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Meet Our Speakers: Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz

January 15, 2023
by Taryn Olivas and Chase Amos

A conversation with Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz

Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz is a senior group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus where she currently leads 4D Cellular Physiology. We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz about her career, interests, and best advice for early career scientists before her recent seminar at Yale Cell Biology.

Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz was introduced to science early by her father, a chemist and Raman spectroscopist, and because of this always saw science as something she was excited about. In her undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College, she took science courses but diverged into psychology and philosophy in her pursuit of understanding how people think. She explained, “science is about the acquiring of knowledge, but what is knowledge? How do we define it? Philosophy played a big role in teaching me how to create arguments and propositions for supporting particular opinions or perspectives, which is fundamental to the way we do science.” After college, she took a year to teach high school science in Africa and another two years teaching high school physics and chemistry back in the United States.

These experiences made her more driven to pursue science herself, and she went to graduate school. She received a Master’s degree in biology from Stanford working in Philip Hanawalt’s laboratory and her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University in Douglas Fambrough’s laboratory. As a postdoctoral researcher in Richard D. Klausner’s laboratory at the NIH, Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz showed the cycling of membranes between the endoplasmic reticulum and the Golgi, which led to recognition that organelles are dynamic and regenerate through intracellular vesicle trafficking. Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz began her own research group at the NIH and became an early adapter of green fluorescent protein (GFP) to visualize cellular trafficking through the secretory pathway. Her group pioneered the development of many live cell imaging techniques, including fluorescence recovery after photobleaching (FRAP) and photoactivatable fluorescence microscopy.

4D cellular physiology and attributes of organelles

When asked what motivates her to study membrane trafficking, she responded that it’s where she started and got her creativity in science going. “It’s a movement pathway, a flow of material. It’s alive.” Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz has a diverse breadth of research topics to study in her laboratory today. Heading up 4D Cellular Physiology at the Janelia Research Campus, a major current question is how cells function in the bigger context of a tissue. The lab is now collaborating with others to think about how the cell biological phenomenon like secretory pathway processes and subcellular organelle dynamism work in the native context of cell types that constitute brain, lung, pancreas, and heart tissue to name a few. “We know these organelles are playing an important role in the very fundamental, steady-state physiology of individual cells, but you see differences for cells that are playing different roles in a tissue. That’s super exciting to be thinking about and interacting with people who are doing work in this area.”

There are many projects on the cellular level as well in the Lippincott-Schwartz lab. They continue to use and optimize live imaging approaches to answer questions about the attributes of different organelles. She shared with us that they are studying endoplasmic reticulum-plasma membrane contact sites in neurons, the translation of secretory and membrane proteins occurring at particular sites on the endoplasmic reticulum, and an interesting mechanism of microautophagy at ER exit sites.

We asked what she thought a key question in the field that needs to be answered in the next decade was, and she responded that we need to know more about organelle coordination. Processes such as cell growth and cell death require organelles to communicate for proper execution, and she would like to see us understand the mechanisms of their crosstalk. She also answered that focusing on 4D cellular physiology will be important as all cells have the same organelles but those organelles function differently in different cell types within a tissue. She also mentioned to us that her curiosity extends past exclusively cell biology with this question: “I don’t know if this will be answered in the next decade, but it would be really cool if we could make some headway into it- the origin of eukaryotic cells. Evolution and the origin of life is still quite a mystery, and I find that really fascinating.” Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz has many interests in and out of the lab, including being active outside whenever she can. In fact, she told us she sometimes kayaks to work across the Potomac River outside the Janelia Research Campus.

Advice for early career scientists

“Do your science! Do your best work! Passion and focus will help you find a way.” When we asked Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz for her best advice for early career researchers in our department, she told us that understanding the key questions is the first step. “Do you need new tools?” Remembering her initial work with GFP, she said she had a hunch that membranes were more dynamic than the field appreciated but fixed cells couldn’t answer that question. It took fluorescent proteins and live imaging to show their movement. So her advice was to find technology you know how to use and craft questions around what can be answered with it. “Don’t get stuck on one particular question that you set out to pursue... often the real question came from when I saw unexpected things from the data. Let the data direct you.” She suggests going to small meetings on specific topics so you can interact and see what questions are being asked. Then to ask yourself: why are they asking that? If it’s a new field you want to break into, then the focus should be on figuring out what the major question is and why.

Going to meetings and talking to people is so important that, when asked which scientist she would like to talk to living or dead, she responded that she would like to talk to too many of the living ones again given longer conversations. That, or Leonardo da Vinci. “He understood a lot.”

We would like to thank Dr. Lippincott-Schwartz for taking the time to share her research and personal stories with us.

Submitted by C. Patrick Lusk on January 16, 2023