• An Interview with Julie Biteen, Ph.D.

    An Interview with Julie Biteen, Ph.D.

    Posted by Amy Liu on 2022-01-06

Interview with Julie Biteen

Interviewer: Amy Liu

Dr. Biteen is the Associate Chair of Graduate Studies and a professor of chemistry and biophysics at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the use of single-molecule fluorescence imaging for investigating fundamental questions in bacterial cell biology and metal nanoparticle plasmonics. She received her PhD from the California Institute of Technology and her postdoc from Stanford University. 

Amy: How did you first get involved in research? When did you know you wanted to pursue it as a career?

Dr. Biteen: I thought that I was going to be a doctor when I got to college. They said that I should do some research for med school applications, so the summer after my sophomore year, I reached out to a research lab near home to work at. Then, I figured out I did not want to go to med school -- just taking the MCAT, all that -- and got opportunities to work at universities.

Amy: Your lab works in single-molecule fluorescence imaging -- what drew you to studying this topic in particular? 

Dr. Biteen: The research pathway you take, everyone knows in retrospect, is a bit random. You talk to a couple professors, and do things, and it turns out it’s a good fit and you like it. I’ve always worked in optics -- the fluorescence part, the lasers -- those are things I’ve always been interested in. I did my PhD in a more engineering-focused lab. After finishing my PhD, I did something called a postdoc -- so that’s a postdoctoral, which you do after your PhD research project -- and I got the opportunity to do single molecule work then.

Amy: What are some specific examples in which single-molecule imaging is crucial -- in other words, in what scenarios would other kinds of imaging not be as effective as the single-molecule imaging you work with?

Dr. Biteen: The biggest ones that we’re really excited about are these big questions of how microbial cells work. You think of bacteria as the smallest thing that you can see in a microscope. You can count, you can see how much they grow, things like that. But if you ask yourself what happens inside a bacteria, you start hitting the wall. For us, going from the size of the bacteria, which is a few microns, to a bit smaller, allows us to look at basic biological questions -- for example, how do proteins separate to the end of the cell? Analyzing just these very basic biology processes matters, because you want good bacteria to be healthy, and bad bacteria to be killed. Understanding these mechanisms lets you think about this sort of balance in the environment.

Amy: What is your specific goal or vision with your projects currently, and what developments are you most excited about? 

Dr. Biteen: We have a lot of specific applications, but I think that that big question of how cells are organized is really important. 

Towards those goals, we do two things. We develop methods -- how can we prepare our cells for imaging? How can we analyze our data? For that analysis, we do computational work, use machine learning, and use different image processing approaches.

So there’s just thinking about what these methods that will enable these big picture projects are. On the other side, we get into the specifics of different systems. The most fundamental question that we’re asking right now is what happens in the cell when the cell is stressed out and doesn’t want to grow, doesn’t want to make proteins, but just wants to hide. Bacterial cells can condense the nucleoid really tight so that gene expression is decreased. Thinking about that not just from an observational perspective, but thinking about what it means -- what does “small” mean? What does it mean that it’s condensed? What proteins are allowed in? These sort of biochemical questions are really important to us.

Amy: What would a typical day in your lab look like? What is its structure like -- how does it operate? 

Dr. Biteen: For experiments, it’s not really a typical day, it’s more of a typical week. For most of our experiments, you would grow your cells, prepare any reagents you need, label your samples with dye, get those with the right concentrations, and autoclave everything so that there are no contaminants and everything is sterile. Getting everything going is the first few days of the week. Bacterial cells do grow pretty fast -- faster than mammalian cells, but you still can’t just plan an experiment in the morning and do it in the afternoon. There’d be time at the microscope -- to take a lot of data to get good statistics. So a day or two of acquiring great data, optimizing parameters, and doing all the control experiments so that you trust your science.

Next, it could be a day, it could be a month, where you ask -- what the heck do I do with that data? You draw quantitative research and plot your data and inform the next round of experiments. I think of it as a cycle of planning experiments, doing them, and analyzing your data, which usually happens on a weekly scale.

Amy: What does collaboration mean for your research in particular, both in your lab specifically and across different labs and disciplines?

Dr. Biteen: Collaboration is hugely important in my lab. This is our biggest strength, and really, it’s what drew me to the University of Michigan. In terms of collaboration across labs, we’re really lucky to be here in a university with amazing biologists and a medical school just across the street. It’s just easy to have these conversations. Almost all of these biological experiments are done in collaboration with a biology lab. They make sure we’re asking the important questions. Sometimes, they’ll help us with cloning and making samples. Those parts are important, but the most important is coming together to ask each other what the important questions are -- not just from my point of view as a microscopist, but from their point of view as a biologist studying the specific organism. Almost every project is informed in some way by that sort of collaboration.

Within the lab, what we’re doing is really multidisciplinary science. Nobody comes into my lab knowing everything they need to know. I didn’t start along this path knowing either. My undergrads come from basic science, from engineering, or from more applied programs. My grad students come from chemistry, biophysics, chemical biology -- so really spanning different disciplines. It’s important that everyone comes in and says I’m really good at this one thing, but I need help with this other thing. In return, I can help you with this other thing. Achieving that balance is a pretty key part of our lab.

Amy: Can you talk about the importance of diversity, or of having multiple perspectives in your research?

Dr. Biteen: So important. 

The other part of it is when you give a talk. You’re doing this multidisciplinary science, and you need to be able to reach the biologist in the audience; reach the student who might have only taken freshman chemistry, and doesn’t know more, and might be afraid of the math. Being able to reach different people, having that experience where you’re used to interacting with different people, is very important.

Diversity in science also goes into diversity and inclusivity across different types of populations. It’s important that there’s different people from underrepresented groups in science. Learning to work in science with people from different backgrounds as you, maybe people who didn’t know that they’d go to college -- that sort of diversity is fundamentally part of the culture of our lab.

Amy: What advice would you give to undergraduates looking to pursue or currently involved in your field of research? 

Dr. Biteen: It’s the same advice I give to grad students, which is sort of what I started with. It’s about how you decide how to get into research. It’s not premeditated -- cast a wide net, try out different experiments, find somewhere you’re motivated to do more rather than just feel like a cog in the machine -- because research should be so exciting. I was really lucky as an undergrad to be in a lab where I could be like, yeah, I can do that for the next five years; yeah, I can apply to grad school. That feeling of belonging in the lab and giving back to the lab are really key things that one should look for. It’s really just finding key things in what you’re doing and figuring out why you’re there. The other part of the advice I would give is to get involved early -- to do UROP, figure out what you might be interested in.

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