Dr. Tina Iverson

My first B-sides interviewee! During my time at Vanderbilt, I collaborated on a project with a post-doc who spent half his time in Dr. Iverson's lab, which meant I spent some time there as well. First impression of Tina (in no particular order): confident, fair, curious, direct. Almost all of that impression was gleaned from the way she interacted with colleagues and her students. 

The Iverson lab is interested in cellular communication:

"Molecular recognition is an important part of signaling, and occurs when membrane-spanning receptors physically interact with a stimulus on the outside of the cell and activate downstream effectors. We are performing structural analysis of several model systems to identify how protein interactions contribute to molecular recognition."

I talked with Dr. Iverson about scientists being portrayed as evil geniuses, how real scientific discovery is expensive, but generally worth the investment, and an interesting societal experiment she initiated in 2013 that might piss you off.

The following interview took place on March 4 and March 10, 2016.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did you grow up?

 

IVERSON

Puyallup, Washington.

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

 

IVERSON

In college, when I got into a research lab and really loved it. I had a great undergraduate research mentor that was just excited to be in the lab on a daily basis. Before that, I thought I might be a medical doctor. It was thrilling to be in environments where what you did on a daily basis could be something that no one had seen before and could eventually be put in a text book. But I think it was interacting with both my undergraduate (Diana Bartelt) and graduate research mentors (Doug Rees) that really made me realize that this was a good fit for me. It was also great to see that after staying in the field for decades, my mentors remained engaged and excited by the discovery process and they were having fun in their jobs.

 

INTERVIEWER

Can you explain, in a few sentences, exactly what it is your lab is trying to accomplish?

 

IVERSON

My lab is trying to understand how biological organisms (such as humans) deal with information. For example, if you smell chocolate chip cookies, how do you make your legs walk toward it and pick it up. If you see a tiger, how do you know to run away? We’re specifically try to identify how proteins carry information and transmit this. In humans, this can coordinate organ and muscle function. Our research starts by imaging these proteins to identify how the protein shape changes in the presence or absence of information. This technique is called X-ray crystallography. Using these images, we can guess how a protein works, an we can these this in cells.

 

INTERVIEWER

What sparked the interest in your particular brand of research and what about it and the projects you work on has maintained it?

 

IVERSON

I’ve always been a very visual person and also liked to figure out how things work. My research does this at the level of molecules. If I can see how a protein looks, I (think I) can (sometimes) figure out how it is working. As my research has progressed, I’ve expanded the model systems that we use in the hopes that we can separate unifying paradigms in biological signaling from mechanisms that are specific to one protein. Identifying these general themes in biology can give us insight into life.

 

INTERVIEWER

Did your early research involve X-ray crystallography? How’d you become interested in the technique?

 

IVERSON

I began learning X-ray crystallography as a graduate student, but was interested in the relationship between protein architecture and function as an undergraduate.

 

INTERVIEWER

In approaching a topic/question to be investigated, what is your process in breaking down the complexities of a problem into the small incremental steps that lead to discovery?

 

IVERSON

We always start by determining the structure of the protein, which is a fancy way of saying that we get that high resolution image of the protein shape. Once we know what the protein looks like, we suggest hypotheses for how it functions. We then test our hypothesis by altering the protein in a specific way that we would suggest change the function predictably. If we have predicted everything correctly, then we know that our logic is likely to be sound.

 

INTERVIEWER

What’s your favorite book?

 

IVERSON

It’s really difficult to choose. In fiction, I tend to lean either toward books that have characters with compelling (non-dysfunctional) personalities or toward mysteries. The latter is because I like figuring out puzzles. In non-fiction, the writing style often determines whether I like the book.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any favorite books on science? The history or application of?

 

IVERSON

The great influenza, which is about the 1918 flu, was enormously well written and scared the bleep out of me. The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks was a great one that balanced a human story about racial disparities with a story of the creation of one of the most powerful tools in biology. A range of books by Erik Larson balance the historic development of different technologies with humanistic stories.

 

INTERVIWER

What is the future of science? It almost seems like music at this point, being broken down into smaller and more specific sub-genres, and I’d say, to a certain degree, that further confuses the public majority. However, it also contributes to collaboration. What are your thoughts?

