First Person is a series of interviews with the first authors of a selection of papers published in Journal of Cell Science, helping researchers promote themselves alongside their papers. Mia Konjikusic is first author on ‘ Kif9 is an active kinesin motor required for ciliary beating and proximodistal patterning of motile axonemes’, published in JCS. Mia conducted the research described in this article while a graduate student in John Wallingford and Ryan Gray's lab at the University of Texas at Austin. She is now a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Jeremy Reiter at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), investigating how cells confer cell-type-specific signaling through the cilium.

Mia Konjikusic

How would you explain the main findings of your paper in lay terms?

Motile cilia, more commonly termed flagella, are whip-like structures of the cell that rely on specialized motor proteins to confer their ability to beat. In this paper, we explored how a specific motor protein, Kif9, drives ciliary beating in multiciliated cells. We found that loss of Kif9 affects all the major protein complexes necessary for ciliary beating, and that this loss extends from the tip of the cilium. This was surprising as not many factors are known to help stabilize the tip compartment of the cilium. We also explored how Kif9 behaves on its specific substrate, microtubules, and found that it is a relatively slow-moving motor, but it does display some ability to move along microtubules.

Were there any specific challenges associated with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?

Yes! This project had many challenges and started in a completely different form than how it looks now. I began by trying to create a genetic mutant Kif9 zebrafish line to ask genetic questions about how Kif9 affects the development of an organism. However, I had difficulties cleaning up the background genetics of the zebrafish after using CRISPR. I kept finding that phenotypes and genotypes wouldn't match up as they ‘should’ have by Mendelian ratios, even after many rounds of outcrossing. We concluded that there was some genetic linkage between my CRISPR-generated mutation and some background mutation we could not seem to outcross. Since I was nearing the end of graduate school and had already begun interviews for postdoctoral positions, I decided to pivot to using the frog model of multiciliated cells to ask purely cell biological questions of how Kif9 contributes to ciliary beating. It was at first a huge devastation to me that the zebrafish line didn't work out, but in the end, I actually feel that the purely cell biological approach we took turned out better than I ever imagined!

When doing the research, did you have a particular result or ‘eureka’ moment that has stuck with you?

Again, yes! But it did not come from any particular experiment I did with my own hands, but from collaboration and conversations with other labs. Probably the biggest came from collaborating with the Verhey lab at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, on this project to do the single-molecule microtubule assays for Kif9. When they showed us the data that it was a processive motor but functioned at slow rates, we were a bit confused, since this wasn't exactly a ‘classic’ result for a kinesin. But then, through a Twitter post, we actually ended up connecting with the Zhang group at Yale University who showed us their recent data of the structure of Kif9 within the ciliary central pair apparatus (recently published and a super cool read!). At that meeting, all of my analysis on the cell biology side, the data from the Verhey lab and that from the Zhang lab clicked together.

Why did you choose Journal of Cell Science for your paper?

Journal of Cell Science consistently publishes very cool cell biology-based papers, and this attention to cell biology is what drew us to submitting the paper here!

A multiciliated cell labelled for membranes and a ciliary tip-marking protein.

A multiciliated cell labelled for membranes and a ciliary tip-marking protein.

Have you had any significant mentors who have helped you beyond supervision in the lab? How was their guidance special?

In particular, several female postdocs in the Gray and Wallingford labs helped me navigate difficult emotional times in graduate school. Feeling their guidance and support made me feel much less alone during those times, particularly during the pandemic. They have remained a strong support network for me as I have transitioned to a postdoc, and I hope they will continue to be so as I open my own lab one day in the future!

What motivated you to pursue a career in science, and what have been the most interesting moments on the path that led you to where you are now?

I'm not someone who always dreamed of being a scientist. I actually feel as though I fell into science rather than it being a goal from the start. I was always more inclined toward the sciences in school growing up and apparently always asked a lot of questions, but I was also a serious athlete. It wasn't until junior year in college that I discovered the joys of a basic research lab. I got my first job in one with Henri Jasper when he was at the Buck Institute in California. The moment I walked into the lab, it felt like coming home and I was in love. I guess that feeling is what motivates me to pursue a career in science. The feeling of possibility and discovery has been, and I hope, always will continue to feel like home!

Who are your role models in science? Why?

Most notably, Mae Jemison. But any female or marginalized person being the first in STEM to achieve a position that previously was unavailable to them. I think we often get caught up in the daily challenges in our lives and careers and can forget the bigger picture of why we are doing what we do. And seeing people succeed in fields that they would have been predominantly excluded from previously makes me feel very inspired. I hope that I can be such an inspiration to young women and marginalized people down the line.

What's next for you?

I am fortunate enough to have started the next step, a postdoc with the Reiter lab at UCSF! The hope and goal is to have my own lab one day studying ciliary cell-type specificity.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that wouldn't be on your CV

At the age of 16, I was a double National Champion synchronized swimmer. And right before I started college at the University of California, Berkeley, I turned down an invitation to join the US national team.

Mia Konjikusic’s contact details: Reiter Laboratory, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, San Francisco, 555 Mission Bay Blvd South, San Francisco, CA 94158, USA.

E-mail: mia.konjikusic@ucsf.edu

Konjikusic
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M. J.
,
Lee
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C.
,
Yue
,
Y.
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Shrestha
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B. D.
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Nguimtsop
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A. M.
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Horani
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A.
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Brody
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S.
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Prakash
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V. N.
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Gray
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R. S.
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Verhey
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K. J.
et al. 
(
2023
).
Kif9 is an active kinesin motor required for ciliary beating and proximodistal patterning of motile axonemes
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J. Cell Sci.
136
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jcs259535
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