Dissertations, Defenses, and Doctorate Degrees… Oh my!

Hello blog!

What a summer! As of August 21st, I am officially a Doctor of Philosophy! Woohoo!

A reception full of sushi, champagne, and of course a nematode cake!

My dissertation was full of sushi, champagne, and of course a nematode cake!

Graduate school was definitely a roller coaster ride and I can’t wait to write a few blogs about the dissertation process and all of the emotions that go along with it. Until then, I wanted to share with you a little insight into my dissertation defense, and even give you a chance to watch it!

In my 5 years at the University of Washington, I have attended a LOT of dissertation defenses. Dozens. And they are always wonderful, celebratory events that leave me inspired and with tears in my eyes. However, to be completely honest, they are also often really hard to understand. PhD research is extremely specialized, and often talks are aimed at the fellow experts in the audience, including committee members and lab members.

For me, I instead wanted to share my dissertation celebration with everyone who supported me along the way. I not only invited scientific colleagues and classmates, but many family and friends who normally operate outside the ivory tower of academia. Therefore, when I started to prepare my dissertation defense, I had one large goal in mind: I wanted every single person in the room to walk away with an understanding of what I did in graduate school, how I did it, and why I did it.

An audience of scientists, soccer fans, and family

The first wave of attendees included scientists, soccer fans, and family

To tackle this goal, I first decided that pictures were better than graphs. If I could draw an animated schematic or take a quick picture, I chose to do that over trying to navigate complicated figures displaying raw data. Second, I subjected my lab to two separate practice talks. At practice talk one, I asked my lab to focus on content: was I sharing too much information for a 45 minute talk? Too little? Were there any topics that I was presenting that would be inaccessible to a general audience? Thankfully, my lab includes several experienced teachers and speakers who reminded me that terms like “epigenetics” and “chromatin” either need explained or replaced with more accessible terminology.

Practice talk two was aimed at presentation style: was I talking too fast? Too slow? Were some slides more helpful than others? How could I improve those weaker slides? I found that setting unique goals for each talk not only prevented me from being overwhelmed with suggestions, but also allowed my listeners to approach each talk with a fresh perspective.

Now, it would be a lot to say that I fully succeeded at my goal. Did every single person understand every sentence of my talk? Certainly not. Were there portions of my talk that could have been improved? Certainly. However, many audience members were able to paraphrase my findings later over beer, and I even had some non-science friends participating in the question portion of my defense! And that, my friends, meant my defense was a big old victory in my book!

My sisters definitely enjoyed themselves!

My sisters definitely enjoyed themselves!

Thank you to everyone who was able to attend my defense. What an incredible and surreal day. For those of you that couldn’t attend, you’re in luck! I have included a video of my dissertation in this blog post. If you’re interested, I’d love to hear some critiques/discussion in the comments section! Was I able to accomplish my goals in my dissertation defense? After watching, would you be able to paraphrase the important take home messages? What do you think could have improved my presentation?

Thanks for reading/watching/commenting!

2014: The Year I Killed the Bear

If you have been following my blog for a while, you are familiar with my 2014 resolution: JUST KILL THE BEAR. If this doesn’t ring a bell, the rest of this entry will make very little sense, so I recommend that you take a moment and read THIS blog entry first.

Ok. Now that we are hopefully all on the same page and 2014 has officially come to an end, I’m sure you are just dying to know how I did. Well… drum roll please…

The bear has been killed!

It has been a crazy, wild, exhausting year, but 2014 contained some really big milestones that I am excited (and a little nervous) to reflect upon. In some ways, I blew past my expectations. In other aspects, I have a lot more work to do. And in all honesty, I’m glad that my New Year’s Resolutions didn’t have a perfect ending: I have room to improve and a great place to start for 2015. Right? Right.

In 2014, I started my fifth year of graduate school. This means I have officially been in graduate school longer than I was an undergraduate. That fact still blows my mind. Seattle has very much become a home to this East Coast native, and I will forever be grateful for the friends, colleagues, and landscape I have come to know so well. As I approach a new milestone in 2015 (more about that later), I know that there is a strong chance that I may not end 2015 as a Seattle resident. I am so happy that I will be able to reflect back on my time in Seattle with nothing but pure adoration for the Pacific Northwest and it’s crazy inhabitants.

