complexes and protein-protein interactions which persists to this day in her own lab.  Initially, she was convinced that she wanted to study protein biochemistry until a friend reviewed an entire semester of cell biology lectures that she had skipped right before the test.  During this cramming session, she was won over by the beauty of the apoptosis pathway and promptly joined the lab of Dr. Victor Yu at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology to work on the biochemistry of mitochondrial apoptosis pathway proteins.  The year she spent in Dr. Yu’s lab sparked a life-long fascination with cell biology, and shaped her approach of identifying problems in vivo, and solving them in vitro.  Dr. Yien moved to the US in 2004 and entered the Ph.D. program in Biomedical Sciences at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City with the goal of learning how cells develop. She worked with Dr. James Bieker, who discovered the Erythroid Kruppel Life Factor, EKLF/KLF1, a master regulator of erythroid transcription and globin switching.  KLF1 turned out to be the founding member of the vertebrate KLF family of zinc-finger transcription factors, which regulate a wide range of critical processes such as development, cell death and proliferation.  Dr. Yien investigated how the function of EKLF/KLF1 could be modulated in a context-specific manner during erythroid differentiation.  During her studies, she observed that EKLF splicing was altered in the bone marrows of pregnant mice and in murine fetal livers.  This made her wonder if pregnancy caused adaptive changes in erythropoiesis to meet the requirements of the pregnant female and developing fetus.  This fascination with sex-specific regulation of hematopoiesis has persisted and is one of the projects in the Yien lab.

During graduate school, Dr. Yien attended a research seminar by Dr. Trista North on the identification of the PGE2/Wnt pathway as a regulator of hematopoietic stem cells.  This seminar opened up the possibility of doing in vivo genetic and imaging experiments in zebrafish that were not possible in mice.  Further, she realized that zebrafish is an excellent model organism in which to examine how cellular development occurs within an organismal context.  Excited by these possibilities, Dr. Yien left for Boston in 2012 to work on the role of mitochondrial iron metabolism in erythroid cell biology in Barry Paw’s zebrafish lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  Her research showed that erythroid cells expressed specialized, mitochondrial membrane proteins which increase the rate transport of heme intermediates and iron during terminal erythroid differentiation.  Further, she identified CLPX as a regulator of heme synthesis in vertebrates.  Her work in these areas earned her a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (F32) and a K01 career development award from NIH/NIDDK.

Dr. Yien started her lab in 2017 at the University of Delaware with the overarching goal of understanding how cells couple nutrient metabolism with cell-type specific requirements.  Although most cells types require the essentially same nutrients for their survival, the specific quantities and fates of these nutrients vary among different cell types as different cells utilize nutrients in varying ways to carry out their specialized functions.  One such nutrient that carries out many ubiquitous, life-essential redox reactions in cells in key processes such as such as respiration, maintenance of the circadian rhythm, and detoxification, is iron.  Iron also plays a central role in cell-specific processes such as dopamine production within the dopaminergic neuron and oxygen transport by red blood cells.  Iron requirements and utilization in different cell types differ widely.  For instance, developing erythroid cells, which synthesize 90% of the body’s heme for hemoglobin production, transport massive quantities of iron and rapidly process them into heme.  This requires expression of erythroid-specific iron transporters and other proteins which increase the activities of heme synthesis enzymes.  Deficiencies in these proteins cause hemoglobinzation defects and developmental defects.  Other tissues, such as the liver, utilize iron for the formation of iron-sulphur clusters, which play a key role in mitochondrial respiration, and for synthesis of liver cytochromes.  The processes that govern iron fate and which couple the rate of iron uptake to its utilization are mostly unknown.  Identification of these regulatory mechanisms is a central goal of the lab.

Currently, the specific goals of the Yien lab are:  1.  To interrogate how iron transport and fate is coupled with to cellular requirements, and to exploit this knowledge to understand mechanisms of hematologic physiology and disease.  The lab hypothesizes that this occurs by the functional and structural interaction of iron transport proteins and heme metabolome with the mitochondrial homeostasis machinery, which may allow crosstalk between iron metabolism with other nutrient metabolism pathways.  2.  To understand how iron is utilized during tissue development, particularly in pathways required for terminal erythroid differentiation and liver development.  3.  To elucidate how pregnancy causes adaptive changes in maternal bone marrow hematopoiesis and iron metabolism, increasing erythroid cell production necessary to keep up with increased maternal blood volume, placental function, and fetal iron requirements.  The lab employs a broad range of model systems and techniques to solve these problems, including yeast and mammalian cell culture, as well as zebrafish and mouse animal models; this is complemented by biochemical techniques such as metabolic labeling, heme synthesis pathway enzymatic assays and metabolomics (the latter two techniques conducted at the University of Utah).   Their long-term goal is to exploit their knowledge of tissue-specific regulation of iron metabolism to more generally understand how nutrient metabolism is regulated in a cell-specific contexts.  The work of the lab is currently funded by a P01 subproject award from the NHLBI, an R35 award from NIGMS, an NIDDK R03, pilot and feasibility grants from the NIDDK administered through Indiana University and the Center for Iron and Heme Disorders at the University of Utah, and a Cooley’s Anemia Foundation fellowship.

In addition to her interests in iron metabolism, mitochondrial biology, and pregnancy, Dr. Yien is also enthusiastic about trainee development and passionate about increasing diversity in the scientific workforce, and accessibility to healthcare for under-served populations.  One of the things her lab does is to focus on research problems that disproportionately affect women and children.  Most of Dr. Yien’s undergraduates have won research awards, and her first postdoc, Dr. Mark Perfetto, was selected for a postdoc exchange program at the Center of Iron and Heme Disorders at the University of Utah.  She is actively recruiting postdoctoral fellows and graduate students who are looking to pursue challenging questions in a supportive and diverse research environment.  More information about the lab can be found here: