Ahna Skop: visualizing grants, traveling to increase empathy, the importance of studying the cell’s ‘garbage can’

Cells at the most important step in mitosis. (Skop, Science, 2004)
Cells at the most important step in mitosis. (Skop, Science, 2004)

Ahna Skop is a Professor of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and an affiliate faculty member in Life Science Communication and the UW-Madison Arts Institute. Ahna Skop’s lab is focused on understanding the processes of cell division and cytokinesis at the cellular and molecular level. They are specifically interested in the roles of two relatively mysterious components of the late mitotic spindle: the spindle midzone (the bundled, antiparallel microtubules that lie between the chromosomes after segregation) and the midbody (the last remaining structural link between two recently divided, sister cells).

Ahna Skop

The Skop lab has used a variety of techniques to address how these subcellular structures contribute to cell division and downstream processes, including screens using the early C. elegans embryo, proteomics of isolated mid-bodies from mammalian cells, and live-cell imaging of the late stages of cell division in both systems. Skop’s passion for science and the field of cell biology extends beyond her group’s research and into the realms of science communication and mentorship. She has given multiple talks on the role of art in scientific discovery and in the public accessibility of science. Skop is a member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Genetics Society of America (GSA), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) and the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). In 2018, Skop was the inaugural recipient of the ASCB Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity, an award that recognizes the efforts of a cell biologist to increase the diversity and inclusivity of cell biology.

Let’s start with your Name: Ahna Skop           

Location: Madison, Wisconsin

Position: Professor of Genetics; Affiliate faculty in Life Sciences Communication and the UW-Madison Arts Institute

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone XS Max

Current Computer(s): MacBook Air (travel), Mac Desktop (work)

What kind of research do you do?

I’m passionate about the midbody, a structure once thought to be the garbage can of the cell. My lab is currently seeking to understand the function of RNAs and RNA binding proteins (RBPs) in the midbody and the midbody’s role in post-mitotic cells.

What is one word that best describes how you work:


What excites you most about your current work?

That I’ve been working on asymmetric cell division and the midbody for over 25 years, and recently I’ve realized, given our work and that of others, that we are actually looking at events that occur early in the G1 phase of the cell cycle. This realization has completely changed the way we are doing experiments now. Also, that the midbody is kind of a bigger deal than I ever imagined.

Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path?

In college, I was a low-income student and received Federal Work-Study funding. I loved biology in high school, so my parents took me over to the Biological Research Labs at Syracuse University the first week of college and asked if there were any work-study jobs available in the Biology department. Fortunately, there was a position in Kevin VanDoren’s C. elegans lab, and that work-study experience forever changed the course of my life.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?

Writing grants!  As a dyslexic, I prefer to visualize my ideas and talk about them. To write a grant, I need to lay it out visually in Keynote, then I work from that. Each slide often becomes a paragraph of text. I also find it hard to carve out time daily to do so with all of the other things I have to do. I usually have to squirrel myself away from other work to completely focus.

What is the primary model organism you use in your research and why?

I use C. elegans and tissue culture cells in my lab. Both are excellent systems in which to understand asymmetric cell division and midbody function. C. elegans is an excellent model (and a true love of mine) given the early embryo has a stereotypical pattern of asymmetric divisions that you can follow with and without GFP labels. But worm embryos have limitations due to the eggshell, particularly for biochemical assays needed to do our work, so we often use tissue culture cells to answer questions that require biochemical assays.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty?

First, squirt a fire hose at yourself to envision what your life will be like on a daily or weekly basis. Then, find a cohort of scientific friends (on- and off-campus or via social media) that you can go to for advice, support, and humor (when needed; this is often). Nurture an old hobby or find a new one. Do outreach to see the impact you can make outside the lab. Be an ally and advocate to someone different from yourself. Make time daily to relax by swimming or laughing.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

In the morning or evening, while you are sitting on the toilet or in bed, you can delete emails that are spam or respond to ones quickly, so you can focus on your writing once you get to work.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)? 

