MCO Graduate Program alum Jenelle Wallace (Ph.D. ‘20) of the Murthy Lab and Beth Stevens’ lab at Boston Children’s Hospital didn’t expect her thesis defense to take place over Zoom, but the virtual format had its upsides: When she defended her thesis, titled “Functional development of adult-born neurons in the olfactory bulb,” over 140 of her colleagues, friends, and family were able to tune in. Many of them were able to personally wish her good luck at the beginning of the Zoom call and congratulate her at the end.
“I was sad not to be able to celebrate with my lab and be able to say goodbye and have closure in person,” Wallace says. “But the actual defense over Zoom was great. And I got to celebrate by jumping into my parents’ pool in 80-degree April weather, which would definitely not have happened in Boston!”
Wallace is one of many early career researchers who found themselves at a transition point when the pandemic struck, making logistics exponentially more complicated. After navigating a tough job market with pandemic-related hiring freezes, those who are beginning new postdocs or entering Ph.D. programs face limited access to lab benches and have fewer opportunities to socialize with people in their new labs.
When Harvard went into lockdown, Wallace, her partner, and their pet lizard Rosie relocated to Arizona, where Wallace’s parents live. Wallace says that doing science in the house she grew up in has been a bit strange but productive. However, Wallace and her partner returned to Boston in July, packed up their apartment, and drove across the country again to UCSF, where Wallace is beginning a postdoc in Alex Pollen’s lab.
These cross-country roadtrips mirror past phases in Wallace’s academic journey. As an outdoorsy kid, Wallace was intrigued by biology but found rote memorization boring. She was more enthused about science fair projects. In high school, Wallace interned in Carol Barnes’s lab at University of Arizona, working with then-graduate student Sara Burke, who is now a professor at University of Florida. The experience fueled Wallace’s interest in neuroscience research.
For her undergraduate education, she migrated to California and Stanford University. There, Wallace worked in the lab of Karl Deisseroth, one of the inventors of optogenetics. Working on some of the techniques that had piqued her interest in neuroscience was very exciting, but Wallace eventually decided to focus more on biological questions than tool development during her PhD.
That curiosity led her to Harvard’s MCO program for graduate school, where she earned her Ph.D. by doing a joint-project in the Murthy Lab and Beth Stevens’ lab. The question she chose to explore in her thesis was adult neurogenesis, the process of new neurons growing and forming connections in adult brains, by conducting experiments in mice.
“Jenelle is an extraordinarily gifted scientist – smart, creative, generous, collaborative and persistent,” says MCB faculty and Wallace’s advisor Venkatesh Murthy. “It is astonishing to me that she managed to have a full presence in both the groups she worked in, Beth Stevens’ and mine. I can’t understand how she found the time, energy and intellect to do this for many years! I feel lucky to have seen her shine at Harvard from such close quarters.”
Now Wallace is returning to California, albeit a different city, for a postdoc where she’ll study the evolution of the brain across taxa. “The time is coming where we don’t have to only focus on a couple of model organisms; we can try to get a broader view of how brains are working across many different species,” she says. “I think lab mice are great, but they’re obviously really different from humans…We have to somehow make that connection to understand in which ways we are similar to other animals and which aspects are uniquely human. This will be critical both for basic neuroscience and for treating brain disorders.”
Wallace’s long-term goal is to establish her own lab, where she plans to apply both the electrophysiology and imaging expertise she developed at Harvard along with the genomic techniques and evolutionary perspectives she’ll hone through her postdoc.
Even before the pandemic, deciding on a postdoctoral position wasn’t easy. “I spent a lot of time in a hammock last summer, reading papers and really trying to figure out the area that was most exciting to me,” she says. “I also spent a lot of time agonizing over it, and sort of talking to a million people.”
She emphasizes that, even during a pandemic, talking to current trainees and alums is a crucial part of finding a postdoctoral position. Wallace also recommends getting perspectives from people who have left the potential lab.
Wallace accepted her UCSF position in early February, shortly before labs and businesses across the country were shuttered.
During the shutdown, the internet proved to be a lifeline. In the spring, Wallace was often able to attend both Zoom meetings for both of her Harvard labs and her future lab at UCSF. She spent most of the summer on a “social distancing vacation,” reading papers, planning experiments, and working on fellowship proposals.
She notes that Twitter, where she tweets at @JenelleWallace5, has also been a valuable tool for socially-distanced networking. “It definitely takes a little bit of time to build up some sort of following, but just tweeting about papers that you are interested in is good,” she says. “Or every time you go to a conference, follow the people you met at the conference, and they might follow you back.” Wallace has even been asked to review papers, based on the strength of connections she made virtually over Twitter.
As of September, Wallace is getting started on her postdoctoral experiments at UCSF. She is cautiously optimistic and excited to be back at the bench. “You don’t want to start something big and then have things shut down again,” she says. “I’m also a bit worried about how it’s going to go in terms of learning new techniques and stuff, because there’s not going to be as many people in the lab at a time to teach.” She’s quick to add that nearly all researchers are facing these exact challenges and that she’s fortunate to be one of three new postdocs in the lab—all three can commiserate together.
During her time at Harvard, Wallace amassed a long string of publications, including first-authorships in eLife and Neuron. And despite many disruptions, Wallace and others in her cohort have maintained productivity through online networking, reading and writing papers, and planning experiments from home. Flexible scheduling, Zoom orientations, and testing protocols have helped many resume their research.
“I want to share my admiration for Jenelle and others that completed their PhDs these past few months (or will soon),” Murthy says. “The process is hard enough under normal circumstances and to do this amidst the health, social, moral and climate emergencies that are blanketing us, takes special determination and will. Kudos to all!”
He adds, “I am sure the resilience of this generation of scientists will help get us out of these difficult times. Our institutions (and senior scientists like me) will also need to make extra efforts to ensure that this generation of scientists can flourish.”