2021 NSF REU Program: The Heald Lab

Photo of an African clawed frog under water in an aquarium with pebbles and a green plant.Much of our current knowledge about the developmental, cellular, and molecular mechanisms of early development in vertebrates comes from studies using aquatic frogs from the Xenopus genus. These squishy, slippery frogs with their funny-looking flattened pancake bodies have many qualities that make them ideal model organisms. The Heald lab takes advantage of the frog's relatively large and robust eggs and their ability to produce them year-round to investigate mitosis and size control mechanisms in the genus. Size is a key feature of biological systems that affects physiology at all levels. How does scaling occur so that everything fits and functions properly?

This week, learn about a scholar who's eager to be learning hands-on laboratory techniques for the first time and a mentor who's excited to share her enthusiasm for research and bench work with the next generation of researchers. 

Meet Den Arthur Lipata and Maiko Kitaoka.

DEN ARTHUR LIPATA
REU SCHOLAR 

Heald Lab
Senior | CSU Stanislaus
Hometown: Turlock, CA

Why did you decide to participate in the program this summer? What are you hoping to gain from the experience?
I felt like participating in the Summer REU program would allow me to gain a comprehensive insight into what it takes to become successful in science. I am hoping to learn more about benchwork, scientific writing, literature analysis, and collaboration.  


Preparing the Xenopus laevis eggs to create the extract. Photo courtesy Den Arthur Lipata.

What’s been a highlight of the program or lab experience so far? Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Actually getting on the bench and learning the techniques needed with hands-on experience. Going to school during the COVID pandemic has limited my experience in this regard, so everything was new to me. 

What is your research project this summer?
To examine the mitotic spindle using expansion microscopy in Xenopus laevis egg extract.

What are you looking forward to doing/exploring in Berkeley/the Bay Area this summer and why?
I am looking forward to exploring the different cultures of the Bay Area through the food. The weather is a big plus too. 

MAIKO KITAOKA
REU MENTOR 

Graduate Student | Heald Lab

What motivated you to participate in the REU program?
Lab experience is really one of the only ways to know whether or not research is right for you. It’s not just about the experiments or pipetting at the bench, but also about learning what it’s like to be a scientist. Opportunities to join a lab and try your hand at the bench should be open to everyone, not just the ones who have the privilege or contacts to know where to look. As a younger scientist, I want to build and be a part of a science community full of enthusiastic, bright individuals from all backgrounds and life stories. Science and graduate school can be intimidating and scary on multiple levels, but especially when you don’t know where to start or how to move forward. We all start somewhere, and the REU is a great way for me to help foster that accessibility and equity in opportunity.


Kitaoka holding the centrifuge rotor that makes frog egg extract, the lab's bread and butter. Photo credit: Mark J. Khoury.

What are some of the highlights of your experience mentoring REU students so far?
The best part for me is watching students gain confidence every single day, both at the bench and intellectually as they learn the scientific process and lingo that comes with it. Our lab’s main system, the Xenopus frog egg extract, is unique – it can be hard to understand it fully at first, but it’s a really beautiful and powerful system that I love. So I’m really proud to introduce the egg extract to students, and it’s always a joy to me when they begin to comprehend and master it too. 

What have you learned from working with REU students (personally or professionally)?
My mentoring experiences reveal my own strengths and weaknesses as a mentor and a scientist, which aspects I enjoy more than others, and how I might improve on specific skills.


Xenopus frogs in the Heald lab. Photo courtesy Maiko Kitaoka via Twitter.

What was the most impactful mentoring experience you had and how has it influenced your own mentoring style?
I constantly learn a lot from all of my current and previous mentors in the lab – not just the faculty, but also the postdocs and grad students that I interacted with on a daily basis in my various lab experiences. They helped me get to where I am now! I try to make mental notes when their style is particularly helpful (or not!) for me, and then I try to incorporate the most effective practices into my own mentoring style while adapting to the student’s individual needs. 

MORE INFORMATION:

Learn more about the NSF REU @Berkeley program: mcb.berkeley.edu/nsfreu/

Read MCB's Fall 2018 newsletter article about the program: mcb.berkeley.edu/news-and-events/transcript/fall-2018-nsf-reu-program

Visit the Heald lab website to learn more about the research program:

​Banner image: African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, by Linda De Volder, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0