Aimee Jaramillo-Lambert is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware. Aimee was awarded the Society for Developmental Biology 2023 Elizabeth D. Hay New Investigator Award in recognition of her outstanding research in developmental biology during the early stages of her independent career. We caught up with Aimee over a video call to talk about her research into sexual reproduction in Caenorhabditis elegans, the importance of mentorship, and what drives her work in diversity, equity and inclusion.

You have recently been awarded the 2023 Elizabeth D. Hay New Investigator Award by the Society of Developmental Biology. What does this award mean to you?

It's really nice that people think the work we're doing is significant and is contributing to the field. The award also allowed me to attend the SDB annual meeting in person for the first time. I usually go to the regional SDB meetings, but I had never been to the annual meeting. It was a great meeting.

Let's circle back to the beginning – when did you first become interested in science, and when did you decide to pursue a scientific career?

As a kid, I was always interested in science. My mom talks about how I used to go down to the creek and collect tadpoles and watch them grow. I always loved science in school. But when I went to college, I didn't know about scientific research as a career. I started out thinking I was going to go to medical school. In my first genetics class, the lab of my TA (teaching assistant) was looking for an undergraduate research assistant. That was when I realised I could do research for a living. I switched away from pre-med in my sophomore year of college.

You went on to do a PhD with JoAnne Engebrecht at the University of California, Davis. What was your project about?

I worked on checkpoints during meiosis. I studied the mechanisms that detect whether replication has occurred properly, or if homologous chromosomes are paired properly, if there's any DNA damage. I was looking at how these pathways are regulated differently in the male and female germline. Everyone else in the lab was working on yeast, but I was JoAnne's first C. elegans person. I loved my PhD experience and Dr Engebrecht is an amazing mentor.

For your postdoc, you joined Andy Golden's lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). What led you to join his lab and what did you work on?

When I was looking for a postdoc position, I thought I was going to stay in the field of checkpoints and look at how chromosome integrity is maintained. I ended up doing a postdoc at George Washington University where I was working in a cell culture lab, but the project took me in a different direction. Even though tissue culture has many advantages, I have always been more interested in development, and how things happen in the context of a whole organism. That's why, after a year, I decided I wanted to go back to a developmental system and I found Dr Andy Golden's lab. When I started working with him, I thought I was going to be looking at early embryogenesis in C. elegans, as I was characterising a mutant that caused embryonic lethality. It turned out that the embryonic lethality was due to a defect in spermatogenesis. This took me back to meiosis. It was really nice to find this new mutant that caused sex-specific differences in chromosome segregation, as I already had a background in meiosis and still find it fascinating.

Even though tissue culture has many advantages, I have always been more interested in development, and how things happen in the context of a whole organism

At the end of your award talk at the 82nd SDB Annual Meeting, you said a few moving words in memory of Andy. What was he like as a supervisor and mentor?

Andy was a really funny guy and a big prankster. On April Fool's Day, he would always send out these emails trying to trick us. But he was also a really good mentor. One of the things that I really appreciated about him was that he let me develop and lead my independent programme. He was very happy to support me and give me advice and feedback, but I was in charge of my research and the direction of my programme. He was also very supportive of me getting teaching experience. I knew I wanted to go to an undergraduate institution, but, as a postdoc at NIH, I was supposed to be working full time in the research lab, and it was hard to get teaching experience. Andy was very willing to go through all the paperwork that would allow me to work as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He was very supportive in all aspects of my research and of my family. I ended up having my first child while I was in his lab, and he was very supportive of me taking maternity leave. He was still part of my life when I become an assistant professor. He was still giving me advice on being a PI, and he was serving as a committee member for one of my PhD students. It's hard that I can no longer go to him with questions and ask for advice, but the memories I have of him are all good memories.

Can you summarise the current research themes of your group?

Our overall research theme is the study of sexual reproduction. We have two main projects in the lab. On one side, we're looking at the mechanisms that determine chromosome structure during meiosis, and how these differ in male and female germ lines. The second area of the lab is looking at fertilisation and egg activation. Most of the time, we're taught that during fertilisation the oocyte is the one that brings all the components that are needed for early development, and the sperm brings a haploid genome and a pair of centrioles. But, we know there are other components that the sperm bring that are required for development and my lab is looking at the proteins provided by the sperm that are required for this process.

How did you navigate the field to find your own niche within it?

I started finding my niche during my postdoc, when I was working on both projects that my lab is still working on now. One of them is looking at Topoisomerase II (TOP-2). During my postdoctoral research, I did a genetic screen to find genetic interactions between other genes and TOP-2. Now, in my own lab, people are looking to resolve those genetic interactions and trying to figure out how they're interacting with TOP-2 during meiosis, and whether there are other roles that are independent of TOP-2 in the germline. Another project I was working on during my postdoc was a gene called spe-11. This makes a sperm protein that is required for egg activation. This is a protein that was discovered a long time ago, but even though we knew it was needed in the early embryo, we didn't know what it was interacting with. Now, we and our collaborators at the University of Minnesota have found what SPE-11 interacts with in the oocyte. This discovery helped resurrect this project and we're excited to find out what this protein complex does in the early embryo.

