Current Title and Department:
Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Musculoskeletal Research, University of Rochester Medical Center

Current Employer:
Dr. Alayna Loiselle

Undergraduate Degree, University:
BS in Studio Art, James Madison University

Graduate Degree, University:
PhD in Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences, Virginia Tech

Post-doctoral Position:
Loiselle Lab

Past Employers:
Prior to my PhD, I worked as a technician at the University of Virginia in Thurl Harris’s lab, on a topic completely unrelated to orthopaedics. I then went on to complete my PhD with Linda Dahlgren at Virginia Tech. My doctoral work primarily focused on how Scx expression affected tendon gene expression/cell identity in the presence and absence of mechanical stimuli.

Who have been your mentors?
Thurl, Linda, and Alayna have all been pivotal mentors in my scientific career. Thurl hired me as a technician when I had really no clue about anything, and introduced me to how an academic career in science works including what it meant to go to graduate school, do a postdoc, and become a professor. He was really the first person who made me feel like an academic science career was something I could, and wanted, to pursue. Linda was great as a PhD advisor and mentor because as a clinician-scientist, she brought a completely different perspective to my way of approaching ideas or problems. She also taught me the importance of certain responsibilities as a member of the broader scientific community including how to provide meaningful feedback on the work of others, peer review, and how to facilitate the exchange of scientific ideas. Finally, Alayna has been a phenomenal mentor during my postdoc. I specifically chose to work with someone who was early in their career so I could learn what it really looked like to start and run a lab. She has taught me so much about not just the science, but the crucial non-science related aspects of being a PI. We spend a lot of time discussing various aspects about the job about what the job entails including good management, grant writing, budgeting, etc. I’ve also been really fortunate throughout my scientific career to be surround by tons of informal mentors, including my fellow trainees.

What are your specific research areas and expertise, particularly related to the tendon?
My expertise at this point is mainly the use of different imaging modalities combined with endogenous reporters to evaluate cell populations in the tendon, though I also have a lot of experience with in vitro tendon cell culture.

What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on using the GLAST-CreER reporter mouse to evaluate the several really interesting cell populations that I’ve identified in the epitenon through lineage tracing. Specifically, I’m trying to figure out which GLAST+ subpopulation is contributing to flexor tendon healing after acute injury. I’ve also been working on developing methods to image mouse tendons in situ using multiphoton microscopy to try and get a better handle on the spatial relationship between different cell populations during healing.

What has been the biggest challenge for you lately in your research?
The whole pandemic has been a bummer. Not being able to do the science has been a problem, but actually the part that I miss the most is having people around to talk to about different things and to bounce ideas off of. It’s really lonely to do science without people and the loss of the lab community has been difficult.

What project(s) are you looking forward to in the near future?
Right now, I’m working on performing single cell sequencing using the GLAST-CreER mice to try and map out, in a cell type-specific way how they are contributing to injury. I’m also working on generating some other, more sophisticated, genetic mouse models that will let me dig deeper into the function of GLAST cells. I’m excited to have identified a tool that we can use to better understand one of the lesser-understood tendon cell populations and am really looking forward to seeing this project unfold!

What advice would you give investigators who are just starting out in the field?
I think my biggest piece of advice is that it’s okay to not know everything. Even if you think that you do know something, don’t be afraid to question or challenge that knowledge and, maybe more importantly, how you know it.

When you’re not in the lab, what do you like to do for fun?
My husband and I are pretty outdoorsy people. We really like to hike and kayak. We also do a lot of DIY projects around the house. During the pandemic, I taught myself how to knit and have been doing that a lot as well. It’s a great stress relief activity.

What was the last book you read for fun and would you recommend it?
A Promised Land by Barack Obama. I would definitely recommend it- and would highly recommend the audio book version that he narrates. He talks a lot about life lessons and specifically about learning on the job, which I found very relatable. Even though he was on a completely different career path, he still struggled with a lot of the same things that people in academia struggle with including work-life balance. I thought it was really eye-opening and heartening to hear about that from someone so accomplished.

What is the most unusual/unexpected item sitting on your desk right now?
A dissected mouse foot, which might not actually be that unusual or unexpected.

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Twitter Handle (personal or lab): @aecnichols