In 2014, I published my research. My paper, which became available on the Aging Cell website in December and can be seen here, was a labor of love (emphasis on the labor part). For some projects, the time between the initial idea and publication is relatively quick. That, however, was not the case with this paper. Not only did this project involve several years of research, but the publication process also turned out to be labor intensive. My paper spent much of 2014 traveling around trying to find the right home and went through many MANY facelifts in the process. One of the biggest struggles I ran into, coincidentally, was a variation of killing the bear that I did not expect. Throughout the peer review process, reviewers often give you a laundry list of experiments that would theoretically strengthen your manuscript. I, of course, found all of these recommendations to be fabulous ideas and set out to tackle as many as possible. However, as many of you are probably already aware, this is not a plausible strategy. I could have easily spent the next two years troubleshooting those experiments and that is the opposite of my 2014 goal: to kill the bear! Thanks to some encouragement from my boss and the help of an incredibly talented undergraduate, I was able to step back and prioritize the experiments that directly contributed to the story I was telling. While I wish I could be sitting here and telling you about the multiple manuscripts I had published in 2014, seeing the final version of that bear of a manuscript (no pun intended, but fitting) with my name listed as first author easily ranks as one of my top moments of the year.

My paper acceptance party!

My paper acceptance party, November 2014

In 2014, I ran my first half marathon. At this time last year, the longest race I had ever completed was a 5K. That’s 3.1 miles for you non-metric folk. I decided that 2014 was going to be the year that I doubled, tripled, and quadrupled that number. Starting in January, I laced up my new (and, as to avoid another stress fracture, correctly fitted) running shoes and started training. In March, I successfully ran the Seahawks 12th Man 12K and soon set my sights on the Rock ‘N’ Roll Seattle Half Marathon (a terrifying 13.1 miles). Reflecting back on race day, the Rock ‘N’ Roll went better than I could have ever envisioned. The weather was PERFECT, my body felt strong, and the course was a beautiful (and thankfully flat) trek around Seattle. I finished the race in a respectable 2 hours and 23 minutes. Even though it was a bit slower than my goal of a 10 min/mile pace, I killed that bear!

RockNRollSeattle

Rock ‘N’ Roll Half Marathon, June 2014

In 2014, I ran my second half marathon. While it might sound like I was simply being an overachiever, it was really a way to get myself out of a mid-year funk. After the June half marathon, I decided to give myself a short break from running. However, that short break turned into a massive roadblock. I stopped exercising as regularly and it started to show, not just in my body but in my energy level and my outlook on life in general. And so, one night in October, as I was perusing the internet as I commonly do, I signed up for the Seattle Half Marathon on a whim. “This is how I am going to turn myself around”, I thought. “I’ll invest money in a race and give myself no other option!” I still believe this was a great rationale but I hadn’t completely thought it through. The Seattle Half Marathon took place on November 30th, which meant months of training in the cold, rainy and dark place that is Fall in Seattle. It turns out that it is much harder to convince yourself to head out the door for a run on a cold, dark and rainy day. Regretfully, I was not as prepared for the Seattle Half as I was for the Rock ‘N’ Roll. It didn’t help that the race happened to take place on one of the coldest days of the year (27 degrees at start time) on a hilly course that happened to be covered in ice. BUT. I finished that race. Slower than I hoped? Yes. Slower than the Rock ‘N’ Roll? Yep. But I finished. And to think back on a 2013 when I couldn’t have even dreamed of running a 10K, I’m pretty damn happy about running 13.1 miles. Twice.

Please appreciate the snow!

Seattle Half Marathon, November 2014 (Please appreciate the snow!)

Of course, I did a lot of other things in 2014. Some things were good, and some things were not so good. But when I woke up this morning and reread my goals for 2014, I couldn’t help but smile. I have done what I set out to do. I killed those mean, menacing, intimidating bears. So, thanks for a great year, 2014. Let’s make 2015 even better. And with the prospects of a Ph.D. on the horizon, I can guarantee it will be!

Check back for my new 2015 resolution later this month.

Putting the “rad” in “graduate student”: Becoming a runner!

At the beginning of this year, I gave myself a pretty straightforward yet daunting 2014 goal: become a “runner”. And not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think that I am kicking ass and taking names in this category thus far. Let’s reflect a bit on my progress, shall we?!

