JUSTL participant: Dr Penny Pui Ying Lam

21 May 2020

Dr Penny Pui Ying Lam is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Professor Randall Peterson in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Utah. She graduated with an MPhil from the Department of Biology, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 2007 where she studied the role of calcium signalling in early kidney development using zebrafish embryos as a model system. She then moved to the US, where she worked at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for 19 months as a Research Technologist, before starting her PhD studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr Lam joined the Cellular and Molecular Biology graduate programme and worked in the laboratory of Professor Anna Huttenlocher. Her PhD dissertation examined cell signalling and the regulation of the cytoskeleton during the migration of neutrophils and macrophages in vivo, again using zebrafish as her animal model.

Current Work

Working in Professor Randall Peterson’s laboratory at the University of Utah, Dr Lam continues to use zebrafish as they are highly suited to imaging due to their transparency during the first few days of development. Her current research involves discovering and developing novel chemo-optogenetic tools using an in vivo small molecule screening approach. Optogenetic/chemo-optogenetic tools and techniques have been developed over the last decade. This approach allows for the use of light to manipulate cell activities and biological processes with high spatial and temporal resolution. Dr Lam’s work has resulted in the development of a tunable chemo-optogenetic system based on a high-conductance cation channel, zTrpa1b, coupled to photo-activatable channel ligands that include optovin and a number of its analogues. Using zebrafish embryos, Dr Lam has demonstrated that zTrpa1b/optovin can be used for the light-dependent activation of sensory neurons as well as the light-dependent manipulation of the heart beat rate. Eventually, Dr Lam would like to combine the chemo-optogenetic tools she is currently developing to investigate the signalling regulation of immune cells.

JUSTL Programme

Dr Lam was a PhD student when she joined the JUSTL programme in 2011. She contacted Drs Clare M Waterman and Robert Fischer (NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute) who she knew were also interested in elucidating the role of the cytoskeleton in the migration of cells, and they became her JUSTL mentors. During her time at the MBL, Dr Lam used high-speed spinning disk confocal microscopy to investigate F-actin dynamics and actomyosin contraction during pseudopod retraction in migrating neutrophils. After the JUSTL programme ended, Dr Lam (and Professor Huttenlocher) continued the collaboration with Drs Waterman and Fischer, and published several papers together.

Dr Lam says that the JUSTL programme was “a great experience because it was a very friendly, encouraging, and diverse environment for science….I was immersed in a wide range of science through attending open lectures such as from the Physiology course, Embryology course and Friday Evening Lectures series…I was able to meet many scientists from different fields….. At the same time, I did experiments, which eventually led to several publications. So, overall I found it to be an eye-opening experience.”

..the interaction and discussions of science and non-science-related topics with students from all over the world [..] were very stimulating and enjoyable.

In addition to keeping in touch with her mentors, Dr Lam has kept in contact with several other people who she met during her time at the MBL, especially people who she met when she attended the Physiology course lectures. In fact, she just recently met up with two of these scientists in Utah. In addition, she meets old friends at conferences and she attended an MBL reunion during a recent ASCB meeting, so Dr Lam found the JUSTL programme to be great for networking.

During the Physiology classes, there was an introduction to different types of microscopy, and the students had the opportunity to try different microscopes and other equipment. With this hands-on experience, Dr Lam found that the spinning disc confocal microscope was particularly suited to the research that she was doing for her PhD studies where she was imaging highly motile immune cells in vivo. Professor Huttenlocher subsequently acquired a spinning disc confocal microscope for her own laboratory, and Dr Lam helped her select the best system to purchase for their experiments. Furthermore, three articles describing work that resulted from the collaboration initiated during the JUSTL programme were published in Developmental Cell*, Developmental Biology** and Methods in Molecular Biology***.

Overall, Dr Lam found the JUSTL programme to be a fantastic experience. In the report prepared at the end of her time at the MBL, she wrote that “the interaction and discussions of science and non-science-related topics with students from all over the world [..] were very stimulating and enjoyable” and “renowned scientists with different expertise gave lectures everyday on various topics and shared with us their insights into various biological problems [..] it was an excellent working and learning environment.”

*Tsai TYC, Collins SR, Chan CK, Hadjitheodorou A, Lam PY, Lou SS, Yang HW, Jorgensen J, Ellett F, Irimia D, Davidson MW, Fischer RS, Huttenlocher A, Meyer T, Ferrell JE Jr, Theriot JA. (2019). Efficient front-rear coupling in neutrophil chemotaxis by dynamic myosin II localization. Developmental Cell. 49(2):189-205.

**Fischer RS, Lam PY, Huttenlocher A, Waterman CM. (2019). Filopodia and focal adhesions: An integrated system driving branching morphogenesis in neuronal pathfinding and angiogenesis. Developmental Biology 451(1):86-95. doi: 10.1016/j.ydbio.2018.08.015.

***Lam PY, Fischer RS, Shin WD, Waterman CM, Huttenlocher A. (2014). Spinning disk confocal imaging of neutrophil migration in zebrafish. Methods in Molecular Biology. 1124:219-33. doi: 10.1007/978-1-62703-845-4_14.