Julias Biology and Science page
People often ask me about my work as a biologist, so I put this page together to describe that experience. This is a pretty informal summary of my research and work history as a scientist, one that is meant to be accessible to non-scientists. Answers to common questions, interviews with me that discuss biology, and a more formal Curriculum Vitae (basically an academic resume) containing my scientific publications follows that.
Here is the short but sweet version:
I was a Life Science major in college (at Philadelphia University), then received my Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from Columbia University in 1995. After that, I worked for 17 years at University of California, Berkeley as a Post-Doctoral Fellow and as a Research Specialist. My thesis and post-doctoral research has been centered mostly on Developmental Biology, Genetics, Molecular Biology, and Evo Devo (i.e., Evolution and Development).
If you are familiar with these fields of biology, feel free to skip ahead. But if you are unfamiliar with them, here is a quick overview of each of them:
Developmental Biology is the study of how life forms develop. For instance, all animals and plants start out as a single cell, but then develop over time into creatures with all different types of specialized cells (e.g., nerve cells, skin cells, muscle cells, blood cells, and many others) that are located in different parts of the body and which perform different functions. Developmental biologists study these developmental processes in order to understand how they occur. Because development is so complex, most developmental biologists focus on smaller specific problems, for example, trying to figure out how a particular cell (or group of cells) decide what type of cell they will become.
Why is studying developmental biology important? Well, in addition to being generally interesting, many genes involved in development also contribute to cancer and other diseases. So by learning how they work, we can hopefully garner insights into these other conditions as well.
Does this mean that you did experiments on humans? No, most developmental biologists study development in a handful of “model organisms.” For instance, I did most of my research on fruit flies (scientific name: Drosophila melanogaster). Why study development in non-human animals? Well, many animals have legs, and eyes, and brains, and muscles, and circulatory systems, etc. We have anterior (head), posterior (rear), dorsal (back) and ventral (belly) regions. And so on. Some people might be surprised to find out that the genes that control these developmental processes are conserved over evolution. By “conserved,” I mean that the genes that help make legs or eyes or muscles or anteriors or posteriors (and so on) in human beings are closely related to the ones that make those parts of mice and birds and frogs and worms and fruit flies and so on. While this might seem surprising at first, it all makes sense if you take evolution into account. After all, we all shared a common ancestor at some point, so of course we will share similar genes that do similar things. By studying these genes in model organisms, we can indirectly learn about how development works (or probably works) in humans.
But of course, human legs are different from mouse legs, or bird legs, or fruit fly legs, in certain ways. A sub-field called Evo Devo (which sounds like an awesome Devo tribute band, but which is simply an abbreviation of “Evolution and Development”) examines developmental processes in closely related animals (e.g., in different types of arthropods - the group of animals that includes fruit flies, plus other insects, crustaceans, and related “creepy crawlers”) to try to understand what evolutionary changes happened in order to make some arthropods have more legs than others, or to have claws on some legs but not others, or to make some arthropods have wings while others do not, and so on. Such questions may seem esoteric, but they can shed light onto both evolution and development more generally.
I also sometimes describe myself as a Molecular Biologist, which means that I have studied biological processes at the level of molecules, most notably at the DNA, RNA, and protein level. As most people know, DNA is the so-called “genetic blueprint” that helps cells know what they should do in a particular situation. In any given cell, some genes are “turned on” while others are not. When a gene is “turned on,” that usually means that that segment of DNA is being transcribed into RNA, which is basically a temporary copy of that gene. Most RNAs are then translated into proteins, which are like little machines that carry out specific functions in cells. Admittedly, this description is extremely oversimplified, but it is generally true in most cases.
A lot of the research that I carried out involved isolating specific genes that are involved in developmental processes. In some cases, I would manipulate those genes (and by association, their RNAs and proteins) to see what affect certain changes had on those development processes. All this falls under the umbrella of molecular biology.
I also describe myself as a Geneticist. This overlaps a lot with molecular biology, as both fields are interested in identifying the genes/DNA sequences that carry out important cellular/bodily functions. But geneticists also use additional strategies to understand biological processes. For instance, rather than starting with a particular protein or segment of DNA and asking what it does (as molecular biologists typically do), a geneticist might look for mutations that affect how legs (or eyes, or other parts of the body) develop. Or they may carry out genetic crosses between animals that have different mutations to see if the underlying genes interact with one another. Once a geneticist has isolated an interesting mutation, they can then look for the underlying gene that is responsible for it.
