Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Jessica Spinelli
Jessica Spinelli is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini’s lab studying how mitochondria function in low oxygen environments. We sat down with Spinelli to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.
What do you investigate?
I study mitochondria, which supply energy to our cells, and what I focus on is basically how mitochondrial function adapts to environments that have low levels of oxygen. In textbooks, we learn that the way the mitochondrial electron transport chain works is by electrons entering the chain, and then exiting onto oxygen. This flow of electrons fuels mitochondrial function. But what happens when oxygen levels are low? In diseases like cancer, for example, with poor vascularization in the tumor microenvironment, oxygen levels can be lowered, and in heart attack or stroke, when blood flow is cut off to a region of the body, the oxygen levels dip very low. And the mitochondria, which actually kind of coordinate cell survival, theoretically require oxygen to function, so what we've investigated is how do mitochondria adapt to limitations in oxygen availability.
How did you become interested in this research question?
When I was in grad school, I was studying cancer metabolism, and something that I found very interesting was that there is a bit of a paradox, which is that people always say mitochondrial function is very important for tumor growth, but as I mentioned, the tumor microenvironment is quite low in oxygen. Wanting to understand how those two things fit together really sparked my interest and made me think about whether there is another adaptive way that mitochondria can function when they're exposed to low oxygen levels to enable survival. Also, a lot of the work that we have been doing on metabolism, we do in a dish or incubator where the air is 21% oxygen, and the reality is that oxygen levels are totally different when you go into an actual organism. Getting a better idea of how mitochondria operate in a more physiological and relevant oxygen level will really open the door to understanding the roles mitochondria play in cellular metabolism and viability, particularly in diseases like cancer and diabetes, and even during activities like exercise.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a brain surgeon. I always had an affinity for science. I loved science class in elementary school and I loved learning about the brain and anatomy. Then when I got into later stages of life, I found biochemistry, which they don't teach you in second grade, and I realized that I liked that even more.
What are your hobbies?
I used to knit a lot, I really like playing board games with my fiancé and friends, and I love playing with my niece and nephew. My nephew Logan is 22 months, and my niece Ivy is three months, and we will often take Logan for a weekend. I love watching him grow; it's been one of the more fulfilling experiences in my life to watch him learn and get excited, even about mitochondria. He likes when I talk about what I’m doing, and he’ll even point to mitochondria when he sees a picture of it somewhere and it's very cute. What else? I really like to dance.
What kind of dance do you do?
When I was in college, I actually did a lot of hip hop. I was on a team where we would enter these competitions in New York City. I went to college at Hofstra on Long Island, and we would compete in these competitions, locally or in New York City, with a lot of other colleges present. It was kind of a battle type of situation, like you would see in a movie like Step Up, and it was really, really a fun time.
What’s your favorite meal to cook?
Cooking is another one of my favorite hobbies. My fiancé Isaac and I love to make homemade pasta. We have a hand crank pasta maker, which is really good. I also like to make homemade gnocchi. Pesto gnocchi is I think my favorite dish. We make a lot of chicken marsala, bolognaises, homemade ravioli. We have a nice homemade red sauce as well, that we’ll put on pizza or something along those lines.
Do you grow any of the ingredients yourself?
Yes, we love to garden. We have a ton of vegetables that we grow, and actually Isaac's family in Vermont has a ton of vegetables that they grow and they'll give us pounds—I mean, pounds—of tomatoes that we use to make our sauces, and then we jar them and can them. We also make canned pickles and canned beans, and we grow eggplant in the backyard. I love to make eggplant parmesan. We have a lot of basil to make pesto. We tried to grow garlic; that was pretty funny. If you've ever seen in the fridge when garlic starts to sprout, well we put that in the dirt, and it grew really tall so we thought we were going to have a giant bulb of garlic under the soil. We pulled it out at the end of the year, and there was nothing.
Do you have any pets?
I don't, but I do have a new baymate in the lab, an axolotl. He lives in the lab, and we feed him and play with him. We've named him MFSD12 because the previous grad student owner, Hank Adelmann, gave him to me, and so I named him after the gene that Hank figured out the function of. I think he's the most beautiful axolotl on the planet.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
My dream is to have my own lab, and to have the lab be full of excited individuals from all around the world, a diverse set of individuals with diverse mindsets and exciting ideas, who want to work on mitochondria in a physiologically relevant way. I would love to have all of those people together under one roof, doing exciting work that they're passionate about.
What have you learned from David Sabatini about running a lab that you would take with you into your own lab?
David truly cares about the people in our lab, and it's something that I really hope to emulate when I have my own lab: how invested and how involved he is in our lives. Something that I love about our lab is that we celebrate all of the little wins, whether that be something from a lab member’s personal life that they chose to share or a paper being published. When there's a big moment in someone's life, we always take time to recognize and be excited about it. The other thing I will take from working with David is to really engage people in discussions about their projects. I've never talked to David and felt like he wasn't listening to me. He thinks about what I say, and then we have a discussion about pushing things forward. I think that kind of dialogue encourages trainees to be independent thinkers, when you give them the opportunity to think things through as opposed to just telling them what to do.
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