I’m going to just come out and say it: I have never been an athlete. Or anything close to an athlete for that matter. Well, I DID take a gymnastics class or two as a 4 year old, if that counts? As an adolescent, the closest I got to “sports” was a brief foray into horseback riding lessons. This lasted about 9 months until I decided that playing the flute was much more my style. (Plus, I’ve never been a big fan of getting dirty, and there are very few things that are dirtier than a horse barn). I’ve just never liked playing sports, nor have I ever been very good at them. My throwing arm leaves a lot to be desired and my eyesight is so terrible that it’s a miracle I have even once caught a ball. I’m also so competitive that I might have seriously injured someone on an opposing team if I lost, and assault charges as a 10 year old are usually frowned upon. Have I convinced you yet? Sports have just never been my thing.

But in the last three months, I’ve run nearly 150 miles.

150 MILES. That, my friend, is crazy town banana pants. Last month, I ran the Seahawks 12K (or a little under 8 miles for the nonmetric folk). This was the longest run I had ever attempted, even in practice. It turned out to be a blast, and while I didn’t set any land speed records, I finished! Last Sunday, I was in a crappy mood and didn’t feel like leaving my couch, but eventually ended up running for 10 miles! I don’t know who this person is that has become a quote unquote runner, but I’m not going to ask too many questions.

Ready to run the Seahawks 12K!

Ready to run the Seahawks 12K!

Over the last few months, I’ve learned that I am not a huge fan of a very strict running schedule. In fact, I very much detest it. This initially surprised me, as I’ve always considered myself a planner. However, upon further reflection, I think this is in some ways due to my experiences as a graduate student over the last 4 years. It is really hard for me to wake up in the morning and say “I MUST run 10 miles today”. Similarly, I also find it hard to say “I MUST sit at my desk today for ten hours and write 10 pages of this manuscript”. I am much more successful on a day-to-day basis by giving myself a bit of flexibility. Maybe, like this morning, I wake up on Monday and decide to write and edit a blog post. Did I plan on writing this today? Nope! But I knew what projects were on my to-do list, so I picked the task I felt most motivated to accomplish this morning. Similarly, I woke up that Sunday knowing I needed to accomplish SOME sort of run and ultimately felt motivated to run 10 miles. See, FLEXIBILITY!

Of course, flexibility isn’t always possible. When I’m in the middle of a time-sensitive experiment, there are days where I MUST get A,B and C completed. If a grant is due on Friday and I spend all of Monday on a blog post, then I most definitely deserve a kick in the pants. However, now that my life has entered into the writing, writing, writing phase of graduate school, I’m finding it fun, and most importantly productive, to be flexible.

I recently spent some time chatting in the hallway with a fellow MCB Incoming Class of 2010er. We both mentioned that one of the BIGGEST things that we have learned over the years is that graduate school isn’t a 9 to 5 job, nor is it the same for everyone. In fact, the path that we take through graduate school is RADICALLY different from one individual to the other, and making comparisons between your path and another’s is just plain silly, and frankly, potentially very harmful. Our path is molded by a combination of hundreds of variables: your boss, your personality, your home life, your career goals, the success of particular experiments, your work ethic, and so on. And that path is redesigned and full of detours and speed bumps over time. But one thing that is required for each and every individual’s success in graduate school (and running, for that matter) is self-motivation. No, I’m not in lab at 8 am every single day like some. In fact, some days it is nearly lunchtime and I am sitting at my dining room table working on blogs and conference abstracts (hint: that’s today). To be honest, I used to feel really guilty about not being at the bench every minute, and I have felt bad about not running as far as I would like on a particular day. However, my new found flexibility mixed with plenty of self-motivation means that I am not only just as productive as ever, but probably a bit happier too.

So, after quite a long tangent, my point is this: no, I am not a conventional runner. But I don’t really do many things by convention anymore. And that, my friends, is quite alright with me.

Learning to not feel guilty when this doesn't happen

Learning to not feel guilty when this doesn’t happen has been HARD

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Before I leave, it’s time to set my next short-term goal in my 2014 Killing the Bear goal. I guess I set this a while ago, but I haven’t announced it on my blog yet. Next month, I will be running my FIRST HALF MARATHON! I am officially registered for the 2014 Rock ‘N Roll Seattle Half Marathon on June 21st, 2014. 5 weeks to go! I’m feeling confident that I can finish the race, and that is HUGE progress from where I was 4 months ago. Will I be fast? Probably not… but that just means I’ll have another goal to set after June 21st!