Here is another way of putting it: Geneticists often start with a “phenotype” (i.e., a particular bodily trait), then search for the underlying “genotype” (i.e., the underlying gene or genetic variation that causes it). In contrast, molecular biologists often start with the gene, then try to figure out what developmental/biological processes that gene affects. In fact, this latter approach is sometimes called “reverse genetics” because it starts with the gene and leads to the trait or function, rather than vice versa. This description might seem to position molecular biology as the “opposite” of genetics, but in reality, these days most geneticists also do molecular biology, and vice versa.
Okay, so with that background, here is a brief summary of my experience as a biologist:
During my graduate work (i.e., my Ph.D. thesis project), I studied RNA localization during Drosophilia oogenesis (a fancy way of saying “in fruit fly ovaries”). Why is this important or relevant? Well, as I said, animals have different genes that make their anteriors (heads) develop differently from their posteriors (rears), and their dorsal regions (backs) develop differently from their ventral regions (bellies). Sometimes this is accomplished during oogenesis (i.e., egg development) by placing the RNA molecules of a particular gene to a specific subregion of the egg. I studied this process in fruit flies for a few genes that play a role in dorsal-ventral (i.e., front-versus-back) patterning. I published several papers on my findings, including one where I isolated the Transport-Localization Sequence (TLS) for a gene called K10 - basically, this was a part of the RNA that enabled it to be located to a particular part of the egg cell. Apparently, someone has even created a Wikipedia page for the K10 TLS. (I swear it wasn’t me!)
In 1995, I began my “post-doc” - that is, a temporary position biologists generally take if they want to continue working in academia. For my post-doc, I chose to work at a lab at UC Berkeley that used a variety of molecular and genetic approaches to identify novel genes involved in development. Once again, I was working with Drosophilia/fruit flies, because they are one of the best (if not the best!) animal model for using genetic approaches. For this reason, a large number of genes that are now known to play important roles in development in most animals were first identified in Drosophila.
I worked on a number of different projects during my post-doc. I collaborated on a reverse genetic screen to identify novel membrane and secreted proteins - these types of proteins play an important role in cell-cell communication, where cells instruct one another on what type(s) of cell they should become and/or what they should be doing. I followed up on a number of genes that came out of that screen, and that work eventually resulted in publications on three genes: synaptotagmin IV, matrix metalloproteinase-2, and bitesize (the only Drosophila synaptotagmin-like protein). Interestingly (given my thesis work), bitesize RNA is localized within cells, and the sequence responsible for this localization is located within the protein-coding region of the gene. While this was not an earth-shattering discovery by any means, it was the first example of this happening in an animal, which is kind of neat. I named the gene “bitesize” because mutations in the gene resulted in animals that were smaller than normal, due to a reduction in both cell size and number. The name was also a bit of an inside joke for me, as at the time that I was working on the gene, I played in a band called Bitesize.
Also during my post-doc, I carried out a genetic interaction screen for genes involved in the Rho GTPase signaling pathway, which controls cell shape changes, in addition to numerous other biological processes. Genes in this pathway are known to go awry in many instances of cancer. While I found a number of potentially interesting mutations, that work was never published.
After my post-doc, I got a new job at UC Berkeley as a Research Specialist, which basically means that I was a staff scientist working in a professor’s lab. This new lab was an Evo Devo lab, and we studied development in an amphipod crustacean called Parhyale hawaiensis. They are in the same broader family (Malacostraca) that includes shrimp, crayfish, and lobsters - and that’s kind of what they looked like, except much smaller.
As one does in Evo Devo, we examined developmental genes and processes in Parhyale, and compared and contrasted them to their counterparts in related crustaceans, as well as other arthropods more generally. I studied Hox genes in this organism - these are a set of related genes that are expressed in different regions along the anterior-posterior (i.e., head-to-tail) axis. An example of two Hox genes in Parhyale is shown on the right: a Hox gene called “Deformed” (in red) is expressed just anterior to (i.e., ahead of) a Hox gene called “Sex combs reduced” (in yellow) during Parhyale embryo development. Each Hox gene helps to determine the particular region of the animal that they are expressed in - they do this by binding to DNA and turning other genes on or off. And when Hox genes are mutated or mis-expressed (i.e., turned on in a different region of the animal than normal), it often leads to what are called “homeotic transformations,” where body parts in one region of an animal are transformed to resemble those of another region.
Crustaceans such as Parhyale are a great system for looking at Hox genes because they make different types of appendages (e.g., antenna, feeding appendages, claws, walking legs, swimming legs) on each segment. So when Hox genes are mutated or mis-expressed, it sometimes leads to very obvious changes in these appendages. For example, the picture to the right shows appendages from the first segment of the Parhyale abdomen. Normally, these legs are straight and feathery because they are designed for swimming (as shown in the leg on the left). But when you knock-down a particular Hox gene, these appendages instead develop into walking legs (as shown in the leg on the right).
