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Kathryn V. Anderson Awarded 2016 Conklin Medal

By Marsha E. Lucas

The Society for Developmental Biology awarded the 2016 Edwin G. Conklin Medal to Kathryn V. Anderson of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for her extraordinary research contributions to the field of developmental biology and training of the next generation of scientists. Anderson has been a leader in both the fly and mouse genetics communities. She identified Toll as an essential gene for establishing the dorsoventral axis in Drosophila and went on to characterize numerous components of the Toll pathway and its role in innate immunity. She expanded her work into mice conducting forward genetic screens to identify genes required for early patterning in vertebrates. Through this work she identified novel genes in the Hedgehog signaling pathway and established a strong link between Hedgehog signaling and cilia biogenesis.

Anderson received her bachelor’s in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1973; a master’s in neurosciences from Stanford in 1975; and her Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1980. She did a postdoc at the Max Planck Institut in Tübingen, Germany with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard before starting her lab at the University of California, Berkeley in 1985. Since 2002, she’s been a member of the Sloan-Kettering Institute Developmental Biology Program.

I interviewed Anderson in 2013 when she was awarded the FASEB Excellence in Science Award. Check out that interview for stories behind some of her greatest scientific discoveries and the extraordinary women role models she’s had throughout her career. Below is our August 2016 interview following the 75th SDB Annual Meeting where she received the Conklin Medal. Some questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Where did you grow up?
Southern California. I [was] raised in La Jolla right on the beach. Not in the ritzy part of La Jolla, but in La Jolla.

How and when did you become interested in science?
I’ve thought about this recently and think probably my father had a lot to do with it. I think he was a frustrated scientist. He was very supportive in things like science fairs. And then, I had a really terrific biology teacher in high school who made everything seem really alive and vibrant. Before then [I] had thought that scientists worked in laboratories and never saw the sun. But, he made it seem really interesting. We read The Double Helix [by James Watson] for the class in high school biology and it was clearly more than just people sitting in laboratories playing with test tubes.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?
There are lots of things that interest me. I started out as an English major in college because I really loved to write. And still writing is a big part of what I like about the job. Maybe I would have ended up as a real writer.

Is it true that you’re still dissecting embryos at the microscope in the lab?
I am. It’s kind of self-indulgent I think. It’s not what I’m paid for. But, I love it. I refuse to give it up.

Do you still have a lot of mouse lines from your forward genetic screen that you are trying to identify?
Actually, identifying the genes has become ridiculously easy now with whole exome sequencing and it’s just a very small number of embryos that have been backcrossed for a couple of generations. You can find the mutations of interest and it’s not that expensive and it’s very little labor. We’ve identified a mutation in everything that we’ve cared about. And part of that progress in the last year on that front is that sequencing data tends to have a lot of noise and a postdoc we’re working with in another lab figured out some ways of getting rid of a lot of the noise caused by sequencing errors or genetic background errors. And so now, it’s really ridiculously powerful.

Describe the last time a trainee brought you some unexpected data that got you really excited.
I’m always jumping up and down at something [laughter]. One of the things we’re looking at right now is whether cells in the embryo do or do not have cilia. Brigid Hogan actually asked a question a while ago-- whether germ cells have cilia and whether primordial germ cells have cilia--and I thought, that’s an interesting question. We never really got around to looking at it. It’s not an easy experiment to do because the early germ cells are just isolated cells in the midst of a bunch of other cells. But, a new postdoc managed to make it work and it looks like primordial germ cells don’t have cilia even though their predecessors do. So, there’s something interesting going on there. And unexpected. And something that opens doors to future experiments.

Anderson receiving Conklin Medal from SDB Past President, Lee Niswander at the 75th SDB Annual Meeting in Boston, MA.

What is the lab doing now that it wasn’t doing five years ago?
It’s a really exciting time in mouse biology because you can really supplement what you do in the embryo with experiments in stem cells. You can make stem cell lines from mutants really, really easily. There are a lot of things that people have worked out that you can do in stem cells that maybe don’t mimic development but allow you to parallel development and do more mechanistic experiments than you could do in the embryo easily. The other thing that everybody is doing and that’s been harder in the mouse is imaging at single-cell resolution in real time. That’s really lagged behind in the mouse, but now it’s becoming doable and that’s really great to be able to visualize processes that you’ve been interested in for a long time in vivo. Fly people have done this for a long time and fish people are way ahead of mouse people. But, there are processes in the mouse that are different and that we have a unique genetic handle on, that now we can look at.

Where do you see the field of developmental biology going in the next 10-20 years?
That’s a good question. It’s hard—if it was say five years, there are so many questions that are long standing questions that now can be addressed with new tools, but 20 years is harder. I mean you can say the standard stuff about applying what we’ve learned to human health and stuff like that, but I think that there’s a lot more that we just don’t even know how to articulate yet. That’s not a very good answer...but twenty years is really hard to prognosticate.

What is the key to a long and prolific career in science?
Having good people to work with. I’ve really been lucky that I’ve had both people who’ve stayed in the lab a long time and sort of been anchors for the lab, and then really good people coming through as students and postdocs. I’ve been really lucky in that regard and I know it.

What does winning the Conklin mean to you?
It’s about recognition from peers. I guess in this case I felt that the Conklin was more about me as a mouse person than as a fly person. I made the transition some time ago, but I think when I made the transition, most people thought I was crazy. I think still when people have thought about what I’ve accomplished they think about the Toll pathway which is really, really cool, but that’s some time ago now. I felt this was more like a recognition of my more recent work, which is really exciting to me to have my colleagues value that work.

I ended our interview ended with some light-hearted rapid fire questions.

Mac or PC? Mac.
East coast or west coast? That’s a tough one. I’m definitely an east coast person now.
Mice or flies? Mice.
Fall semester or Spring semester? Fall.
Coffee or tea? Tea.
Biochemistry or genetics? Genetics.
Writing grants or writing papers? Papers.
Maintaining fly stocks or maintaining mouse lines? Well, since I don’t do the former now... maintaining flies is more fun.
Sexing flies or sexing mice? They’re exactly the same.
Forward genetics or reverse genetics? Forward genetics.
Graduating students or getting new students? Graduating students.