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developmental and stem cell biologists

So long, and thanks for all the fish (and flies, and frogs, and all the rest)

Posted by , on 17 June 2021

Today’s my last day working at the Node and Development. I started in June 2016, which really feels like a different world looking back now – at the first conference I went to, the SDB in Boston, the TV screens in the hotel lobby flipped between speeches from the two recently nominated Presidential candidates; at my second conference, also in Massachusetts but down in Southbridge, the first debate played in the bar to an eerie silence. I came here from the bench – I had done a PhD in Brighton and a postdoc in Cambridge but had always known that, as much as I love science, research (and/or being a PI) was not what I wanted to do with my life. The Node job allowed me to stay in touch with science and scientists. I’ve really come to appreciate the global community of developmental biologists.

Leaving has led me to wonder: what makes developmental biology such a rewarding field to be a part of? Of course, there’s the embryos, the time-lapses, the magic of it all. Those vertiginous shifts in scale – experiments that go from a misplaced nucleic acid to a funky protein structure to a misdirected cell to a novel tissue structure to a confused embryo – which you can then contextualise in the scope of evolution, ecology, physiology. It feels like we can have it all, not many disciplines can beat that (although try speaking to a misty-eyed cosmologist like my dad). Then there’s the field’s history, from bespoke experimental embryology in nineteenth century marine labs to the same embryos lit up by lasers and deconstructed by single cell sequencing; the golden ages keep coming, the old ways are repurposed. I’ve also always liked the mix between basic and applied research, a bit of a false dichotomy of course since one is not separate from the other; better to look at it as leveraging the rich body of developmental biology research to help understand and cure terrible diseases and make more food for the world – what’s not to love about that?

At the bottom of it though, I think it’s all about the people. On that maiden conference in Boston I got to do my first interviews for Development: Doug Melton, Dave McClay and the late Kathryn Anderson. Three totally different personalities, distinct career trajectories, but what tied them all together was a reverence for the embryo. Just as rewarding were the conversations later on in the poster hall, ten dollar beer in one hand and slice of pizza in another, with graduate students and postdocs, getting energised by their excitement. I wanted to showcase researchers young and old(er) in ‘The People Behind the Papers’, an interview series which started on the Node and has since moved to Development. Satisfyingly, my hundredth interview just came out, with tunicate researchers Izumi Oda-Ishii and Yutaka Satou (my last, number 101, will come out in the next few weeks). One of the hardest things about the pandemic for many of us has been the loss of personal contact without a screen in the middle, those chance encounters in conference bars…the people make the science, and it seems to me the people of developmental biology are a particularly good bunch.

It’s been gratifying to develop the Node, help a community journal promote the work of its authors, and work with a fantastic team in our not-for-profit publisher The Company of Biologists. Whatever you think about academic publishing, I’ll insist that we are one of the good guys. I’d encourage everyone to:

I’ll stop before I start excessively rambling. After this, I’m staying in science (communication), going to the Sanger Institute to be a science writer, combining my two favourite things. And you’ll still find me on Twitter, looking out for the next embryo time-lapse.

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