During my time in this lab, I isolated all the Parhyale Hox genes and (along with a graduate student in the lab) examined their expression patterns. Additionally, I isolated most of the chromosomal region containing the Hox genes (as they tend to be clustered together along the chromosome in most animals). All of that work has been recently published. I also attempted to knock-down or mis-express a number of these Hox genes, and I got some intriguing results - some of these results, along with subsequent and more extensive analyses performed by other lab members, have been published here.
So that is an overview of my work as a biologist. Here are some common follow up questions that I often receive:
Do you still work as a biologist? No, not at the moment. The grant that was paying my salary at my last position ended (as grants inevitably do). So right now, I am making ends meet through my writing and by giving talks about gender, sexuality, feminism, and LGBTQ issues at various colleges and conferences.
Were you a professor at UC Berkeley? If not, do you want to be a professor someday? No, I was a post-doc and a research specialist, not a professor. These days, it is very difficult to get assistant professor/tenure-track positions in biology. And even if you do get a tenure-track position, it is extremely difficult to secure grants to fund your research (which you are expected to obtain, and if you do not, you will eventually lose your position). Given all my “extracurricular activities” (e.g., as an author, speaker, performer, musician), I felt that it would be difficult to pursue those intellectual interests and life goals if I plunged myself completely into working to become a professor in biology. Having said that, I would be open to becoming a professor someday under the right circumstances (especially if it were an interdisciplinary position where I could continue to pursue my interests in Gender and Queer Studies).
Did you do any teaching? Not at UC Berkeley, but I did when I was in college (where I taught biology labs for Life Science majors) and graduate school (where I was a teaching assistant). In the last ten years, I have been a guest lecturer in a wide variety of college classes, albeit in the humanities - e.g., in Gender, Women, and Queer Studies, Anthropology, Human Sexuality, and Psychology courses - some examples of these can be found on my presentations webpage.
Did you ever study gender as a biologist? No, although my background in biology has enabled me to understand (and therefore critique) gender-related research that other biologists carry out. To be clear, it’s not that I believe that biology plays no role whatsoever in gender - as I’ve written about elsewhere (most notably, Chapter 13 of my book Excluded), I believe that shared biology, biological variation, shared culture, and individual experience all come together in an unfathomably complex manner to create both the trends as well as the diversity in gender and sexuality that we see all around us.
Scientists are always supposed to question our own assumptions and biases. That is relatively easier to do when we are studying galaxy formation or crustacean leg development, where our own identities are not directly called into question, and where there is a sense that we are peering into the great unknown. But virtually all of us - lay people and scientists alike - feel that we are already intimately familiar with gender. We all view gender and sexuality through a prism of presumptions, biases, and value judgments that are unconscious and invisible to us. As a result, the overwhelming majority of biological research into gender and sexuality merely ends up reaffirming researchers’ confirmation bias. And typically these researchers will completely ignore culture and environment, and presume that biology is causing whatever differences they identify, despite the fact that culture is known to have a great impact on gender and sexuality.
Of course, researchers in the humanities are just as guilty of this, but in reverse: They presume that gender and sexuality are entirely the products of culture. Once again, in Chapter 13 of my book Excluded, I explain why this presumption (which I call “gender artifactualization”) is erroneous.
Unfortunately, the biology/humanities divide allows researchers on either side to ignore one another’s research. If there are any subjects that are worthy of - nay, require! - an interdisciplinary approach, it is gender and sexuality. Yet, there are only a handful of academics who study gender and sexuality that have a truly interdisciplinary understanding of these subjects. Personally, I wish that biologists who want to study gender would take several Gender Studies classes as a prerequisite before engaging in any gender-related research. Similarly, Gender Studies (as a field) would be far better served if students were required to take advance courses in biology.
Did you ever face any discrimination for being transgender and/or a woman as a scientist? Not especially. But frankly, I do not believe that my experience is very representative.
For starters, I have mostly worked in the field of Developmental Biology, which has a female/male ratio that is far closer to 50/50 than most scientific fields. In fact, two of the three labs that I worked in had more women researchers than men. On top of that, studies that have been done on gender bias in science indicate that the proverbial glass ceiling does not have quite as much of an effect on early career stages (e.g., college, grad school, post-doc) as it does on later stages (e.g., determining whether one gets professorships, tenure, promotions, etc.). Because I have only ever been a post-doc and research specialist, I have only ever been judged by my direct superiors (i.e., the professors whose lab I worked in). And thankfully (or better put: as it should be), they have always taken me seriously and respected me.
