New Faculty Profile: Katherine Thompson-Peer
Assistant Professor, Developmental & Cell Biology
University of California, Irvine
Briefly describe the ongoing and expected research projects.
My lab is interested in how neurons respond to and recover from injury. We specifically focus on how neurons regenerate after injury to their dendrite arbor. The extent to which neurons can regrow dendrites after injury is largely unknown, especially as compared to the decades of research on axon regeneration, even though a functional dendritic arbor is just as important to the neuron as the axon. So we ask fundamental questions about dendrite regeneration. Can neurons regenerate dendrites after injury? If so, how well do they do? If regeneration is imperfect, what is limiting the regeneration, both in the neuron itself and in the surrounding tissue the dendrites are growing into?
So far, we have found that multiple classes of peripheral nervous system neurons are capable of regenerating dendrites after injury, both in developing larvae and adult Drosophila. At first glance, the regeneration these neurons achieve is remarkably robust, and is able to partially restore receptive function. However, upon closer investigation, we have found numerous ways that dendrite regeneration recreates an arbor imperfectly. These defects include reduced arbor size, changes in dendrite diameter and morphology, alterations in the cytoskeleton, ignoring environmental cues about where dendrites should grow, and more. We have found the molecular causes of a few of these defects, but most have yet to be fully investigated.
Going forward, we will continue to dissect apart the molecular mechanisms facilitating and limiting regeneration in the PNS neurons that we’ve studied thus far, in the Drosophila larvae and adults. We will also expand our studies to other neuron types, including motor neurons and interneurons, as well as neurons in the CNS and in other animals, and in response to other types of dendrite injury.
I began my position in April 2019, so I have the first year plus to focus exclusively on getting my lab and my research up and running. After that, teaching will be an important part of my job. The department of Developmental and Cell Biology is housed within the School of Biological Sciences at UCI, which awards undergraduate degrees for Biology majors and related topics, as well as graduate degrees. That means that I’ll have the opportunity to teach undergrad courses as well as graduate classes.
As a postdoc at UCSF, I was exposed to active learning approaches through the fantastic training programs offered by the Office of Career and Professional Development. Now, here at UC Irvine, student-centric and active learning methodologies are supported and emphasized. I look forward to engaging my students, in large lecture classes and small seminars alike.
How has being a member of GSA helped you advance in your career? Why do you think societies like GSA are important?
The first scientific conference I ever attended was the GSA’s 45th Annual Drosophila Conference in Washington, DC in 2004. I am forever grateful that, even though I was only a research technician just one year out of my bachelor’s degree with nothing to present yet, my PI sent me to the meeting in order to get exposed to the larger scientific community. It was eye-opening. So many interesting talks on such varied topics. A bit like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Later that year, while applying to graduate schools, I found the names of the PIs whose presentations I had enjoyed, and I envisioned joining their labs as a graduate student. It was inspiring.
Later, as a graduate student working in C. elegans, I had the honor of attending three worm meetings in Los Angeles in 2007, 2009, and 2011. I learned how welcoming and curious and enthusiastic as a whole the worm community could be. I was invited to give my first big talk at the 2009 meeting. It was terrifying but also thrilling. I was awarded a poster prize at the 2011 meeting for work that I was very proud of. The worm meetings were important for helping me to develop my graduate research project and find new tools and approaches to apply.
Are you looking to recruit students and/or postdocs? If so, please describe and be sure to also post the opportunity to GeneticsCareers.org.
We are enthusiastically recruiting both graduate students and postdoctoral fellows!
The lab is currently funded by a generous start-up package from the department, as well as an R00 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, so we have the resources to grow. I was recently named 1 of 8 “Rising Stars in Neuroscience” in the US by The Scientist magazine, and I would love to recruit more people to help establish the foundation for the lab and the field.
Potential graduate students should consider the Cell & Molecular Biosciences graduate program, the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program, or the Medical Scientist Training Program at UCI (we are in all 3 programs). Candidates for postdoc positions should contact me directly. Candidates who identify as members of communities that are under-represented in science are especially encouraged to apply.
In terms of mentoring, I want to point out that I believe very strongly in the importance of many and varied mentors for all scientists, especially trainees and early career researchers. I have published articles on how essential peer mentoring was for me as a postdoctoral fellow and how valuable multiple mentors are for trainees at any stage. Science is a group effort, and I believe that the job of mentoring and training new scientists is all of our responsibility.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
I love the freedom to be curious and inventive. To follow a lead, when you don’t know where it will take you. To build momentum on a question and push it forward. I love talking about science with colleagues, hypothesizing about the mechanism behind an observation, and trying to figure out how we could connect what we think might be happening to what we already know.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
I enjoy exploring oddball museums with my 7-year-old son. Recently, we’ve seen a huge collection of lava lamps that may be important for internet encryption, gotten lost in a maze of mirrors, ridden on one of the world’s largest helium balloons, played pinball machines from the 1940s, and seen every Pez dispenser ever made. We’ve also had a pluot (plum and apricot) taste test challenge, made a brightly-colored baking soda and vinegar volcano, and created some truly gross concoctions in the kitchen.
Previous training experiences:
- BA, University of Pennsylvania (with Dr. Ted Abel)
- Research Scientist, Johns Hopkins University (with Dr. Alex Kolodkin)
- PhD, Harvard University & Massachusetts General Hospital (with Dr. Josh Kaplan)
- Postdoctorate, University of California, San Francisco (with Dr. Yuh-Nung Jan)