Staff Scientist Profiles

Senior Scientist and Director, Wisconsin Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer Laboratory

“I spent 5 years of my Ph.D. studying one domain of one protein, which was rewarding in its own way. But now I’m able to work on resources and tools that could be applied to the study of any disease and many different data types. So it’s a different level of impact.” —Alexander Pico

University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison

Growing up in Kobe, Japan, Noriko Kita would gaze at the ceiling of the local planetarium on school field trips, wondering where all those planets and stars came from and what they were made of. Today, she takes care of an instrument that can answer some of those questions. A geoscientist whose own research uses meteorites to trace the history of the solar system, Kita is director of the Wisconsin Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer Laboratory, the National Science Foundation–funded facility that houses the $6 million instrument, the first of its kind in the world capable of micrometer-scale geochemical measurements.

Kita does not teach courses or supervise theses, but she does oversee a laboratory of about 20 students, postdocs, early-career scientists, and visiting researchers. Despite all this, it’s the instrument that dominates her days. “Every morning when I come in, I first go to the lab and see what is going on. I check that the instrument is okay, and if some problem happens, I am the main person to troubleshoot.”

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Kita spends whole days in the lab, either working on her own research or helping students, postdocs, and other scientists develop their projects. Her NASA-funded research satisfies her itch for discovery, but her most important scientific contribution, she says, is helping researchers from other fields—geoscience, engineering, physics, and limnology (among others)—obtain the data they need. She prides herself on her analytical skills and says that she and her supervisor, UW Madison geoscientist John Valley, share the goal of providing researchers with exceptionally accurate analyses. “I’m in a position to try to be the best in the world at what I do, and I am given the resources to do that,” she says. “I really like it when people are very happy and obtain very good data. And it allows me to understand a wide range of research fields that I might not be exposed to if I were just doing meteorite research.”

Project Director, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine

University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)

After doing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, a clinical internship, and a research postdoc, Patricia Moran remained fascinated by the subject she started studying in graduate school: the role of emotions and behavior in health. But the life of a professor didn’t appeal to her. “I knew that I didn’t want to regularly work nights and weekends, which most faculty do if they want to stay funded.” What she did want to do was get her hands dirty and figure out how to make things work. “I love getting bogged down in the details and putting out fires. I’m more interested in doing that during my day than in delving into the literature and spending my day working up a literature review.” After years of agonizing over the idea of leaving the tenure track, “I finally decided I was ready to close that door,” she says.

In 2002, Moran landed a job at UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine managing an interview-based study of stress and coping in patients who are at the end of life as well as of their caregivers. The project gave her the opportunity to use her clinical skills and to take the lead in rolling out a new study, and it confirmed that project management was the path she wanted to take. Subsequent projects, all funded by National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants to Osher Center faculty members, have offered more complex logistical challenges, opportunities to participate in high-level decision-making, and the variety she craves. “I’ve always had many interests, and I’m perfectly happy switching every several years to a somewhat different research topic,” she says. She finds the diversity of her responsibilities—hiring and supervising staff members, mentoring research assistants, designing study protocols, and managing all aspects of studies’ execution—invigorating.

The challenge that anyone in her position must wrestle with, Moran says, is that a grant-funded project-management position is not permanent. “I know that I’m very much appreciated here, but I’m expensive compared to a bachelor’s-level person,” she says. “If funding dried up at the Osher Center and we were not able to get large grants that demanded my level of expertise, I’m not sure that I would find a lot of openings.” But she doesn’t spend much time stewing over that uncertainty. “I feel pretty comfortable that, if I continue to do good work, there will continue to be people who want my help.”

Assistant Scientist and Laboratory Manager

UW Madison

After earning a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics and completing the second of two productive postdocs in 2009, Suzanne Ponik could easily have joined other highly trained scientists in pursuit of tenure-track faculty positions. Instead, she decided to stay right where she was, in the laboratory of UW Madison cell biologist Patricia Keely, studying how changes in breast tissue density affect tumor progression. “I really enjoy the everyday mentoring of students at the bench, and I wasn’t interested in all the grant writing that comes with running a lab,” Ponik says. “I have a great relationship with Patti, so staying on in her lab seemed like a perfect fit.”

Now classified as an assistant scientist and paid by Keely’s grants, Ponik continues to conduct her own research identifying cell-signaling changes in cancer metastasis. She also manages the lab, directly supervising two undergraduate students and helping graduate students and postdocs with their projects. She runs lab meetings when Keely isn’t there, helps write grants, and is involved in managing the business side of the lab. Though she holds no formal teaching position, Ponik organizes a career-development panel for graduate students in the department.

The mix of student mentoring, nuts-and-bolts lab management, and bench work is a perfect fit. “I like mentoring the students, helping them develop their projects, and watching them become more independent,” she says. “I also feel like I still have an important role in science, yet I have a lot of flexibility to go home and see my kids’ soccer games or whatever.” Her biggest challenge, she says, is finding time to keep her research afloat. “I sometimes get spread too thin,” she says. “My own project sometimes goes by the wayside. One of my biggest goals is to not become stagnant and to keep publishing my own papers.”

Staff Research Scientist, Department of Bioinformatics

The Gladstone Institutes, UCSF

Alexander Pico’s passion for coding was kindled in the early 1980s during long afternoons spent hunched over his Atari 400 writing games. That passion smoldered for years as he pursued a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and then a doctoral degree in molecular neurobiology and biophysics. When he wrapped up his Ph.D. at Rockefeller University in New York City in 2003, he decided to indulge his passion and moved into bioinformatics and software engineering.

