Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Amelie Raz
Amelie Raz is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Yukiko Yamashita’s lab investigating germline immortality. We sat down with Raz to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
I am interested in how germline cells—which are eggs, sperm, and cells that make eggs and sperm—become what they are. I study these cells in fruit flies. The remarkable thing about the germline is that it essentially never “goes bad.” Other types of cells in our body can only divide so many times before they have to stop, but germlines can keep producing new cells—and even new individuals—essentially forever. Even the germline of an old individual, which has divided many, many times, can have cells that, in the process of fertilization, come together and make a cell (an embryo) that is effectively brand new. Then that embryo becomes an offspring that effectively has all brand-new cells, even though it came from older individuals. The cells are effectively immortal, and I want to figure out what makes them that way.
You also did your PhD research at Whitehead Institute, in Peter Reddien’s lab. What made you decide to stay at Whitehead Institute?
Staying here wasn't intentional, although there's really no better environment for doing basic research. I had met with Yukiko by coincidence when she came to give a talk at Whitehead Institute in 2019—at the time she was working at the University of Michigan. I had been an admirer of her work for a while, and I was given the opportunity to have lunch with her. It was just an amazing conversation. I had been working in the Reddien lab on how cells divide asymmetrically, which is something that her lab is very expert in and has done some field-changing work on. I was really excited after that conversation, and I thought it would be amazing to do a postdoc with her but I didn’t want to move to Michigan. Lo and behold, I find out that she is possibly coming to Boston. At that point, I applied to her lab. I went to Michigan to interview with her, and then the lab moved here [to Whitehead Institute] and I joined. So I did my PhD up on the fifth floor and now I’m on the third floor. Next I'm going to be working in the garage.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
My favorite form of exercise and commuting is biking. Ranking my monthly expenses, they basically go: rent, food, then somewhat of a drop off, and then bike. I like working on my bike and taking rides in the area. I'm very grateful to live in a place with such good bike infrastructure. A lot of my hobbies unfortunately have dropped off in pandemic times, but I think biking is one of the ones that has been very pandemic-friendly, fortunately. One of the things that I miss most during the pandemic is getting together with friends in some local Jewish communities to have potlucks and sing together, which is something that I would do quite a lot but that is extremely pandemic unfriendly.
What is your favorite meal to cook?
My go to potluck dish—and this may be because I'm mostly meeting with local Jews—is noodle kugel. All you need is some egg noodles, cottage cheese, sour cream, eggs, sugar, I put apples in it, and some bread crumbs. You can stick it in a nine by thirteen baking dish and if you have a lid, you can just stick it in your backpack and bike to wherever, and then everyone's so excited to have a warm meal. It goes over much better than when someone will bring, say, a very sad salad.
What did you want to be as a kid?
I wanted to be the tooth fairy. I didn't know that that was not actually an option for me, so I had a full plan of exactly what I was going to do. You know how little kids are really weird, I was really into teeth and bones, and teeth as bones that you could see. I thought that as the tooth fairy maybe I could study teeth, because I would be taking all of them. I thought a quarter is such a small price to pay for getting to study a tooth.
So was that an early sign of your love of research?
Maybe. Together with a complete misunderstanding of where the quarter was coming from.
Do you collect anything?
Related to the obsession with becoming the tooth fairy, when I was younger, I had a bone collection. I would dig for various bones that I could catalogue and keep, but I grew out of that. Now, I collect letters that people send me and playbills from theater performances that I go to, which pre-pandemic I did relatively frequently. For MIT students reading this: there are a lot of great deals that students can get in the Boston area for really cheap theater performances that are really fantastic, like at the Central Square Theater. They had a really good production of a show about Rosalind Franklin called Photograph 51, that even as someone who knows the story of Rosalind Franklin, and is familiar with the work, was just incredibly wrenching to watch.
When did you realize you wanted to go into research?
I did research as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, and worked in the pea aphid, which is a really cool insect. Aphids have this really amazing ability to reproduce in all female populations. They undergo a process called parthenogenesis, in which the females are able to give rise to other females asexually, and they give live births, so you have a little baby aphid coming out of a mommy aphid; there are no male aphids around. I went to a women’s college and so this was very appealing to us, obviously. Then I went on to work for a couple years as a technician at the University of Pennsylvania, and between those relatively full-time research experiences I determined that this is something I love to do, and I wanted to continue with it.
Can you tell me about your involvement in science outreach?
I have done outreach with Whitehead Institute mostly through Amy Tremblay in public programs and people that reached out to my PhD advisor. I was a partner in Whitehead Institute’s high school teachers program for several years, in which I met with various teachers to share my expertise, answer scientific questions, and serve as a resource. That was a really wonderful experience for me, being able to learn about what current high schoolers and teenagers who are interested in science are talking about, and being able to share with them what I think are the really cool aspects of biology. For example, I was able to go to a teacher partner’s classroom a couple of times. And, you know, any 14-year-old is going to love cutting up worms—the Reddien lab studies planarian flatworms—so you just bring some worms in for them, and they're going to have a blast cutting them up and seeing that they still wriggle (planarians regenerate after dissection).
What is the coolest thing that you have seen in the lab?
I’ll have to keep this vague but in the project from my PhD that's currently in the review process, I predicted that if our model was right, there was something that some cells should do, and I had been trying to figure out how to know if the cells did it for a really long time. Finally, almost by chance, I was doing an experiment, looking under the microscope at the worm for something else and I saw what looked to be a cell in the process of doing the thing that I was interested in. I just stared at it, and then turned to my labmate who was also in the microscope room and asked, “What does this look like to you?” He said it looked like the cell was doing the thing. I freaked out, and I ran out of the microscope room and into the lab. I was just sort of vibrating and asked for a bunch of people to cram into the small microscope room and tell me if they thought the cell was doing this thing. They came in and said yes. It was so exciting, like this is it; this is the thing we’ve been looking for this whole time. When you have that moment, it’s magnificent.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
My dream job would be to lead a lab somewhere where I would also be able to do a lot of teaching and mentorship.
If you were going to tell a high schooler what you enjoy most about being a researcher, what would you say?
You get to play with stuff all day. You get to cut up worms, or play with flies, and pour liquids inside of other liquids, play with pipettes and wander around and use your hands. For anyone who enjoyed playing in the dirt as a kid, this is just the best job. And then also, you get these amazing discoveries, these moments of seeing the cell do the thing and knowing that no one else in the world knows the cell does this thing, until you turn to the person next to you and show them.
Communications and Public Affairs