Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Get to Know a (Former) Grad Student: Dr. Ana Jimenez

With this post, I'm continuing the "Get to Know a Grad Student" series, an effort to showcase the lives of real scientists. After interviewing a few graduate students, I thought it would be nice to hear from someone who has crossed the PhD boundary into the wild blue yonder. 

Dr. Ana Jimenez is a post-doctoral researcher in Dr. Joe Williams' lab here in the Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology Department at Ohio State. Ana has been my teacher and biggest supporter in the impossible task of getting salamander cells to grow in the lab. She is also my designated dog babysitter, and my dog told me she would rather live with Ana.

She was nice enough to answer the questions below. Enjoy!

"Take me to Ana's"
What kind of research do you do? Please give the scientific version and the non-scientist version.

Scientific-version: My research involves finding linkages between whole animal metabolic rate and cellular metabolic rate. 

For my Ph. D, I looked at the whole animal metabolic cost of hypetrophically growing muscle fibers, and found that larger muscle fibers are metabolically cheaper to maintain for animals, thus, there is a positive selection for animals to grow their muscle fibers as large as they can, until diffusion of important molecules such as oxygen or ATP becomes limiting

Figure taken from:
Wiersma et al 2007, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
For my post-doc work, I have been researching how life-history trade-offs in tropical and temperate birds translate down to the cellular level. Tropical birds are said to occupy the “slow pace” of the life-history spectrum, with fewer young and reproduction occurring later in their lives, while temperate birds occupy the “fast pace” of the life-history spectrum, having more offspring and devoting more resources to reproduction early on in their lives. Additionally, we know that, on average, tropical birds have significantly lower whole-animal basal and peak metabolic rate compared with temperate birds. 

So, I have been isolating dermal fibroblasts from phylogenetically-paired tropical and temperate bird species and measuring the cellular metabolic rate of these cells using an XF24 Seahorse analyzer (machine that measures oxygen consumption in a monolayer of cells). I have found that, (lo and behold!), the cellular metabolic rate of the cells isolated from tropical birds have significantly lower basal and peak metabolic rate as well, with differences closely matching those of the whole-animal metabolic measurements. So, cellular metabolic rate does, indeed, retain the whole-animal metabolic signature of the animals the cells were isolated from.

Non-Scientific version: For my doctoral work, I researched why bigger muscle fibers are cheaper to maintain in fish and crustaceans, and for my post-doctoral work, I am researching whether whole animal metabolic rate is retained down to the cellular level in tropical and temperate bird sister species. 

Why is what you study important?

Besides the fact that it is what I love and what I have fun with? Nothing, not important at all…

Just kidding, results from our work with isolated dermal fibroblasts from tropical and temperate birds has let us (with the help of a diabetes researcher at the University of Cincinnati) to propose that cells may have a fixed “metabolic clock” that carefully regulates the whole-animal metabolic rate set-point, a finding that may have important implications in the body weight field. 

Lean and obese people metabolically defend their body weight incredibly precisely, down to the cellular and molecular level. An advantage of our proposed work is that our bird model does not include body weight, and insulin resistance parameters, which, in lean vs. obese studies, is a limitation that confounds the metabolic set-points of obesity. The answer to the question of how an animal decides its metabolic set-point is certain to be the same for bird cells and obesity models. Additionally, this work also has implications for theories of allometric scaling…touchy ground on this one though, so that’s all I’ll say about it.

What was your path to graduate school like?

I was accepted into the master’s program at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) to work under Dr. Steve Kinsey on muscle physiology and biochemistry of fish and crustaceans. After two years in his lab, I had the choice of defending my master’s thesis and moving on to another lab to do a Ph. D or continuing in his lab for a Ph. D. I really loved my master’s project and I was really, really excited about continuing to answer the questions that it had lead me to, so I chose to stay in the Kinsey lab for my doctorate, a decision I have never regretted.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? How do you feel about your work-life balance?

I’m told that it is very important to have a work-life balance, but I’m really crappy at keeping said balance. In all of science, there are ebbs and flows of work, so there are times that I barely ever leave the lab, just like there are times I have to find stuff to keep me busy. 

