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Dr. Michelle Heck is a Research Molecular Biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS), an Associate Professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, as well as an Adjunct Professor in the school of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. Michelle received her B.A. degree in biology from Boston University and her Ph.D. in biology from Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She then conducted postdoctoral research at Cornell University. Michelle has received numerous awards and honors throughout her career, including the 2014 USDA ARS Herbert L. Rothbart Outstanding Early Career Scientist of the Year Award and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) Award in 2017. In our interview, Michelle shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:31)
Michelle loves spending time with her fantastic, close-knit family. In addition, she is a musician, and she has been having fun watching as her three kids also become interested in music. Beyond music and family, Michelle is an endurance athlete, and she spends a lot of her free time cycling in scenic areas nearby.
The Scientific Side (3:53)
Most people are familiar with diseases that can be spread by insects when they bite humans and other animals, but many people don’t realize that plants can also become sick with diseases that are transmitted by insects. Michelle studies interactions between the insects that infest plants, the pathogens that those insects can transmit, the diseases that can occur as a result, and new ways to control the spread of these diseases. Plant diseases transmitted by insects have an enormous impact in the United States and around the world. One example is citrus greening disease which has spread to infect nearly 100% of citrus trees in Florida. Unfortunately, this disease is causing widespread death of these fruit trees.
A Dose of Motivation (6:23)
“If it is to be, it is up to me.” – William Johnsen
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:20)
In elementary school, Michelle was a voracious reader and an avid writer. She always wanted to know more about the world. Growing up on Long Island in New York, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was relatively close to home for Michelle. When she was in ninth grade, Michelle was invited by her science teacher to join the senior class on a trip to visit the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This was her first exposure to molecular biology. Michelle was captivated by the experience of breaking down DNA from a virus that infects bacteria, running the DNA on a gel, and visualizing the DNA in an ultraviolet light box. Each student got to take home a photo of the gel, and Michelle hung hers on her wall at home. This was a transformative experience that fueled her passion for science. However, Michelle was also very interested in music. When she was finishing high school, she was torn between whether to pursue a career in music or biology. After enrolling in college as a vocal performance major, Michelle discovered that she missed science. She changed her major to biology, got involved with undergraduate research, and never looked back.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (21:19)
When Michelle first started doing undergraduate research, there was a lot she didn’t know. She was tasked with isolating a compound that a plant created in response to a fungus in order to better understand the structure and function of the compound. The project involved a lot of organic chemistry that she didn’t really understand at that stage of her training. Michelle was using a process called thin-layer chromatography (TLC) to separate out the compound of interest. If successful, she should have observed a distinct spot on the TLC card where the compound was concentrated. However, all of her cards came out blank, and she couldn’t figure out why. After months of work, she had about 35 feet of clothesline strung up around the lab that was full of unspotted TLC cards. One day, Michelle and a friend were taking photos of themselves around the lab, and Michelle picked up an ultraviolet lamp to pose for a photo. When the ultraviolet lamp illuminated the nearby TLC cards, Michelle was shocked to see a spot appear on all of the cards. She had actually been successfully isolating the compound, but the compound just wasn’t visible in normal light. Michelle was able to scrape enough compound off the cards to proceed with her project and determine the structure of the compound.
A Shining Success! (25:19)
Earlier this year, Michelle was invited to help write the action plan for her national program within the USDA-ARS. The ARS is the research branch of the USDA, and it is organized into different programs based on research areas. The action plan for her program details the next five years of research for scientists working in their program, and writing it is a massive undertaking. It was exciting for Michelle to be selected to articulate her vision for the next five years of research in her field by government scientists. The process involved speaking with a variety of stakeholders to determine problems and priorities, as well as working with other lead writers to put together a cohesive plan. In addition to working on this action plan, Michelle recently celebrated the receipt of funding to purchase a new mass spectrometer instrument for the lab. This new instrument will be an important asset for the lab’s research going forward.
Book Recommendations (29:02)
Insect Molecular Virology Edited by Bryony C. Bonning and The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey
Most Treasured Travel (30:52)
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a meaningful and memorable place that Michelle always enjoys visiting. It has a serene campus situated on the North Shore of Long Island on the Long Island Sound, and the buildings are steeped in scientific history. This was the place where Michelle first really experienced science in ninth grade, where she attended graduate school, and where she has had an opportunity to teach a postgraduate summer course for several years. It is a wonderful environment for scientists, and when you are there, you really feel immersed in the history and culture of science.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (33:44)
Michelle maintains her passion for music and singing, and she enjoys going to karaoke with her lab members. There are quite a few musicians and singers in her group, so these outings are a fun way to relax and get to know lab members outside of the lab. When Michelle was in college, she worked in a lab with a particularly formal and reserved professor. She’ll never forget the day that a postdoc named June was (badly) singing “I Believe I Can Fly” aloud in the lab along with music from his headphones. After a few minutes of suffering, the professor finally suck his head into the lab and shouted at June to be quiet because, while he believed June could fly, he certainly couldn’t sing. This outburst made everyone in the lab laugh, particularly because June likely couldn’t hear it over the music on his headphones.
Advice For Us All (37:12)
If you have a passion for something, there will be a job for you in science. You can work to create the opportunities you desire as a scientist. Also, don’t be too attached to your hypotheses. If the data are pointing you a different direction, you have to pursue that direction, even if it means altering or abandoning your initial hypotheses.
Michelle is a scientist in the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) with joint faculty appointments at Cornell University and the Boyce Thompson Institute. Her research is focused on the biology and management of arthropods and arthropod borne pathogens. Her expertise comes from a variety of fields such as vector biology, molecular biology, proteomics, plant pathology and evolutionary biology. Most recently, Michelle’s work has been focused on developing new strategies to manage citrus greening disease. As part of this work, her lab has been collaborating with the California Citrus Research Board, university and USDA ARS scientists to develop novel strategies to block transmission of the citrus greening bacterium. Her latest research is also focused on developing novel strategies to block transmission of aphid-borne plant viruses that infect a variety of crops such as potatoes, corn and cotton. Michelle has a very active research group and enjoys mentoring and doing science with her talented lab members. Outside of work, Michelle loves spending time with her family. She also loves music, performing, dogs, cooking and long-distance road cycling. If she is not in the lab or out playing with her kids, she can be found cycling around the backcountry roads of the Finger Lakes region in Western NY to unwind and often to find local bakeries for a refueling stop.