After several years as a bioinformatics postdoc at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, located at UCSF’s Medical Center at Mission Bay, Pico’s next logical step would have been to start his own lab. But, having discovered how much he enjoyed working on software development teams, he decided to step off the tenure track. In 2008, he took a staff position in the bioinformatics department at Gladstone, where he now leads a team of biologists-turned-programmers and programmers-turned-biologists working to build free, open-source software tools for basic biomedical research. “I spent 5 years of my Ph.D. studying one domain of one protein, which was rewarding in its own way,” Pico says. “But now I’m able to work on resources and tools that could be applied to the study of any disease and many different data types. So it’s a different level of impact.”

Among the pleasures his job offers, Pico most relishes the team dynamics. “I thrive in an environment where we’re collaborating on ideas and collectively putting together a roadmap and vision, as opposed to one where I would take a more isolated leader role.” He also enjoys helping young people develop their coding and collaboration skills. Each summer, he coordinates the mentoring of a group of about 15 students from around the world who are learning to write open-source code through the Google Summer of Code program. “They transform a lot from the beginning of the summer, [when] they might not have worked on a collaborative or open-source project before. By the end, they’ve learned to communicate with a diverse and geographically distributed team, and we have a software project completed that we wouldn’t have had time to complete otherwise.”

Senior Scientist, National Magnetic Resonance Facility and Department of Biochemistry

UW Madison

It takes a special dedication to science, and a lot of personal sacrifice, to spend a year and a half running a lab without a salary. That’s what Fariba Assadi-Porter did when the professor whose grant was supporting her research moved to another university, taking the grant with him. “It was really depressing,” says the UW Madison biomolecular chemist. She stayed on for 18 months with no pay—and was on the verge of giving up and looking for an industry job when funding finally came through.

Her first break was a grant from NIH, which she wrote in collaboration with a professor at another university. Soon after, she was awarded two grants from the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, a new biomedical research center at UW Madison. “That really saved me from falling apart,” Assadi-Porter says. “As one of my colleagues said, I hit the jackpot.” Later, she racked up her own NIH grant and a few other collaborative grants.

Finding diverse funding sources has been a relief, but being entirely reliant on grant funds is a constant stressor, Assadi-Porter says. “You’re gambling all the time—not only for yourself, but [also] for the people you’ve taken on. That’s what keeps me awake at night.”

Assadi-Porter’s total dependence on soft money is one of the few aspects of her job that distinguishes her from faculty colleagues, she says. “I do everything a professor does. I train undergrads and graduate students. I collaborate with researchers here and at other institutions. I oversee work by scientists and lab technicians. I serve on graduate committees. I give lectures locally, nationally, and internationally. I write grants. The only thing I don’t do is routine teaching.”

Like many faculty scientists, she regards her lab as a second home. “I love getting up every morning and going to work, exploring new ways of studying the system, getting results, finding out if our hypotheses are correct or not. There are times that you are puzzled and feel stupid, but that’s part of the job. I love being at the edge.”

Director of the Cell Culture Facility


The high point of Linda Reilly’s 7 years as director of UCSF’s Cell Culture Facility occurred last year. Deep in one of the facility’s 10 liquid nitrogen freezers, which hold samples for the university’s researchers so they don’t have to maintain their own cell banks, was a sample that had been taken many years before from a child who died from an undiagnosed illness. The child’s sister, now grown, was pregnant and worried that her baby might suffer from the same mysterious disease. The child’s UCSF physician told her that the university probably still had a sample of the cells and suggested that modern testing might make things clearer. Reilly and her staff members found the sample and a testing lab identified a point mutation that might explain the child’s long-ago illness. Further testing showed that the woman’s baby did not have the same mutation. “It was amazing,” Reilly says, her voice faltering as she recalls the episode. “Because we had maintained this cell bank and had these organized records, and they were able to get the cells going again, this woman was able to put her mind at ease. That was huge.”

Reilly views her facility’s role as beautifully simple. “We help people, all the time, with large and small problems. That was a particularly large one, but even something like helping somebody with a reagent on a Friday afternoon is really satisfying.” In addition to managing the cell bank, the facility makes culture media and maintains a resale storeroom for laboratory products. “The purpose of our facility is to take the repetitive, tedious, and administrative burden off the backs of the researchers so they can focus on doing things that provide more value,” she says. “If you have somebody who is a really gifted researcher, you don’t want them to have to waste their time finding a supplier for a reagent.”

As director of the Cell Culture Facility, Reilly oversees a staff of 19, coordinates orders from 15 vendors, fields questions from researchers, and handles the administrative and budget work, ensuring that it’s self-sustaining. “If you talk with any core director, they’ll say the same thing,” she says: “ ‘I was trained as a scientist, but I’m running a business.’ ”

Reilly’s biggest challenge is lack of space and other resources. During her tenure at the facility, “We’ve doubled the number of transactions we do, but we have the same number of people doing them and the same space.” It’s demoralizing for staff members, she says, to be “working faster and faster in a crumbling facility where everything is stacked to the ceiling.”

Some scientists are driven by the desire to make a mark on a single scientific problem, but Reilly values her role precisely because it enables her to contribute to many different projects. “When someone has a problem—whether they need to find a particular cell line or need to understand the formulation of a particular type of culture medium—they’re coming to you and they’re in a crisis. If you can fix that, you feel like, ‘Okay, I’ve done something today.’ ”

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