AnyList, Things, and iCal. Post-it notes are really the best for me because they are tangible, colorful, and I can stick them anywhere.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without?

Keynote, Dashlane, iCal, TripIt, TrustedHousesitters, and Yelp.

My family and close friends would actually say…Find Friends (you know who you are). I love all things that have to do with maps, GIS (Geographic Information Systems), and geography and at one time in my life considered being a geographer. When I see family and friends on the Find Friends map, for some reason it brings that map and geography alive to me. I especially like to surprise my family and friends when they least expect it with a text saying: How’s that restaurant? What are you buying at Target? Or how’s Tokyo?

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

Nespresso Machine or a pour over coffee funnel

And how do you use it?

To wake me up in the morning

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are? Art and Eating

One view of Dr. Skop’s office.

Who are your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person?

John White (my PhD mentor) because he transformed me when he said that he “got a D in math and invented a microscope.” His point was, basically, that grades and exams don’t matter, ideas and hard work do. He said this to me after I failed my prelim in graduate school, and it was a turning point in my career. I wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t said that to me.

Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado (@Planaria1) because he follows his passion and curiosity. By first chopping heads off of Planaria and seeing what happened, he has spurred a career, a model organism, and has advanced science. I just think this is awesome. This head chopping research has recently led him to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences. As a child, I would have never expected how simple acts, such as cutting off a head of a worm, could lead to big discoveries. Equally, I like that he’s very accessible on social media, always on an adventure, and is receptive to teasing.

Michael Mullins and Ryoko Kuriyama, because Michael first isolated the midbody, and Ryoko first discovered that the midbody-associated protein MKLP1/CHO1/KIF23 is important for cytokinesis. They both put the midbody on the scientific map, despite it being considered the garbage can of the cell for several decades after their work. I feel honored to have had them both help me learn how to isolate midbodies via phone calls when I was postdoc.

Another view of Dr. Skop’s office.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab?

Cookbooks, finding the best recipes for a certain dish, learning how things are made (especially food), art and design, and planning where I’m going to travel next.

You were recently awarded the ASCB Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity. Could you talk a little bit about what “inclusivity” in science means to you?

Inclusivity is ensuring that all people have access and feel welcome in science to explore, play, and figure out what the world is like.

What are some areas we could improve in as individual cell biologists, or as a field, to actively increase inclusiveness?

There are two areas where we as scientists can work to improve:

1) Allyship and 2) Empathy.

1) Allyship is central to how powerful voices and ideas from diverse groups can be heard. The majority groups must help, support, and advocate for those who cannot, often in the heat of the moment. Allies hold the power and key to make positive change.

2) Empathy is also a critical and an easy thing to do if you can just put yourself in someone else’s gym shoes, high heels, or flip flops for a day. Empathy breeds tolerance in social groups and publicly showing your empathy toward others can bring about change. I think as human beings and scientists we need to push ourselves to learn about that which is different from ourselves.

One of the ways that I find to be the most useful for expanding ones’ empathy is travel.  Consider putting yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable, whether it’s a place where you don’t speak the language, eat that kind of food, or look like others. It is these experiences that change you as an educator, mentor, and scientist. Push yourself to learn something new and different as you travel locally, nationally, or abroad. In turn, your impact and empathy towards others will change and the world will become a better place.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization” -Mahatma Gandhi

What’s your sleep routine like?

I wish it was a lot better. I only get about 5-7 hours a night as of late. I try to go to bed at 10:00 pm, and I always wake up with the sun, so I have to force myself to get to sleep earlier.

 What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees?

Be yourself! Don’t have others tell you how to think or be in science. That’s where the magic is.


About the Author:

Jenny Heppert studies the cell biology of host-microbe interactions. She is currently a postdoc with Heidi Goodrich-Blair at the University of Tennessee. Twiiter: @hephephooray