Lessons learned: Giving a talk at NWDB 2014

Disclaimer: I’ve written the beginning of a new blog post about 5 separate times over the last few weeks. It always happens the same way: I jot down my thoughts, reread them, dislike them, save them in a “Blog drafts???” folder, and forget about them. This morning, I went back through those old “crap” blogs, and realized the content was not nearly as terrible as I thought. So here is the first of several posts this week (I PROMISE), which were actually written some time ago. This particular blog was drafted April 1st. I guess it is a very belated April Fools joke to post it a month and a half later. :)

Thoughts from Northwest Developmental Biology Meeting!

I did quite a bit of traveling around the Pacific Northwest in March. The first was my yearly pilgrimage to the Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island for the Northwest Developmental Biology Meeting! This was my FOURTH straight year attending, which makes me feel both old and excited at the same time. NWDB is the regional meeting of the Society for Developmental Biology, and it is by far one of my favorite meetings that I have ever attended. The setting is BEAUTIFUL, the audience is engaged and relaxed, and there is a mind-blowing amount of cool science. Think summer camp for scientists: AWESOME.

Apparently I only attend conferences in beautiful locales.

Apparently I only attend conferences in beautiful locales.

For the second year in a row, I submitted an abstract to present a short oral presentation, and was selected. I was scheduled to give the very first student talk of the meeting. This was pretty exciting for me, especially since I went last in 2013. That year, I spent the entire meeting worrying about my talk and didn’t get to totally appreciate the other speakers. I woke up at 6 am (yikes) to practice my talk a few times, and headed over to the conference hall around 8 to eat some breakfast and grab a seat before the hour-long plenary talk. However, I barely had time to finish my bagel when the moderator walked up to the microphone and said, “Due to a scheduling conflict, our plenary speaker will be moved to the end of this session. Please welcome your first speaker, Emily Fawcett”. Thankfully I am fully functional in the morning and one of the few scientists who doesn’t need a cup of coffee to be coherent before 9 am, but my initial response?

PANIC.

I even believe the first sentence I said when I got the microphone went something like “I am so not ready for this” followed by a nervous giggle. The best thing I’ve ever said into a microphone? Probably not. But did give me at least a second to compose myself? You betcha.

Now, when I give a talk, I have the benefit of studying a really cool but completely off-the-wall topic. Not many people think about stress memories and even fewer people think about hydrogen sulfide, so I’ve had a LOT of practice convincing people that it’s something worth studying. Just call me the used car salesman of H2S memory.

I’ve also recently started to overcome my “nervous talking equals talking at 1,000 mph” problem. There is nothing that confuses your audience more than rattling off unfamiliar science at the speed of an auctioneer.

My goal? Be more understandable than an auctioneer.

My goal? Be more understandable than an auctioneer.

10 or so minutes later, I had successfully (and at an adequate speed) navigated through my talk. And, importantly, I could even remember giving the talk after I had finished! This may sound trivial, but for the first year or two of public speaking, those 10 minutes would have been a huge black box that I would never fully remember.

Ok great, the talk is over and I think it went pretty well. But now? Now it’s time for…. dun dun dun… QUESTIONS.

I have always been irrationally afraid of the question section of scientific talks. I have never been particularly confident speaking on my toes, and so my nerves have often gotten the best of me. I’d say that I am just one of a huge number of grad students that experienced the dreaded Impostor Syndrome in graduate school. It is really hard to look around a room of scientists and think of yourself as a colleague, as opposed to an insignificant dummy that got into graduate school by mistake. It’s taken me 4 years, countless tears, several boxes of tissues to catch those tears, and a whole lot of grunt work to acquire the confidence necessary to not completely fall to pieces in front of a crowd.

One of my favorite pieces of advice about question sections that I’ve ever received was that questions are actually a good sign! It means that your audience not only understood what you’ve presented to them, but they have processed it and want to know more! I had to stop thinking of questions as confrontational but as simply inquisitive. Therefore, when I saw more than half a dozen hands shoot into the air at the end of my talk, I experienced a strange mix of fear and excitement. Apparently I was a bit under time, so my moderator let me continue to answer question after question after question. For some of the questions, I had concrete answers and for others I had not-so-concrete speculations. But I was at least answering them coherently. Woo!  It was then time for my last question. A man sitting front and center raised his hand and very quietly asked:

“How confident are you that your hypothesis is not completely wrong?”

