Meet a Whitehead Staff Scientist: Lucila Scimone
Lucila Scimone is a staff scientist in Whitehead Institute Member Peter Reddien’s lab studying how cells build and regenerate body parts in the flatworm planarian. Staff scientists are typically senior researchers in a lab, who have completed a PhD and postdoc and then have chosen to stay in an academic research position. During their long tenure in a lab, they may take on other responsibilities in addition to research. We sat down with Lucila to talk about her experiences as a staff scientist and her interests in and out of the lab.
How would you describe your role as a staff scientist?
The role is similar to a postdoc in terms of the research you are doing and the relationship with the principal investigator. It can vary from lab to lab, but in general I don’t write grants or do administrative work; I focus on research and training students. I often pair up with a grad student on a project and get them started in the lab, teach them the techniques we use most frequently, and lay out the scope of what we can do. Providing this training is the main difference between my job and a postdoc. Postdocs often also provide training, but I think in general they might feel more pressure to focus on their own projects in order to quickly move to the next stage of their career.
What drew you to the Reddien lab?
I started here as a postdoc. I did my PhD in immunology at Harvard Medical School, working with T-cell progenitors. I wanted to work with stem cells, but I didn’t want to continue working with vertebrates. Planarians are very attractive because they can regenerate from a tiny fragment and they have a huge source of stem cells. That makes them an ideal system to study stem cell differentiation, lineage commitment, and how cells can tell what tissues are missing. That was mostly what inspired me to change my focus from immunology. On the personal level, I knew Peter already because he overlapped for a little bit with my husband when they were grad students in the Horvitz lab, so that made the transition easier.
What led you to stay on as a staff scientist after your postdoc?
I have always been very excited about doing research. As my postdoc went on, it became more apparent to me that I would like to stay at the bench, doing hands-on science instead of dealing with the administrative commitments that come with an academic job as a professor. From what I have seen, virtually no professors stay at the bench for long. To me, staff scientist is the ideal position.
What would you say to postdocs who feel the same way about wanting to keep their focus on hands-on research?
If you want to do hands-on research, staff scientist is a great position. Unfortunately, only bigger labs tend to have the resources to offer these positions, so there are not that many opportunities. There is a bottleneck in careers in academic science. There are tons of graduate students and postdocs, but then not many tenure-track positions, and not many staff scientist positions either, which can be frustrating. I would encourage postdocs to explore startups and private companies that have interest in research. There is cool research being done outside of academia, and there are many great career opportunities there too.
What are you investigating currently?
I'm interested in understanding how the planarian eye takes shape. What are the molecules involved in acquiring that shape and how does it happen? I want to explore the order of events required to go from a single eye progenitor to a fully developed eye. How do eye progenitors get to the right location, what do they need to nucleate, which extrinsic and intrinsic signals are essential in this process? What is the role of the different cell types that form the planarian eye?
What’s been one discovery in the lab that was particularly surprising or exciting?
I've been in the lab for 15 years now, so there have been a lot of exciting things happening, but if I have to pick one, I would choose our findings that recently came out in Science about guidepost cells near the planarian eye. Everything started with an observation I made while working on another project maybe five or more years ago. Back then, I observed a couple of distinct cells that I thought had to be important because there were only a few of them and they were present in every single animal in a particular position close to the eyes. I always wanted to go back and figure out what those cells were, but I was busy with other projects. A couple of years ago we had the opportunity to go back, and interestingly enough, we found that these cells were muscle cells, but that they have a very different function than most muscle. These cells act as guideposts cells; they help orient the axons of the photoreceptors that come from the eye to find their target in the brain. They are placed in key positions within the axonal track where decisions are made. It was very satisfying to go from that original observation of finding something that was a little unusual to understanding one of the functions of those cells.
What are your hobbies?
I like interior design, so I keep changing things around in my house. I also enjoy pencil drawing and painting. During the pandemic, I did quite a bit of painting. I do mostly modern, abstract, geometric painting. My family also enjoys traveling and we love to experience other cultures. I mostly like going to small towns but also enjoy visiting national parks and places to admire nature. Ten years ago, I took time off (thanks Peter!) for a road trip from Buenos Aires —I’m originally from Argentina—back to Boston. It was an amazing experience. The trip was seven months. There was so much learning and fun, and we got to know how people live in different towns, places, and cultures. Traveling, to me, is one of the best things to do in life.
What’s something fascinating that you have seen when traveling?
I've always been fascinated by street markets. The markets that I have visited in South America and Central America were so much fun. They have everything you can imagine, from live animals to dried foods to handmade glassware to wood carvings, to textiles, ceramics, anything really. It's always exciting to go to those local markets and see what’s up there.
Do you collect anything?
I don’t have any classic sort of collection, but we do like to collect things from the trips we take to remind us of where we’ve been and the experiences we had. For example, we have a small collection of alebrijes, which are pieces, typically in the shape of animals, made of copal wood and elaborately painted by hand in Oaxaca, Mexico. We also have a collection of tiny sculptures of the animals that you can find in Galapagos, which we visited a few years ago.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
In ten years, the dream scenario would be to have retired and be enjoying life in a different way. By then my kids will be in college (or doing whatever they want to do) and I’ll have more freedom with my time. There are so many fun things to do besides lab work, and I would like to try some before I get too old. After our long road trip, we dreamed of doing a similar trip in Africa, but circumstances did not allow it. Work and school got in the way. The dream would be to do it in the future with my husband.
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