Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Jarrett Smith
Jarrett Smith is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Bartel’s lab investigating how cells respond to stress. We sat down with Smith to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
I am trying to better understand how cells respond to stressful environments. In a normal day, cells can go through a lot of different stresses. Skins cells can be exposed to heat and UV radiation. Cancer cells are exposed to environments that lack oxygen and to chemotherapeutic drugs. Sometimes we want cells to survive these stresses, like in the case of healthy cells, and sometimes we don't want them to survive the stresses, like in the case of cancer cells. I'm trying to understand how cells survive these stresses so that whether or not they survive can be better controlled.
What did you want to be as a kid?
The first thing I remember wanting to be was a large animal veterinarian. I really liked ZooBooks, which were these pamphlets that you could get delivered to your house that taught you about animals. I was really interested in big cats, like tigers. That’s probably because of Calvin and Hobbes.
How did you become interested in biology and end up at Whitehead Institute?
I think the nodes along that path would have been an interest in animals, then an interest in biology in general, and then in college I decided that I wanted to teach biology. I was a TA and everything. I was told that if I wanted to teach at the college level, which I did, that I should get a PhD. I wasn’t planning on doing more school after undergrad, though. I didn’t feel that I could afford it because I thought it was something you had to pay for. Then I found out that you got paid to do science PhDs. That was very exciting and it made a big difference. Then I just applied to different research institutes for a PhD program and when I ended up actually doing it, I loved it. So I ended up sticking with that.
What has been your experience of being in the Bartel lab?
My experience in the Bartel lab has been great. The culture of the lab really facilitates doing good science. Starting from the very beginning, when I was applying for a postdoctoral fellowship, the lab was extremely supportive in helping me prepare. I think we ended up spending six hours on a practice talk that I was doing. Dave, my PI, was also helping right alongside during all of that. So I felt very supported immediately after joining the lab. Currently what I'm working on is a bit of a departure from the majority of the lab. My experience of that has been that everyone is still very supportive in listening to my project, making sure that they understand it, and then being as helpful as possible in giving me advice where the project overlaps with their expertise. They’re helping me learn the skills that I came to the lab to learn. The people here are really gracious with their time.
Also, I spend a lot of time socially with the lab. Before COVID, we hung out a lot. There are a few people in the lab who have overlapping taste in music, which is rare for me. I listen to a lot of punk indie rock and Boston is a good area to find those shows. So we got to go to some concerts together. We also ate together. Just before things started shutting down due to COVID, we were starting to establish an eating club where we would find all-you-can-eat offers in Boston and go eat much as we could. That was fun. I’m having a very positive lab experience.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
One of my favorite restaurants is Yamato II in the Back Bay—I assume there's a Yamato I somewhere. It has all-you-can-eat sushi, so it’s one of the places that my lab and I went. It's a really good deal, and really good sushi.
What are your hobbies?
I really love dancing, a lot of different kinds. Before COVID, I liked going out to dance at clubs or go swing dancing. I've tried some salsa classes. I also made a habit of leading exercise classes. There's a workout DVD called “Insanity” full of bodyweight exercises and it’s really intense but I like it. I started modeling a class after it. We go outside with friends and find a flat grassy area and do the exercises with music. That's something that I did in grad school, and then I started doing it here when I realized that people were interested. I suppose I have a few other hobbies, like video games, television, and I've recently gotten very into audiobooks. Another one of my hobbies is Dungeons and Dragons. That’s something that I've been doing a lot more of during COVID. And I think I’ve gotten some of my friends here into it, so that’s fun.
Do you collect anything?
I still have a collection of YuGiOh cards from when I was a kid that I’ve kept for some reason. I also have a pretty large DVD collection that skews mostly towards superhero movies. Going back to that hobbies question, I wouldn’t say this is a hobby because I’ve only done it once but I put a lot of effort into it: I made a Captain America shield and a whole cosplay costume so that I could wear it to the premiere of Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel movie. That combination of Dungeons and Dragons, YuGiOh cards, and Captain America cosplay makes me seem like a very specific kind of person, doesn’t it? But the costume did turn out really well and I was really proud of it.
What are you passionate about outside of your research?
I feel very interested in storytelling in all forms. I mentioned D&D, which is a kind of storytelling. I also really enjoy books and movies, video games too. I like engaging with those kinds of things in an active way and talking about them. I like doing movie clubs, book clubs, really breaking down the stories and characters and things like that.
Do you find that you employ some of the same skills in those activities as in research or do you enjoy storytelling because it scratches a different itch?
I think they scratch very different itches but there is some overlap in skills. I’m confident about my ability to give talks, and I think part of that is confidence in my ability to develop a narrative. I think that is very important for the presentation of science. I think that presenting science requires knowing how to develop a story clearly and keeping the audience’s attention focused on the important details. It also requires being able to carry a message all the way through the presentation. And those are storytelling skills. So I think that there's a valuable overlap there.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ten years from now, I plan to have my own lab and be on the way to becoming an established PI. I still like teaching so I'm confident that I will end up incorporating that into the next phase of my career.
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