Hmmm. Ok. This is a curve ball. Wasn’t most of my talk presenting evidence that my hypothesis was at least feasible? Did he not believe any of it? Oh no.

PANIC. PART TWO.

2 moments of panic in less than 15 minutes?! This was becoming quite unfortunate. However, since he had asked the question so quietly, I had the benefit of a few seconds to gather my composure before answering. I leaned up to the microphone, and slowly repeated the question verbatim. I will forever be grateful for the murmur of giggles that quickly swept around the room. A well-known P.I. in the front even yelled out with a huge smile on his face: “Oh, you know, I’d probably say about 50%?!”. Ok, everyone understands this is a tricky question to address.

Phew. Crisis averted.

I then took a deep breath, broke into a smile, and asked the man to clarify which part of the hypothesis he’d like me to address. It turned out that he had a totally valid concern which I quickly addressed and concluded my talk. Once again, I had survived a talk. SUCCESS!

I guess I went into so much detail about this short oral presentation because I think it highlights not only the terrifying inferiority complex we face as graduate students but also the progress I’ve made to tackle it in the last 4 years. Talks will never go exactly how I want them to go and there will always be things I want to fix about them, but they are lessons learned and baby steps in the right direction. That final question I received, which gave me the biggest amount of concern, has even become sort of a joke within my training grant. No one will ever listen to me speak again without being tempted to ask that question, and we’ve even all come up with our favorite “answers” in the event that we get that question again.

Overall, NWDB 2014 was another fabulous success. The science was incredible, the feedback I received was invaluable, and the friendship I strengthened with my training grant cohort and fellow graduate students is irreplaceable. Onto the next one! Next stop? Madison, WI!

Killing the bear (and other 2014 goals)

Hello friends! So… it’s been a while. It’d be a lie if I didn’t admit that I’m a bit embarrassed and quite disappointed in how long it has taken me to come back to this blog. Last year, when SciFund outreach ended, I made a promise to myself that I would blog at LEAST once a month. And, to put it bluntly, I failed miserably. And for those of you who know me, I’m not really one to accept failure. SO, it’s time to (wo)man up and get back on the right track with this blog! But in order for that to happen, I think it’s time to make some changes. BIG changes. So bring on the personal anecdotes and corny jokes because…

this blog is about to get personal.

In order to understand why I think I need to make changes, let’s take a look back to a lovely evening of sushi and cocktails that I had with my friend, colleague, and importantly, fellow blogger, last month. In between rounds of Jenga and lychee martinis, Albert asked me what sounded like a simple question:

So what happened to your blog?

I remember that I immediately responded with an excuse, something along the lines of, “it’s hard for me to think of good scientific content so frequently, I got busy, I traveled a lot… blah blah blah”. But it was then that I realized I didn’t have a good excuse. There’s no need for my blog to be scientific gold every entry. There’s no need to continuously come up with a fresh take on my research. I just need to WRITE. And write often. This week, Albert posted a new entry into his blog, and so shall I. Thanks for the motivation, Steak Sauce. I owe you one. Oh, and he’s a great blogger, check it out here.

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So I think I’ll start my blogs for 2014 with a quick review of my accomplishments in 2013, and a look ahead to my goals for 2014. I’ve decided to loosely structure my blog around these goals, both personal and professional, to hopefully encourage me to write informally and often.

2013 Accomplishment: Get involved with a nonprofit!

At the beginning of 2013, April, a post-doc in our lab (and a wonderful human being all around), asked me what I wanted to do after I got my Ph.D.. I told her the truth: I’m not exactly sure, but I am really passionate about the mission and motivation behind nonprofit organizations. So she challenged me to find a nonprofit organization in Seattle, and to get involved. REALLY involved. And so I did! For the last year, I have volunteered weekly (and sometimes a bit more), at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where the mission is to offer world-class cancer treatment to the community while supporting the conduct of cutting-edge cancer research. I’ve spent most of my Saturday afternoons at Shine, a retail store housed in the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance house, which provides oncology-related goods, services and support to cancer patients, their families, and the community. While I think I will dedicate a future blog to my love for nonprofits and my experiences with the SCCA, I am proud to say that I have accomplished my 2013 goal of getting involved, and couldn’t be happier about it!

