Liz Boydston

Whitehead Institute postdoctoral researcher Liz Boydston


Benedikt Markus

Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Liz Boydston

Elizabeth Boydston is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Sebastian Lourido’s lab investigating the pathogen Toxoplasmsa gondii. We sat down with Boydston to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.

What are you investigating?

I work on Toxoplasma, which is a pathogen that can recognize and invade cells from many different species—including humans. I'm trying to study the molecules that the parasite uses to recognize and invade host cells. They have specialized organelles that are necessary for invasion, which contain all of these molecules, and I'm trying to determine the content of those organelles.

I think studying Toxoplasma is really fascinating because the parasites are so reliant on their hosts to live and replicate, so understanding how they invade is not only critical to understanding their unique biology, but also offers the potential for therapeutic intervention.

What’s your background in science?

I grew up in the Central Valley of California, and I wasn't originally interested in science. In fact, when I started my undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, I was most interested in pursuing political science. That changed when I took a biology class that drew me in in a way that the subject hadn’t previously. As a result, I started working in Jasper Rine’s lab and really enjoyed doing experiments and the potential to uncover something new. I went straight out of my undergrad to UCSF where I did my PhD in Jonathan Weissman's lab—now he’s followed me to Whitehead Institute. When I was at UCSF, I was really interested in how the cells are compartmentalized, which enables each of these compartments, or organelles, to have distinct properties and functions. My excitement for the Lourido lab came from a talk that Sebastian gave at UCSF where he highlighted some of the unique features of Toxoplasma, including a number of specialized organelles in addition to the standard suite of eukaryotic organelles. These specialized organelles have been implicated in different parasite-specific processes including invasion, but we don't understand many of the molecular details of how that works. What was exciting to me about joining the Lourido lab was that there is a ton of cool cell biology to explore and that the tools are ripe for being able to study it.

What is your favorite non-work memory at Whitehead Institute so far?

Our lab does weekly happy hours, where we all hang out in the break room. Often it is just casual conversation, but every once in a while, we’ll play board games—these are my favorite weeks. The other thing that I really enjoy doing with the lab is afternoon coffee breaks—during the summer, my non-official lab job is making cold brew. Of course, it’s a little different this year; we’ve continued happy hours over zoom, but I’m looking forward to being able to socialize with the lab in person again in the future.

What are your favorite board games?

My favorite is Pandemic, which is so pertinent right now. I have always liked that one because it's a cooperative game—everybody's in it together and the fight is against the game as opposed to competing against each other. Another game that I really enjoy is Wingspan, which is a game about birds, and its artwork and pieces are really beautiful. This is one that I first encountered during an evening of games with the lab, and I now enjoy playing it with other friends.

What are your other hobbies?

I’ve picked up running over the past couple years, which I enjoy doing by myself but also in a group. Our lab has a casual running club, and last year we trained for and ran a half marathon together in Cambridge. Other than that, I dabble in crafts and enjoy knitting—although I can mostly only do rectangles (like scarves).

What else are you passionate about outside of research?

It’s related to science, but I've become very interested in discussing diversity and trying to work on solutions to bring more diversity into our academic community and, specifically, our institute. I'm also participating in a program called Leading Edge, which is sponsored by HHMI, where the goal is to increase recruitment of women and non-binary researchers for faculty positions. Originally, we were supposed to have a symposium in May, but we've replaced this with more regular meet ups and a virtual symposium series in August. As a group, we have been passionate about increasing diversity broadly in academia, and it has been really powerful to work together and share our ideas and discuss what has worked at our different institutions. 

What’s the biggest disaster that you’ve had in the lab?

Luckily, I haven’t had any major science disasters, but I have had several run-ins with buckets of bleach water for pipettes on the floor, including once when I knocked it over spilling it all over my pants, and I had to go to class smelling like bleach. In a separate incident, my headphones got caught and pulled my iPod out of my pocket and straight into the bleach. That was the end of my iPod.

What did you want to be as a kid?

From a young age, I wanted to be a teacher. I had some great, caring teachers, who helped make school fun for me, and so I was interested in doing the same for other students. 

Do you teach or mentor currently?

Yes, I have an undergraduate who's been working with me in lab for the past two years, and she’s been really fantastic. I've also co-taught an advanced undergraduate seminar in the biology department with a postdoc in the Lamason lab. It's a semester long course where students learn how to read and critique primary literature—in this case, focused on host-pathogen interactions. The ultimate goal of the class is that students can identify the key experiments of a paper, determine whether the conclusions are supported by the data, and identify potential next steps for exploration. We start out kind of surface level like, “This Western blot doesn't have a loading control,” but it's very nice to see over the semester how much the students learn to conceptualize rather than just take in the information as presented. By the end, they are able to provide some really deep insights and thoughts, including ideas that I hadn't thought about, so I get to learn from them too.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I'd like to run my own research group. I have wanted to do that for a while, and nothing’s set in stone, but that’s still the plan. I’d like to be at an institution like MIT that's research intensive but where there are also undergraduate and graduate students that I can mentor. I’d like to teach undergraduates; I think there’s value in that and that teaching can hone your communication skills. 

Do you see yourself moving back to California?

I really like California, so that would be great, but I’m coming around on the east coast. Growing up in California and only ever having been on the east coast a few times to visit, I was very worried about the winters and snow. In the two years that I’ve been here, it’s been very mild, so my ability to survive an extreme winter remains untested. However, a distinct fall season is something that I didn’t experience in California and it is something I’ve enjoyed about being here. I’d say the east coast, and other areas, for that matter, are not off the table anymore.



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