 

IVERSON

A major trend in many scientific fields has been a change from a lone researcher to large group projects. Think about the size of the team that was working on the Higgs Boson or gravity wave detection, for example. Similar teams are working to understand the basis for disease. A really neat aspect of this is that with the combined effort of a large number of people, scientists in general are able to focus on problems that were thought to be too difficult to achieve 20 years ago.

 

INTERVEWER

What is a scientist’s responsibility to the public?

 

IVERSON

Unbeknownst to most of the public, our salary comes from the taxpayers. As a result, we have an ultimate responsibility to act ethically and use our efforts for the best benefit of society.

 

INTERVIEWER

Bill Nye is back. Neil De-Grasse Tyson, Seth McFarlane, and Ann Druyan rejuvenated Cosmos. Nerds are cool. Science seems more prevalent in popular culture today. Do you pay any attention to that?

 

IVERSON

The funny thing is that I don’t have a real television, but even so, I’m aware of this culture shift and I think it is helpful. Scientists have long been portrayed as evil geniuses in the movies (think sharks with laser beams on their heads) and this is at odds with the vast majority of actual scientists who feel a daily responsibility to prioritize the general welfare. In health-related sciences, for example, there is significant effort in finding causes and treatments of disease.

 

INTERVIEWER

What role does politics play in scientific research?

 

IVERSON

Sadly, both the political rhetoric and the national budget have a big influence and can often be detrimental to the advancement of science in the U.S. and world wide. A great example was the denial by (then) South African president Mbeki that HIV caused AIDS. It has later been suggested that over 300,000 people died because of that. In the U.S., our politicians both control the budget that funds science and can similarly make statements that deny scientific research. For example, some politicions deny data correlating human activity with an environmental impact. While one could speculate on the many potential causes of that denial, it is likely that the delay in altering our behavior will have a major impact on the lives of our grandchildren.

 

INTERVIEWER

Being a principal investigator and running your own lab, what’s your average day?

 

IVERSON

So, first I’ll clarify the term principal investigator. There are multiple types of PIs in the sciences. For example, at primarily undergraduate universities, the PIs have a primary teaching responsibility, and preparing and teaching lectures at the college level takes all their time during the academic year. Salaries of these investigators are covered by tuition dollars. At a primarily research institution, the PIs have a primary research responsibility and PI salaries are covered by grant dollars. Because of this, these positions have little teaching. There are lots of ways to weight these activities, with different universities expecting different percentages of time devoted to teaching or research. Depending on the job description, the average day is quite different.

         I am in a position where the majority of my time is devoted to research, and where my salary is primarily covered by grant funds. I don’t really have a daily schedule, but do have a general outline. I’m not a morning person, so I group the activities that only require 20% of my neuronal function to be before noon (peer-review, administrative tasks, etc.) The afternoon is then devoted to research activities (collecting or analyzing data, preparing manuscripts or grants, etc.). If I’m feeling spritely in the late evenings and have a lot of peer-review on my plate, I will also do it then.  

 

INTERVIEWER

Grant writing is an art form. How has it changed in your career? Computer coding is now common in high school curriculums, how far behind are the technical science writing courses?

 

IVERSON

Neither grant writing nor real technical writing (and I hate that phrase!) are taught at all. On a day-to-day basis, it can be frustrating because graduate students that have received great grades in their writing courses in college can commonly draft manuscripts that are not acceptable for publication and they don’t understand how far off they are.

        Great scientific writing should be easy for an educated non-expert to follow and it should tell a story about how things work. For a grant, a non-expert should be able to understand why the proposed project is important, and should be able to follow the rationale for the specific plan that will make an advance in the field. Grant writing is a funny thing, precisely because it is not taught well. As a result, many investigators dislike it and pass that dislike on to their trainees. But grant writing is a platform to organize your thoughts and carefully consider the future of your research program. Done well, it is a great tool for keeping the lab on the cutting edge.

 

INTERVIEWER

As a graduate student, what questions kept you up at night? As an experienced PI, what questions now keep you up at night?

 

IVERSON

Hmmmm…. As a graduate student, I would stay up for data collection and calculations on any new protein. As a PI, my day has a more defined start time, and I’m too old to go without sleep.