2014 Goal: Kill the bear

Two weeks ago, during dinner with the fantastic Dr. Alex Schier, my training grant cohort asked if he had any advice for young scientists. His advice was simply to “kill the bear”. And, while it didn’t make too much sense at first, I think this advice makes for a GREAT 2014 goal. Let me elaborate…

As scientists, our research isn’t doing anyone any good sitting in notebooks. There are always more experiments we could do, always another question that could be answered. However, we need to stop trying to teach our proverbial “bear” new tricks. Don’t feed our bear any more treats. Don’t pet the bear.

JUST KILL THE BEAR.

And so, my professional goal for 2014 is to publish more! I have two pretty advanced drafts that have been collecting electronic dust on my computer, but I find myself starting new experiments instead of polishing these manuscripts. It’s time to make publishing my number one goal… it’s time to kill the bear!

He may be cute, but it's time to kill the bear!

He may be cute, but it’s time to kill the bear!

I’ll also be working towards killing the bear in my personal life. I’ve come to really enjoy running in the past year or so, but last October, while training for the Dawg Dash 10K, I got a stress fracture in the arch of my foot.  I ended up in a cast for about 2 months, and had to stay away from running until the New Year. Let me promise you, that was NOT FUN. However, I did learn that it is still possible to dress up a cast for a formal function, jump around in the ECS section at a Sounders game, and that the cast can even improve your Halloween costume (at least when you go as Buzz Lightyear, as I did).

Walking casts, despite the name, make walking a bit of a challenge.

Walking casts, despite the name, make walking a bit of a challenge.

Even though I’ve always talked about setting running goals, to this day, I’ve never run a race longer than a 5K. So, it’s time to kill the bear! I’m signed up to run the 12th Man 12K (GO HAWKS!) in early April, and am slowly but surely getting back into running shape after my injury. I have some other BIG plans that I’m not quite ready to share with the world yet, but watch out 2014… I’m going to be running circles around you!!!

I hope you guys are excited as I am for Emily’s blog version 2.0. Will there be science? You bet. But will there be a bit more of me? Yeah, I think so. So get ready for many adventures (and some misadventures) as I try to figure out what the HELL I am doing. Toodles!

Top 5 Highlights from WORM2013!

I will always remember June 2013 as a whirlwind month of airports, poster sessions, and far too little sleep. On final count, I took 10 flights out of 8 different airports through 11 states, 4 time zones, and 2 countries! After giving myself a bit of July to recover, I am glad to report that June was a marvelous success, inspiring me with new research ideas and lighting a fire under me to get to writing! I believe my next blog may be a photo tour of June 2013, but until then… let’s talk worms!

My last stop for the month was the 19th International C. elegans Meeting at UCLA in Los Angeles, California! In many ways, this trip was reminiscent of my trip to Cancun (discussed here).

For one, the temperatures were similar:

photo

And secondly, another beautiful location:

photo (4)

While roaming through the rows and rows of posters, it was easy to identify the “unreasonably tan” colleagues who had also attended the ICDB conference in Cancun the previous week. Think of it as Where’s Waldo:

photo (5)

And just like Cancun, I learned a lot about really cool science at WORM2013! So, in the spirit of my last blog post, here are my top 5 highlights from my week in LA at WORM2013:

#1: The hot topic: chromatin remodeling during stress!

I remain a bit partial to this topic, as it is the focus of my own research, but I was extremely excited to see so many fabulous talks and posters focusing on the relationship between chromatin remodeling and stress response! In particular, Christian Riedel from Gary Ruvkun’s lab demonstrated that the SWI/SNF chromatin-remodeling complex is required for DAF-16 (FOXO) gene-activation, and ultimately DAF-16 dependent longevity. This work was recently published in Nature Cell Biology and can be found here. Excitingly, David Fay also described a role for SWI/SNF in stress response, as a mediator of the ethanol and stress-response element (ESRE) pathway. These talks, along with multiple posters (including mine!), really begin to illustrate the critical requirement for chromatin remodeling in a multitude of stress response pathways.

#2: Transdifferentiation… is awesome.