I take advantage of the times that science is slow to spend time volunteering at the humane society or spend time hiking or swimming with my dog. Really, most of my life revolves around animals of one kind or another, and I have fun with all aspects of my life, so it’s sometimes hard to find the fine line between “work” and “life”. My post-doc advisor, Dr. Joe Williams, says “the day I stop having fun will be the day I leave science for good.” I couldn't agree more!

Describe a normal day in your life.
One of the Williams' lab field sites happens to be my house.

I wake up, walk/feed/play with my dog, go for a run (if it’s warm), get ready for work.

Two things can happen for “work:” either we are going out to collect birds, in which case we spend the whole day outdoors, or I’m doing lab work, in which case I spend an incredible amount of time counting cells, plating cells, growing cells, measuring cells’ metabolic rate or cursing at cells for not doing what I wanted them to do…

I also spend an incredible amount of time looking for funding, writing grants, and gathering preliminary data. This part of my life I don’t really like at all, but it is a necessary evil. 

What are your career plans for the future?

I’m highly undecided on my future. I think I will go back to what Joe tells us: The day I stop having fun will be the day I leave science. Right now, I really love what I do and the questions I’m answering, but academia is changing very rapidly, and I’m not sure that I support the changes that are happening.

What has surprised you about graduate school?

I think most of my graduate school experience was as expected. I have to say that the transition between student to post-doctoral researcher was a real eye-opening experience for me. For most of the Ph. D students in my department, no one really spent time discussing with us what happens after you defend you dissertation and you move on. No one told us that there are several different types of post-doctoral positions that you can apply for and that you can shape your future depending on which type of path you pick. No one told us that looking and applying for a post-doc is a full time job and that it should be happening 1.5 years BEFORE you defend. So, I had a hard time with all of that, mainly because I lacked information. Once I successfully landed a post-doc, life went back to meeting my expectations, however.

Student-life and post-doc life hasn't really changed much for me (minus the fact that I went for working with marine critters to working with birds): I work hard a lot of the time, and I have fun with it.

Ana pictured here pipetting without gloves like some sort of rebel.

What do you struggle with the most in graduate school?

I think in graduate school, I struggled the most with independent thinking. It was really tough to think about my own project outside of my advisor’s expectations and frame of mind. 

Now as a post-doc, I have been “left” to independently think since the moment I stepped foot in this lab, and my advisor helps guide my thinking, which has been tremendously helpful. My new struggle is balancing grant-writing time with actually gathering data and writing papers-time. I’m told this struggle does not cease, even after becoming faculty (great news! NOT!)

What has been the best moment of your career so far?

The day I defended my doctorate. By far, most exciting, emotional, and triumphant day of my life.

How do you feel about the dynamic of research, teaching, and outreach in your career and in the future?

In nature, we talk about a balance of resource allocation: if you are investing 60% of your time feeding, you can’t spend 70% of your time mating. 

I feel like the dynamic of research, teaching and outreach follows this model very closely. And I would say that you have to go with your strength: If you are a good, effective communicator and like teaching, spend your resources on that. If teaching the same concepts over and over again bores you and you like the dynamic of research and can be productive at it, then do that. Play to your strengths at all times. If you are good at both, then do 50-50 and find a place that allows you to do that.

Who are your academic role models?

To any animal physiologist, Dr. Knut Schidmt-Nielsen is a God! But more close to home, if I hadn't had the undergraduate research experience I had, I would have never made it to where I am today. So, I’m eternally grateful to Dr. Wayne Bennett from The University of West Florida.

What advice do you have for other aspiring grad students in your field?

Unfortunately, what I would have to say is think twice before coming into academia. But if you love it and your heart is 100% into it, then close your eyes and jump with both feet. Things always work themselves out in the end. Make sure you are having fun, and learning lots.

Thanks Ana!

If you are enjoying this "Get to Know a (Scientist/Grad Student)" series, let me know! 

Feel free to send me some suggestions for what types of scientists you want to learn more about and I promise to track them down and ask nicely. 

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