Similarly, I have not faced obvious discrimination in the workplace for being transgender. But once again, this is highly anecdotal. I live in the SF Bay Area, where people tend to be more LGBTQ-friendly than most places. Having said that, I know someone who worked as a technician in a molecular biology lab in the Bay Area who transitioned around the same time that I did. And while my P.I. (Principal Investigator, aka, boss) was very supportive, his was not and asked him to leave the lab. (this was before the UC system had a policy regarding transgender employees.)
For anyone interested in the effects of gender bias in science, I highly encourage you to read Ben Barres’s article Does Gender Matter? and the corresponding NY Times interview with him. Barres is a neuroscientist and a trans man, and he discusses his own personal experience with gender bias, as well as reviewing the existing research on the subject. Also, both Barres and myself were interviewed by the magazine The Scientist about our experiences as transgender scientists. To be honest, I am not a big fan of how transition-focused the article turned out, and the way it gives the impression that it is trans people’s job to make their co-workers feel at ease. But it may be of interest to other transgender scientists.
In the picture at the top of this webpage, what are you standing in front of? That is a Parhyale embryo undergoing the process of segmentation - that is, when it gets divided up into different segments along the anterior-posterior (head-to-tail) axis. The embryo has been treated with antibodies that recognize two segmentation genes, shown in black and brown.
interviews with Julia that discuss biology:
Julia Michelle Serano, Ph.D.
Biologist (Developmental Biology, Genetics, Molecular Biology, Evolution and Development)
What follows is a description of my skills and experience as a biologist. My experience as a writer can be found here.
SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH EXPERIENCE
Research Specialist, University of California, Berkeley (2003-2012)
Principal Investigator: Nipam H. Patel, Ph.D.
--Isolation, expression, and functional and evolutionary analyses of Hox genes in the amphipod crustacean Parhyale hawaiensis.
Post-doctoral Fellow, University of California, Berkeley (1995-2003)
Principal Investigator: Gerald M. Rubin, Ph.D.
--Isolation, and genetic and functional characterization of numerous Drosophila melanogaster genes, including synaptotagmin IV, matrix metalloproteinase-2, and bitesize.
Graduate Research, Columbia University (1989-1995)
Thesis Advisor: Robert S. Cohen, Ph.D.
--Dissertation on mRNA localization in the Drosophila melanogaster oocyte.
SCIENTIFIC TECHNICAL SKILLS
DNA/RNA isolation and analysis, Southern blotting, DNA sequencing, degenerate and inverse PCR, cDNA and BAC library screening, gene cloning and characterization, isolation of full-length cDNAs, RACE and quantitative RT-PCR, site-directed mutagenesis, vector and gene-fusion construction.
Genetic interaction and enhancer trap screens, transposable element, EMS and X-ray mutagenesis, meiotic mapping, mosaic analyses, RNAi, characterization of mutant phenotypes.
Animal Model Systems:
Expertise in raising and working with Drosophila melanogaster and Parhyale hawaiensis. Techniques include embryo isolation and preparation, microinjection, germline transformation, gene knockdown and misexpression, microdissection of embryos, larvae, hatchlings and adults, familiarity with stages of embryonic development, and with the evolution and development of other closely related Arthropod species.
Histology and Microscopy:
Whole mount in situ hybridization and immunocytochemistry, GFP and immunoflourecence, beta-gal histochemical assays, phaloidin and DAPI staining, fixation and sectioning of tissues, scanning electron microscopy, confocal microscopy, eggshell and embryo cuticle preparations.
Biological database searches and analyses, familiarity with the following programs: Sequencher, MacVector, Photoshop, Illustrator, Power Point, Microsoft Word, Excel, MacOS, and basic HTML.
Laboratory Management and Teamwork Skills:
Supervision of graduate students and laboratory technicians, lab manager, experience working as a team member on high throughput screens, established collaborations with researchers in other laboratories, strategic design of laboratory experiments, strong critical thinking capability, excellent written and oral communication skills.
PEER-REVIEWED SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATIONS
New York, New York
Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics
Dissertation: mRNA localization in the Drosophila oocyte
B. A. in Life Science
HONORS AND AWARDS
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Special Fellow Award, 2000-2003.
Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program Postdoctoral Fellowship (awarded in 2000, but declined).
The Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research Postdoctoral Fellowship, 1996-1999.
National Eye Institute Training Grant, 1989-1992.
Full Academic Scholarship, Philadelphia University, 1985-1989.
julia serano ©2002-2020