As a trainee in developmental biology, and after recently listening to John Gordun discussing the challenges in transdifferentiation at ISDB2013, Joel Rothman’s talk blew me away. While Gordun’s talk emphasized how removal of chromatin marks specific to differentiated cells is one of the most difficult aspects of transdifferentiation, Rothman described a phenomenon in worms in which this process is not even necessary!  Expressing a single transcription factor, elt-7, resulted in the conversion of differentiated pharynx into endoderm, even in the absence of cell division. This talk was definitely one of the “THAT IS SO COOL” moments of WORM2013 for me.

#3: Memorable talks about teeth, exercise, and sex

Based on the conference twitter feed and the chatter buzzing about the crowd, the next 3 talks were some of the most memorable, as well as the most unique! Mary Ann Royal of the Driscoll lab showed that 30 minutes of swimming a day results in increased pharyngeal pumping later in life, suggesting that “exercising” has health benefits even in worms! Eric Ragsdale of the Sommer lab wowed the crowd with a gruesome video of P. pacificus chowing down on an unsuspecting C. elegans. His talk then went on to focus on the genetic control of a developmental teeth dimorphism in P. pacificus by a sulfatase encoded by eud-1. Finally, Cheng Shi of the Murphy lab pointed out a phenomenon we all felt we should have noticed previously: N2 worms shrink up to 30% after mating! These animals, in addition to a reduction in size, also are less attractive to other males, and live shorter lives. As male seminal fluid contributes to this phenomenon, it may represent an example of male influence on hermaphrodites to maximize their own reproductive success. Overall, Mary Ann, Eric, and Cheng definitely win the “most memorable” superlatives of WORM2013.

#4: More disease models in C. elegans

As a scientist working in model organisms, I am always excited to hear about disease models in C. elegans, as it is a great way to study the genetic basis of human disease. Susana Garcia from the Ruvkun lab introduced a worm model designed to investigate the toxicity of CUG repeat-containing RNA, which is commonly associated with the human disease myotonic dystrophy. Garcia discovered that the nonsense mediated decay pathway normally functions to clear these toxic repeats, suggesting that it may be a good target for future myotonic dystrophy research.

Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy is due to mutation in the lamin protein. A.  Mattout from the Gasser lab demonstrated that this mutation, in worms, leads to failed tissue-specific release of heterochromatin and disrupted muscle function. By restoring chromatin organization through genetic manipulation, Mattout was able to fully rescue muscle function in these animals, suggesting that chromatin mislocalization may be of particular importance in human laminopathies.

#5: New insight into everyone’s favorite topic, insulin-like signaling!

It wouldn’t be a worm meeting without several dozen talks and posters about the FOXO transcription factor DAF-16. This year was no exception, but it was great to see some really remarkable new discoveries in a field that has garnered so much interest in the worm community! To highlight just a few, Adrian Wolstenholme from the University of Bath demonstrated the discovery of the sole glutamate transporter in worms, FGT-1! Additionally, Ronald Tepper from the Bussemaker lab at Columbia gave a great talk on the identification of PQM-1, the main regulator of the class II growth and development genes originally thought to be directly activated by DAF-16.

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As you can tell from the sheer number of talks I’ve mentioned, there was a huge amount of elegant science and interesting discoveries at WORM2013. Visit the meeting’s website for full abstracts and dates of future WORM events!

Top 5 Highlights from ICDB 2013!

It seems that I have neglected my blog a bit this month, but thankfully this is due to an exciting (and exhausting!) month of travel! As of June 1st, I have been to 10 states, 4 time zones, and 2 countries!

I began my whirlwind month in Maryland visiting my family and attending Alumni Weekend at my undergraduate institution, St. Mary’s College of Maryland. This trip was full of crabs, sunshine, and reminiscing with old friends. All in all, it was a great way to get reenergized for conference season!

Speaking of conferences…

A few months ago, I gave a talk at the Northwest Regional Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) meeting, and was beyond excited to win a travel award to attend SDB’s national meeting! Excitingly, this year the national SDB collaborated with other international societies to host the 17th International Congress of Developmental Biology!

The conference was fabulous, and I could blog for hours about all of the amazing science that I got to hear about at the conference. But to save us all some time, here are my top 5 highlights of my trip to ICDB 2013!!

#1: The meeting was held in CANCUN, MEXICO!

Here’s a photograph from my hotel room: IMG_5125

And another from my favorite beach chair:

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Need I say more? The location was absolutely incredible, with a very quick walk to the convention center, seen here across the street from my hotel:

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Located on the top floor of the Cancun Convention Center, the meeting was held in one large room that was easily separated into 3 concurrent sessions for some of the afternoons. The layout of the meeting made it really easy to bounce between rooms, so you could catch talks in all sorts of topics and disciplines. Additionally, posters were constantly on display in the break room, giving attendees plenty of time to scour the 600 excellent posters!

#2: Enhancers play a role in human disease, evolution… and just about everything you could imagine.

Enhancers really stole the show at this year’s meeting. Many of the talks, a large number of posters, and a lot of coffee break chatter surrounded some fascinating studies into the role of these noncoding regions of DNA in development.

For my developmental biology novices, let’s quickly define enhancers. Our genome consists of long sequences of DNA, in which some regions code for functional proteins, and some regions do not. Enhancers are found within this noncoding region of DNA and are thought to modulate the activity of proteins transcribed from nearby regions of coding DNA.

Schematic of enhancers (green), found upstream of effected genes (blue) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schematic of enhancers (green), found upstream of effected genes (blue) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do we identify enhancers? Chicks are often the best tool for identifying conserved enhancers, as their genome is compact and conserved noncoding regions are likely to contain important regulatory information.

Scientists have long been confused about how mutations in noncoding regions of DNA lead to human disease, but as described at ICDB 2013, many of these mutations are starting to be identified as being located within enhancer regions.

One of my favorite talks of the week was from Harvard’s Cliff Tabin. Many human traits seem to have regressed from the traits found in monkeys (less body hair, shorter fingers, etc.). Regressive traits often come from loss of enhancers upstream of trait-determining genes. Cliff’s lab has demonstrated that the human genome is enriched for deletions in transcription start sites and enhancer regions, suggesting that loss of enhancers did in fact contribute to our regressive loss of monkey-like traits.

For more information on the ICDB enhancer talks, check out the lab websites of Cliff TabinMarianne Bronner, and Alvaro Iglesias!

#3: There was a WHOLE SESSION on how the environment impacts development! 

My particular interest in developmental biology focuses around the long-term impact of environmental stress on phenotype and physiology. I was pleasantly surprised to find an entire session of talks dedicated to this topic!

While many human diseases can be attributed to genetic predisposition, environmental conditions can exaggerate these disease phenotypes.  Sally Dunwoodie gave a great talk discussing how low oxygen conditions (hypoxia) during early development increases the penetrance of genetically heritable scoliosis. Teiya Kijimoto demonstrated that genes involved in classical developmental decisions, including Hedgehog signaling, also control environmentally induced traits, such as horn size in dung beetles!

#4: Improving undergraduate interest in research with projects designed straight from the headlines!

The education section of ICDB 2013 focused on how we can interest students with research projects on current hot topics in the media.  I think this a great idea, as it is so much easier to get excited about science when you know that you are contributing to a relevant and important cause.

Barresi lab uses Deepwater Horizion oil spill as inspiration for undergraduate research (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barresi lab uses Deepwater Horizion oil spill as inspiration for undergraduate research (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example, Michael Barresi described the upper division research course he designed to investigate the effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill on the development of fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Tyrone Hayes gave an eye-opening talk on the impact of the pesticide atrazine on the sexual behavior and fertility of frogs. Additionally, Tyrone showed correlations between his research on frogs and the decline in fertility of men in close contact with pesticides.

#5: Alternative model organisms are awesome!

As a scientist who works in a commonly used model organism, I am always impressed by the amount of work that goes into the implementation of new and alternative model organisms. This meeting did not disappoint, as I got to hear some really great talks about using tunicates, frogs, and honeybees for scientific research. Many of these tools are being developed to overcome the shortcomings of our current model systems and allow us to address questions that are currently unanswerable.

Nanette Nascone-Yoder introduced the Budgett’s frog- a giant cannibalistic Xenopus alternative that allows for higher resolution of frog development!

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Budgett’s Frog (Photo credit: wikipedia)

Robert Drewell discussed how DNA methylation in the eusocial honeybee is a new example of genomic imprinting!

Honeybees (Photo credit: NJDEP)

Honeybees (Photo credit: NJDEP)

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To summarize, the ICDB 2013 meeting was a great experience!

Tomorrow, I am off to the International Caenorhabditis elegans meeting at UCLA! Follow me on twitter @em_fawcett and look for my live tweets with #worm2013!

And look forward to another top 5 blog post next week!