Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at Hunter CollegeJill Wenger @ 2018-03-30 11:18:58 -0500
At what age did you decide to pursue academia as a career?
32. Maybe a little later age to make a career call. Science was always my choice for the future, but I did not really envision taking the academia route. While still doing my post doctorate work, I was offered a unique opportunity — a faculty position that was unlikely to come again. I didn’t feel totally ready and, while it took me a while to accept, I “opened and walked through that door”; teaching and pursuing my research at a public university could not be a better fit for me.
How did you narrow in on your field of study?
I studied mathematics and chemistry and received doctoral training as a cellular biologist. My interest focused on RNA biology after my doctoral thesis work on fluorescence technology development and my postdoctoral research on small RNAs. My research program continues to grow across interdisciplinary lines.
Please tell me about your research. (I asked Diana to explain as she would to a fellow professor. I recapped in laymen's terms.)
For the past decade, my laboratory has been developing approaches to help resolve the composition and functional roles of large RNA:protein complexes via visualization of the movement of RNAs and proteins within a living cell. To this end, we are interested in unveiling mechanisms, now hidden, of the many ways RNAs can regulate gene expression, including translational repression, RNA interference, and RNA storage and turnover.
Using the fruit fly as a model organism, we employ an interdisciplinary approach integrating genetic, molecular, biochemical, biophysical and chemical strategies, and engage in the development and advancement of imaging methods that enable unprecedented insights into the dynamic properties of RNAs.
However, our research on the lifecycle of intracellular nucleic acid informs a much wider range of topics than growth and development – from the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, to the development of pharmaceuticals targeting proteins to treat HIV infection.
Diana's lab is very cool. She has a small team of students breeding fruit flies. Thousands of them. In these giant temperature and moisture controlled refrigerators not used for cooling food. They use a table-sized microscope with Leica lens to visualize and make changes to the flies cells. They alter cells with a super fine glass nozzle that so small that it makes a needle look giant by comparison. The nozzle emits a slight amount of liquid, which is the amount of pressure needed to shift parts of the fruit flies cells, which impacts their biological makeup, including traits such as eye color, wing shape and body color. The focus of Diana's work is understanding the how-to process of changing cells and also what changes yield what results.
Why did you decide to have (or not have) children and how big or difficult of a decision was that for you?
Growing up I aspired to be three things: a scientist, an athlete and a mother (funny how being a ‘wife’ was not one of them). As I turned 40, two of these life goals have been checked off — having a career in science and being an endurance triathlete.
Making the decision to become a mother was, of course, momentous, but especially emotionally challenging as a single parent. Today I am the mother of boy and girl twins (3 1/2 years old), who have my heart and soul in the palms of their hands!
Many say to me that I was brave, courageous, and strong to go thru the IVF process, but I believe it as exercising my greatest right and being the most important result of my life’s aspirations and work.
What musicians are on your favorite playlist of the moment?
Sia, Passenger, Cat Power, Ben Howard, James Blunt, The Sleepthief. These certainly change depending on my mood.
Where do you get your daily news?
Closely following the news is not part of my daily routine. I enjoy reading the New Yorker — mostly in hardcopy and, when I have time, I skim the online Top Stories of the NYTimes.
What was the last series you binge watched?
“This is Us” — because the characters of the boy/girl twins, who are central to the storyline, really intrigued me. The intertwined and dynamic relationships between all other characters make for a heartwarming series and I closely identify with their struggles as a parent of multiples.
I’m a huge standup comedy fan. Proximity to the Comedy Cellar was a major reason I moved to NY. Any favorite comedians?
Trevor Noah, Ray Romano, and the late Robin Williams.
Sending you a link to Michelle Wolf. She's one of my current favorites and has a new HBO special.
What regret do you think our culture will have in 20 years related to the rise of the internet and social media?
A distinct loss of deep, personal connections. As a professor, I see how the impact on my students occurs in the physical classes and the lab, which does not exist when interacting via online courses. Many conversations that stem from physical presence do not occur.
What’s something new about yourself you’ve discovered in the last few years?
I have become a more patient person, something I would not have foreseen just a few years ago. I learned to expand my self-imposed limits and am now sometimes surprised by how much more I can handle and tolerate.
In what ways have you changed in the past decade?
After a cancer diagnosis in my 30s, I made sure that I could say that I chose my life and did not settle for it.
Do you have a purpose or specific passion that you’re dedicated to?
Being a good parent to my twins. Despite being a perfectionist, I know that being a parent is one job I cannot do perfectly, but one to which I am fully dedicated.
When it comes to how you react to and interact with others, what’s your rule of thumb?
I find my heart to be a big source of my intelligence and I interact with others through what they feel and value. I try to listen well.
What advice would you give your 16 year old self?
Well I immigrated to the U.S. from Romania when I was 16 — a tough age to enter a new country and culture and learn a new language. I experienced bullying first hand simply for not speaking English well. I would tell my young self to be bolder and not worry too much about what others think of me. And don’t worry about not being a typical American teenager.
What about your 30-year-old self?
Invest and cultivate more inner-self (mind and spirit) besides maintaining a strong body. Become financially literate and start saving for retirement!
Diana is wearing Roucha
Black Robe Coat with Elastic D-Ring Belt
Vintage Margiela Lurex Top
Black Button Front Dress
Black Pleated Pants with Drawstring Waist
Vintage Raf Simmons for Adidas Sneakers
Navy Robe Coat
Navy Deep V-Neck Tunic
Navy Printed Silk Backwards Turtleneck Blouse
Navy Pleated Pants with Drawstring Waist
Camel Robe Coat with Elastic D-Ring Belt
Nude Deep V-Neck Tunic (Coming Soon)
Vintage Dries Van Noten Blouse
On location in Diana's office
Photography by Charlie Schuck
Hair by Ezio Diaferia
Styling and Interview by me (Jill)