The FEBS Junior Sections interview Jen Heemstra

Supervisor-student relationships. Mental health support. How to choose a research topic. Transatlantic collaborations. These are some of the topics the FEBS Junior Sections asked Jen Heemstra about. Read on...
The FEBS Junior Sections interview Jen Heemstra

Jen Heemstra is a Professor at Emory University (Atlanta, US), where her lab is focused on harnessing the molecular recognition and self-assembly properties of nucleic acids and proteins for applications in biosensing and bioimaging. Jen is also actively engaged in science communication, outreach, and advocacy.

What do you think is important for a good supervisor–student relationship?

Mutual trust and respect are the foundation of all good relationships. And, effective communication is one of the best ways to build those. Communication is really a combination of many characteristics and skill sets, including empathy, humility, listening, and organization. When these are deployed effectively, individuals are able to both convey information as well as help the other person to feel heard, supported, and respected.

On the supervisor side, it’s important to provide clarity on expectations and where someone stands relative to those expectations. For example, be sure to put in writing answers to questions such as: Do you want students to work specific hours or are you supportive of flexible work hours? How often should students provide research updates and in what format? What responsibilities does each member of the lab have regarding maintaining lab equipment?

On the student side, it’s important to be proactive in communicating if a project is not going as planned or you’re going to miss a deadline. Most supervisors understand that things don’t always go according to plan, either in lab or with personal situations that may arise. They may have their own deadlines that are counting on your work, so letting them know as soon as possible if you will not be able to meet an expectation can help everyone figure out the best alternative plan.

Where do you see benefits in transatlantic collaborations?

Collaborations are always a positive, as they provide the opportunity to bring a more diverse set of experiences and perspectives to bear on an important problem. International collaborations can be especially fruitful, as different research topics can have greater traction in different countries and the general culture around research can also be different. Thus, when individuals come together from different countries to collaborate, the diversity of perspectives is likely to be even greater, leading to ideas that might not otherwise emerge.

In your opinion, what can we do to improve mental health and the handling of the topic in the scientific environment?

We need to keep talking about it and we need to take substantive actions to support mental health in science. Many institutions and research labs are becoming more proactive in creating systems that address mental health at the individual level – these include changes such as increased counselling services and workshops about how to manage stress. However, these solutions are not sufficient. It is even more important that we tackle the systemic challenges that are causing the mental health crisis in the first place. These include the prevalence of bullying and harassment, unsustainable work hours, or lack of communication and feedback from supervisors. Faculty members often have the authority to clear away these challenges in their own research labs, and institutional leaders can do so at an even greater level.

Your laboratory takes a multi-faceted approach to research – how do you manage this and come up with new ideas or approaches to go for next? Did your change your research interests during your career?

The two best parts of my job are that I get to be a lifelong learner and I get to work with an ever-evolving group of talented, driven, and creative individuals. There are many ways to approach an independent research program, and for me, the most fun way has been to empower my colleagues in the lab to drive the ideas. This means that our research interests are broad and ever changing. Every time someone graduates from the group or a new member joins, they bring their own unique expertise and interests, and that often results in us starting a new project, or at least moving a project in a new direction. Thus, over time, our program morphs and moves forward across the scientific landscape of in a sort of amoeba-like fashion.

Because we approach research in a somewhat different way, we’ve had to find different ways of managing our research program. But, this is also a fun chance to innovate and try something new. One of the most impactful things that we do is have an annual multi-day retreat that involves brainstorming on current and future projects, proposal writing, professional development, strategic planning, and a lot of playing board games and going hiking. It is arguably the most important (and fun!) event of my year.

How did you get interested in aptamers and is your research applicable to diagnostics or other clinical areas?

Ever since I started doing chemistry research, I’ve been fascinated by the field of supramolecular chemistry – the idea that we can take our knowledge of how molecules interact, design systems that should fold, assemble, and function in a specific way, and then build those systems and test them. And, over time, my lab and I have come to appreciate that biomolecules are extremely fun to work with in the realm of supramolecular chemistry. So, it was almost inevitable that we would develop a fascination with aptamers, as they are nucleic acids that can be evolved in vitro to recognize and bind to many different molecules. We are even more excited about a subset of aptamers called structure-switching aptamers, as these sequences undergo a dramatic change in folding or assembly upon target binding, and thus are very well suited for use in biosensors.

There is a large interest in the broader scientific field in using aptamers for diagnostics, and many academic researchers and companies are doing very exciting work in this area. We have also done a bit of work with drug and toxin detection, but our real passion lies in finding new uses for aptamers, such as employing them to measure small-molecule enantiopurity or accelerate enzymatic reactions.

Which should we prioritize more when doing research: being in a great working environment but a more boring topic, or researching in a field you are passionate about but with a worse working environment?

I often tell students that the culture of the lab you join and the mentoring style of the supervisor you choose to work with will have significantly greater impact on your success and happiness than the research itself. There are certainly limits to this, but if you are choosing between two research labs in a similar scientific area, choosing the healthier environment is a decision that will tend to pay dividends.

There certainly are some people who can withstand a challenging environment and come out of it just fine. However, this can all fall apart if you have a family emergency or suddenly wake up feeling completely burned out. When those circumstances arise, the inflexibility of a poor working environment can push people out of science. In contrast, working in a healthy environment is likely to provide the support you need to weather an unexpected life event and thus minimize the impact on your career. Additionally, it’s just a much more fun way to spend those years of your life and you are more likely to build friendships and mentoring relationships that will last throughout your career!


Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash