Last year we interviewed Niteace Whittington, who won the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) poster prize at the 2014 meeting in Seattle. Niteace’s prize was attendance at the joint meeting of the British Societies for Cell Biology and Developmental Biology (BSCB and BSDB). Continuing the interview chain, Niteace interviewed Wendy Gu, who won the BSDB poster prize there. As a prize, Wendy will be attending the 2015 SDB meeting this July, in Snowbird, Utah. Unfortunately they did not get a chance to meet in person, so Niteace interviewed Wendy over Skype a few days later.
NW: Congratulations on your achievement. You weren’t at the conference dinner when your prize was announced, so how did you feel when you found out?
WG: I found out at breakfast the following morning. The first person who told me was a PI who used to be based in my department. She sat down and said ‘Congratulations!’ I thought ‘For what?’ I thought she meant ‘Congratulations, you are about to submit your dissertation next week’. So I said ‘Yes, I am very relieved’. She had a strange look on her face, thinking ‘Why are you relieved that you won a poster prize?’ It was only afterwards that she explained to me what had happened the night previously, and it was then that it hit and the news made any sense to me. I’m sure it was the same for you when you won your poster. The standards are so high, and it could have gone to any number of other equally capable scientists, so I know how lucky I am!
NW: Yes, when I won I was in such a state of shock. I was thinking ‘Are you sure that you said the right name?’!
In which lab did you do your PhD and what does your lab work on?
WG: I am based in the lab of Matthias Landgraf in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. As a group we are interested in how neural circuits are specified, how they function, and the behavior of the animal once the nervous system is built. The model organism we work on is the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, an insect that undergoes complete metamorphosis. But most of our work focuses on the embryonic, and larval stages of development.
NW: What was the title of your poster?
WG: The role of Wnt5 ligand and the Ryk family Wnt receptors in positioning neurites along the anteroposterior axis of the developing Drosophila ventral nerve cord. It is a very technical title!
NW: Could you give a brief summary of what you presented?
WG: The biological question I addressed during my PhD is how axons make a choice between growing anteriorly or posteriorly in the developing nerve cord. The ventral nerve cord of Drosophila is analogous to the vertebrate spinal cord, and within it neurons have to decide where to terminate within a 3-Dimensional space. We know from work done previously in both vertebrate and invertebrate systems that these decisions are axon guidance mechanisms, which involve guidance molecules and the receptors expressed in the neurons. In the medio-lateral axis,the positional cue system Slit/Robo determine the extent to which axons grow medially or laterally. Another positional cue system dictates how the dorso-ventral axis is specified: the Sema/Plexins.
When I started four and a half years ago we didn’t know what positional cue system, i.e. which signal and receptors, was acting in the anterior-posterior axis. What I managed to do in the last few years was to show that Wnt5 is the ligand, or the positional cue, that provides information to the sensory neurons when they grow into the central nervous system. One class of partner receptors of Wnt5 are Ryks, and these include Derailed (Drl), Derailed-2 (Drl-2) and Doughnut on 2 (Dnt). I have shown that sensory neurons express Dnt receptors but not Drl or Drl-2 receptors. Dnt receptors are required for the afferent terminals that project posteriorly. So, DNT needs to be expressed in those neurons in order for them to grow in the proper direction. However, the molecular mechanism that underpins selective growth of axon terminals either anteriorly or posteriorly is unclear. The second biggest finding is that although the other two receptors are not normally expressed, if you exogenously provide either Derailed or Derailed 2 you can also force them to grow and shift their terminals more anteriorly. So one of the receptors is necessary, while the other two are sufficient, in a developmental context.
NW: Had you presented your data previously?
WG: I presented a less complete story at the 2013 Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. My current poster has a complete narrative, or as much as I can do within the time frame of a UK PhD. It contains some of the data that will go into a publication.
NW: Do you plan to submit a publication soon?
WG: I would like to but I have to write it first! I think I am going to treat myself to a week or two of break after the intensive writing of a PhD (I submitted on Tuesday!). Once I have celebrated properly I will write it in a journal format. The difficulty is deciding where to submit! Luckily, my topic can be published either in a neuroscience journal or a development biology journal, so in a way I am lucky that I have more choices in that respect.
NW: So you are ready to finish up?
WG: I am. I’m interviewing for postdoc positions. My first interview is happening in less than two weeks and then I have two other ongoing applications. In fact, I met one of the PIs during the BSDB meeting in Warwick, so it was a very productive meeting on many levels!
NW: Are you thinking of staying in the same area of research or are you looking to branch out a little?
WG: I’m ready to venture out. I think after working on this system for four years I want to do something different. The three labs I have applied to are very different in their research scopes. The first one works on neurogenesis and neurodifferentiation in the zebrafish. The second project involves engineering the epigenome. It would involve the use of genome editing tools such as CRISPRs, TALENs and Zinc-finger nucleases to alter the epigenomic code and see what effects it has on various model systems and cell lines. The third option is a complete change and that is to work on plant development. As you can see, I am torn between three very different subjects, all of which I am very excited about. We will see! How about you? Did you stay within your discipline or have you branched out slightly?
NW: I’m in a new model organism, using mouse instead of frog, and I am also looking at a different area of neurogenesis. My graduate work focused more on the brain and the central nervous system and in my new lab (Susan Wray, NIH) I am looking at olfactory development. So I branched out a little bit, but in baby steps!
Are you excited to attend the SDB meeting?
WG: I am very excited. I have never been to that part of America before, and Utah and Snowbird in the summer sounds quite enticing.
NW: Would you be interested in a postdoc in the States?
WG: Not at this point in my life. Two of the positions that I had mentioned are based in Europe and the other in Australia. I am actually from North America, and I have done research in the USA previously, so I am looking to get more exposure to the world before returning. I am sure at some point in my career I will be back in North America, and in the USA in particular. So much of the exciting research is coming from where you are based! Maybe not in the near future, but certainly if I am in a position to look for a second postdoc or perhaps a tenure-track position…
NW: I am sure you will meet some really interesting people while you are at the SDB meeting here. You may find some collaborators or networks that could help with potential jobs in the future. These meetings are really cool because you get to really see what is going on in the other side of the world.
WG: Speaking of which, what did you think of our British Society for Developmental Biology meeting?
NW: I think the biggest difference was the time zone! I was a little bit jetlagged. But I had a really good time, and it was a really good experience, interacting with different people in different areas of development.
WG: I am glad to know that we hosted you well here in the UK!
NW: That’s all of my questions! Thank you for your time and congratulations again. I wish you nothing but the best for your future work!
WG: I’m really sad that we couldn’t meet in person, but we are lucky that we live in an age in which technology can come to the rescue!