 

INTERVIEWER

Some of my favorite discoveries in science have been accidents. What’s yours? Have you had any yourself?

 

IVERSON

In a very recent project (one where we are still in the process of getting the publication out), our treatment of the protein unexpectedly resulted in the shape being what was expected for the ‘information carrying’ state. Normally, this is really hard to capture, because your body wants to ensure that in it’s resting state, everything is ‘off’ and it has to work to make the protein ‘on’. This particular protein is interesting because it is a universal adapter that takes inputs from ~800 information-gathering proteins and converts it into a response that can have at least ~150 physiological outcomes. Our study suggested how this one protein could do this under so many different situations by having small shape differences! We now have a unique opportunity to test this hypothesis well in advance of anyone else in the field, and are now investigating which protein shapes correspond with which inputs and outputs.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you pay much attention to scientific journalism? Do you think science is reported effectively in this country?

 

IVERSON

I only pay attention to a minor extent, because not much science is reported in the popular press. What is reported in other fields can be quite interesting.

 

INTERVIEWER

I guess what I'm asking is, do you think there's a problem with the way science is reported? A problem with the language used in reporting potential breakthroughs? It seems like every time I read a New York Times article hailing some new cancer-fighting drug or life-prolonging medication, it doesn't do due diligence to report all the potential pitfalls of that science ever coming to fruition, and in the end, that can destabilize the publics' trust.

 

IVERSON

Not necessarily. In today's New York Times, I was reading about a new clinical trial that would expand the number of patients applicable for kidney transplants. This could be a major breakthrough and the technology could be applied to other organs. One of the things that I found annoying about the article was its repeated mention of how expensive it was. The way I look at it is, you need a new kidney and very highly-trained scientists have spent years trying to find a way to ensure that every person that needs a kidney can have one. Yes, it is expensive, but every human life is worth more than $100,000.

 

INTERVIEWER

Taking a look at the budget, say science is involved in a primary against all the other sectors for discretionary spending dollars. What is science’s motto and running platform?

 

IVERSON

Life is better with science.

 

INTERVIEWER

How have the standards of publication changed from your first paper to your last?

 

IVERSON

Possibly because of the shift to larger team science, the bar has increased and publications are almost universally more rigorous. When I first started, it was enough to have a structure of a protein and a plausible set of competing hypotheses for how proteins functioned. The testing of those hypotheses could be in a follow-up report. Now, the competing hypotheses are tested before the first publication. In some ways this slows down the field because other groups cannot act on your data before your make that first report. In other ways, it has made the field more rigorous.

 

INTERVIEWER

Climate change denial, creationism, and anti-vax movements are constantly found in today’s print. As a research scientist, do you feel compelled to carry the flag of science against those who deny hard evidence?

 

IVERSON

Yup, in my own way.

 

INTERVIEWER

You published a correspondence article in Nature in 2013 titled, Sexism: A revealing experiment. Can you tell me a little about that and what you found?

 

IVERSON

In the experiment, I tried corresponding my manuscripts and grants without having my first name attached (a name that is not gender neutral). My success rate instantly went up 5-fold! Then, our university changed to an electronic grant submission system that put my first name back in without my knowledge and my success rate went back down. Once I figured this out, I changed my name in the university database so that I no longer had a female first name – my success rate instantly went back up!

 

INTERVIEWER

What is or will be the biggest biological breakthrough of your lifetime?

 

IVERSON

Predicting the future is difficult, but several breakthroughs in recent years have really wowed me. In my field, the structure of many of the information-carrying proteins that were once thought impossible to image at high resolution have been determined. Recent advances in genome editing (using a technology called CRISPR) identify new methods for understanding basic biology and treating disease that I never thought would be possible in my lifetime. I can envision that we will begin to have a more accurate picture of more and more complex systems in the future.

 

INTERVIEWER

If you could live in another country and do what you do, where would it be and why?

 

IVERSON

Private island in the South Pacific where I am the supreme leader.

 

INTERVIEWER

Lastly: Rolling Stones, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd?

 

IVERSON

Beatles.

Learn more about Dr. Tina Iverson and her lab here. For those interested, the graphic above is active arrestin-3. Go PubMed Tina to read more about the discovery.

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section. 

©2019 by EG Lund.