Beth Brainerd – Q&A
Editor’s Note: We asked each of the QSTORM investigators to respond to a set of questions we thought could help web visitors understand a little bit more about the personal side of working in science.
These are Beth’s responses.
Q. In what ways do you feel that you don’t fit the stereotype of a scientist?
I think part of becoming a scientist is to make yourself into your own image of what a scientist is — so I suppose I fit the stereotype in my mind fairly well. But I think I am less competitive than the stereotype for a scientist. I have no desire to be part of any race to “scoop” someone. There are more than enough interesting questions and projects to go around!
Q. How would your friends describe you?
Friends? Scientists have friends? Oh, well, I guess there are a few people who put up with me without it being a required course.
Q. What quirks do you have or are you known for?
I’m told that students find me intimidating — which I find laughable. But I guess I can be a bit intense in conversation. Then there is the uncontrollable twitching…
Q. What are you most passionate about in life?
Getting data to answer scientific questions. Research is my drug of choice. I get high on answers.
Q. What are your main interests or hobbies outside of your work?
Hiking. Spending time with my spouse. Reading fiction.
Q. How you would describe your work to an 8 year old?
I study how bones and muscles work together to produce movement. Bend your arm at the elbow. What caused your arm to bend? Your brain told the muscle on the front of your upper arm to contract and get shorter, and that pulled your lower arm and hand up. The bones and muscles work together like a machine, and I study how that machine works.
Q. What led you to this particular collaboration?
I have long been interested in imaging techniques — microscopy, X-rays, high-speed video cameras, etc. It is so exciting to be able to see things that are otherwise invisible to the human eye. Even so, I was reluctant to apply to attend the NSF Ideas Lab on Innovations in Biological Imaging and Visualization. I have just finished developing a new imaging technology, XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology), and am excited to start getting answers with it. But the opportunity to interact with people who share my passion for imaging and visualization was just too good to pass up. Subgroups at the Ideas Lab developed about 8-10 potential projects, and I spent substantial time with three of the groups. (The facilitators call this behavior “promiscuous.”) But in the end, I was most excited about the QSTORM collaboration because this new microscopy system may allow me to see down to the molecular level in muscle cells.
Q. Do you remember a particular moment when the pieces of the puzzle clicked together?
Jessica and Peter can describe this better. They came up with the idea and then pitched it to the Ideas Lab group. I immediately saw potential applications to muscle imaging, and offered to join their collaboration.
Q. How would you describe the goal of this collaboration in one sentence in non-technical terms. OK, maybe two sentences.
The goal is to develop a kind of microscope that can see molecules in action inside cells.
Q. How do you hope this collaboration, if successful, will advance your research? (non-technical terms, 1-2 sentences).
We will determine, once and for all, whether all vertebrate muscle is fundamentally the same, or whether there are variations in the lengths of the fundamental molecules that have important effects on the speed and force of muscle contraction.
Q. How do you hope it will advance your field? (non-technical terms, 1-2 sentences).
Being able to see myofilaments (muscle proteins) directly may lead to fundamental new understandings of how muscle works. Also, these techniques should make it possible for us to study many species and to compare these species, which is the basis for understanding the evolution of any trait — such as muscle function.
Q. Why should a non-scientist care about what the QSTORM team is trying to do?
Because we are making it possible to see parts of the natural world that no one has ever seen before.
Q. What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of the QSTORM project?
Getting the quantum dots to go to the right places in the cell and stay there.
Q. How do you cope with the obstacles and failures along the way?
Failures are hardly ever complete failures — they often open unexpected doors or lead in new, more productive directions.
Q. Where do you find inspiration when challenged with a difficult problem?
I find inspiration while walking/hiking/rowing outside. Something about the repetitive motion and changing scenery opens my mind to new ideas and solutions to problems.