What are the most exciting areas in the field at the moment, in your opinion?

Specifically in the meiosis field, people are really getting into using biophysics to answer questions. It is amazing how people are looking at these different physical properties of components in the cell, whether they are RNAs, DNAs or proteins. They are studying how these different properties change, depending on the context of the cell and how these changes lead to accurate meiosis and development of progeny.

What was the transition to becoming a group leader like for you?

I've been a group leader for 6 years now and the transition period was good but challenging. There are lots of things that we learn as scientists, but we don't learn about running and managing a lab. One surprising part of becoming a PI was I felt really lonely. You go from being a member of the lab, interacting with your fellow graduate students and postdocs, to being the leader of your own lab. My colleagues are very friendly but we're all very busy with teaching and meetings, so we don't see each other as much. Because of the nature of our career, we are moving from place to place. I had moved to a different state, and I didn't know anybody. I am generally shy and more of an introvert, but I forced myself to go interact with people. It took a year, but after a while, we (my husband and me) made friends with colleagues, and having kids helped me to meet other parents in the neighborhood. It just takes a little bit of time compared to when I was a student and had a cohort of grad students. My colleagues in the department are very supportive in showing me how to order things, get equipment and set up and manage a lab.

What are the most important things you have learned since becoming a group leader?

The most important thing I have learned is patience. I wouldn't say I'm a naturally patient person, but I've learned that, when managing people, not everybody does the same thing in the same way that I would. I am learning how to accept that and trying to help my students accomplish their goals, even if it's different from the way I do it.

How important do you think mentorship is in navigating an academic career?

I think mentorship is very important. I feel very lucky that both my grad school and my postdoc mentors are great. That's why I try to be a good mentor to my students. I always ask new members of the lab about their goals, and I don't think everybody has to go into academia. Whatever their goals are, I try to find them opportunities to help them in their career paths, whether it's an internship or a workshop. I also encourage them to have other mentors, because they might have an issue with me or want to discuss something that they don't feel comfortable talking about with me. I have done professional development training on mentoring and management so I can learn new techniques and be more culturally aware, especially in academia where we have people from different cultures and countries.

Coming from a minority and low-income background and having to navigate those different barriers, especially in college, was very difficult. I think I did have a lot of luck and help. That's why I am now trying to help my students overcome some of these barriers that I have experienced, or I've seen other people experience.

You are on the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) committees of the Department of Biological Sciences and the Genetics Society of America (GSA). What motivates you to promote diversity in STEM?

The main reason I'm involved in DEI work is because of my background. My dad is Mexican American, and my mom is of Irish, Scottish descent. I grew up with my dad in New Mexico. Coming from a minority and low-income background and having to navigate those different barriers, especially in college, was very difficult. I think I did have a lot of luck and help. That's why I am now trying to help my students overcome some of these barriers that I have experienced, or I've seen other people experience. That's what drives my work in those areas.

The DEI committee in our department is still very new. We're still working on developing our mission goals and statements. For the GSA committee, one of things we've been working on is developing a guideline for conferences on inclusivity. We started some programmes aimed at promoting diverse and inclusive communities. One is called the Presidential Membership Initiative, which is a programme for early career scientists to increase the diversity of membership in the GSA. Another programme that GSA launched is the Neighborhoods Program. This programme aims to develop collaborative and close groups of colleagues within the society. These groups are meant to include people from more diverse backgrounds and the programme hopes to promote scientific research and provide leadership opportunities to early-career scientists. The DEI committee is helping GSA with their strategic goals and planning how to incorporate DEI initiatives into the overall goals of the society.

Did you ever consider a non-academic career path?

When I first started grad school, I did not want to go into academia. I was very shy and found public speaking terrifying. The thought of having to teach a class did not sound fun at all. But my grad school mentor was the one who changed my mind. After seeing how she mentored students and how she taught her class, I decided I wanted to go into academia. But when I was a postdoc and was applying for PI positions, I did the academic job search 2 years in a row. I didn't get an offer in the first round. As I was going through the process of submitting my applications again, I did consider other options if I didn't get an offer in the second round. One of the things I was looking into was becoming a diversity officer, as that's something that I've always been interested in.

Lastly, is there anything our readers would be surprised to learn about you?

One of the things that I really love to watch are the 80s and 90s action films. I love the bad acting!

Aimee Jaramillo-Lambert's contact details: Department of Biological Sciences, University of Delaware, 105 The Green, 321 Wolf Hall, Newark, DE 19701, USA

E-mail: [email protected]

Aimee Jaramillo-Lambert was interviewed by Joyce Yu, Online Editor at Development. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewee.