Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Zebulon Levine
Zebulon Levine is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Jonathan Weissman’s lab studying how cells cope with damage. We sat down with Levine to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
I'm really interested in how cells, particularly the cells that you'll have in your body for a lot of your lifetime—cells like neurons and cardiomyocytes that you'll have for decades—prevent the buildup of damage to key molecules. I'm in Jonathan Weissman's lab and he's been a leader in understanding various mechanisms of quality control in cells, but most of what we know is about quality control when molecules are built, to make sure they are not built wrong. We know a lot less about what happens with quality control when something breaks down, when something was once working but has had damage accumulate. I’m trying to apply genetic and genomic technologies that the lab has expertise in to these questions, in order to understand what the cellular factors are that recognize damage and repair it or make sure it doesn't cause more damage and lead to toxicity.
What did you want to be as a kid?
I've always liked science but I can't say that I really wanted to be a scientist as a small child. Science and medicine were in the air around me: my father was a veterinarian, my mom was a midwife, and I have a sister, who is seven and a half years older than me, who was on the path towards research science before deciding to go to medical school instead. I got to college and thought maybe I'd do medicine, maybe I’d take some science courses and try to do some research. When I got into the lab, I really enjoyed it, especially the degree of freedom and creativity you had in trying to solve research problems in basic science.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
For all that we've been studying ourselves (and other biology) for hundreds of years, there is so much completely unknown. I really like the chance to ask questions that no one knows the answer to and then design an experiment that can actually give you the answer. A lot of day-to-day bench science ultimately can end up being tedious and you do a lot of things that are fairly repetitive, but getting new data that gets you closer to an answer, or shows that something new that you designed worked, gives you this really amazing feeling that keeps you going. And in between those moments there are podcasts and Spotify and coffee.
The scientific process entails a lot of failures and things not going as planned along the way. How do you deal with that aspect of the work?
You can't say that it doesn't affect you at all, but I think one thing you need to keep in mind is that it is in fact part of the scientific experience. It’s perfectly normal. You try and learn what you can and should change so that you don't make the same mistake lots of times, but you also need to accept that some things aren't going to work. I think the other critical aspect is not being too invested in any single experiment. I try to remember that I'm not doing experiments that are going to be someone's life or death in the short term. My sister's a surgeon, so in her day-to-day if something goes wrong, that's really bad, whereas in my case you can figure it out and try again. One of the nice things in science is that you do have that flexibility.
What are your hobbies?
I grew up in a pretty rural place and I think that’s why I have a craving for spending time outdoors. I really like rock climbing and hiking. I've recently been getting into running, largely with some other postdocs and people in the Whitehead Running Club. I'm reaching the point where I probably have to stop saying, “I'm not really a runner, I just go on runs occasionally.” Especially during Covid when it's harder to get to the gym, I’ve been running a fair amount.
Where do you go climbing?
I'd like to get outside on cliffs more than I have lately. These days I’m mostly in the gym, but in my mind, that's training for getting out on a cliff face. New Hampshire is the main place to go around here, and it's a very pretty place to hang out. There is a beautiful place, Cathedral Ledge, up in New Hampshire that I would like to get to a lot more, but I also like to mix it up in some ways. I like to not do the same thing each time; I’d rather have the new experience.
What has it been like running with the Whitehead Running Club?
It's been great. I started in the Weissman lab about a month before it moved to Whitehead Institute, as part of the forward guard of people moving here—I interviewed before it was known that they were moving from UCSF to Whitehead Institute. One consequence of Covid restrictions and being a new lab during Covid was not feeling as integrated into Whitehead Institute initially, and I think the running club actually has been a big part of making me feel more like I’m part of the community. We run at a fairly easy pace, so it is a great time to talk to people from other labs.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I would like to have my own research group. I like the experience of trying to mentor and train younger scientists, and so I would like to get to a position where I can both pursue research questions that excite me and mentor others. I have pursued a somewhat meandering path through science, where I've got a lot of experience from a kind of large-scale genetics point of view down to a very chemical, molecular, detailed mechanistic point of view and I think the ability to think about both is really powerful. Having a research group where I can impart that to others would be great.
What has been your experience mentoring other scientists so far? What have you learned?
I think the big thing to keep in mind is that you need to figure out how the person you're working with operates, because people don't all respond to the same things. I was mentored in a fairly hands-off, independent style and that's certainly what I try to do with people I work with. I think one important component of that is that you need to let people make mistakes. We were just talking about failure in science and how you deal with it, and I think it can be even harder when the person experiencing failure is not you directly, but someone that you're working with. While you can point things out and try to help them do things correctly the first time, ultimately I think it's important to give them enough space to try to figure it out on their own. If it doesn’t work, you say okay, here's what we change. Let's try it again.
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