It's not unusual for both halves of a two-scientist couple to work in the same field, and it can be a painful dilemma to forge parallel but separate careers.
But Michael Crickmore and Dragana Rogulja, both postdoctoral researchers at Rockefeller University in New York City, credit much of their success to their partnership. In their art-filled Manhattan apartment, conversations flow effortlessly from practical family matters to the latest art exhibition to the experiments they're working on.
During those conversations, they work out many of their scientific ideas -- ideas that they hope will propel them into labs of their own someday. "We're on the same team," Crickmore says.
Photo (top): Michael Crickmore and Dragana Rogulja traveled to Stockholm in December where Crickmore received the 2009 GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists. (Courtesy, Michael Crickmore)
Crickmore, 32, and Rogulja, 34, met in early 2001 at Rutgers University when they both started working in the lab of developmental biologist Kenneth Irvine. It was not love at first sight. In fact, they say they were too busy getting their bearings to really even notice each other.
Crickmore had recently graduated from the University of Delaware, where he says he was "a bad student." A brooding musician and frequent dart player, he didn't feel sufficiently stimulated by his biochemistry major to spend much time on it, he says. "I was really bored in classes, especially the labs, repeating experiments that had been done 40 years ago." But after he graduated, he needed a job, so he sent out his resume to hundreds of labs around the country. The only one he got an offer from was Irvine's. So he moved to New Jersey to become a technician.
Rogulja's path to Irvine's lab was quite different. She grew up in Belgrade, where, in the mid-1990s, she found herself unenthusiastically pursuing a degree in pharmacy. "The economic situation was really bad," she says, and she yearned to get away. With the help of an uncle in New Jersey, she moved to the United States in 1998 to finish her undergraduate degree at Rutgers. For her student job, she worked in the lab of molecular biologist Konstantin Severinov, authoring several papers on the mechanisms of transcription in microorganisms.
She loved the work, so she decided to stay on for graduate school. She figured she would have a running start and could finish quickly. However, she was surprised to find herself seduced by the research in Irvine's lab during her graduate rotations. "He knew how to ask really good questions," she says.
Irvine's lab worked with Drosophila melanogaster, commonly known as the fruit fly. In genetics research, the fruit fly is more a technology than a living organism. By examining the effects of mutations in the fruit fly's DNA, researchers have gained insights into everything from aging to addiction. In Irvine's lab, Rogulja settled on an experimental program investigating how genes control the size of developing tissues.
Eventually, she published strong, direct evidence for the so-called gradient model, which posits that it's not just the concentration of signaling molecules called morphogens, but also how precipitously they drop in concentration as they travel from their source, that regulates growth. "What her experiments did is to give us a real example and a molecular idea of how this could work," Irvine says. "I think that people are still appreciating the significance."
When Crickmore first started as a technician in Irvine's lab, he wasn't very enthusiastic about the fruit fly, and both he and Rogulja agree that he was as bad a technician as he had been a student. "I ruined some of Dragana's early experiments," he says. Rogulja adds, "He was making some solutions for me, and they were just all contaminated." But that didn't stop the two from striking up a friendship and then a romance. At first, they talked more about their love of music and art than about science. Over time, however, Crickmore became more interested in Rogulja's work and soon found himself infected by her passion for scientific inquiry. "That's when I really realized what science was about," he says. Within a year of starting as a technician in Irvine's lab, he was applying for graduate school.
Common research interests
Because of his poor undergraduate record, Crickmore was surprised when he was accepted to Columbia University, where he started in the fall of 2002. He didn't intend to work on Drosophila there; in fact, he had his heart set on neuroscience. But neuroscience proved so popular among the graduate students that he couldn't persuade any of the professors to take him on. Instead, he ended up in the lab of Richard Mann, a top Drosophila researcher and a friend of Irvine's.
The questions about size from Rogulja's research still fascinated him. Why, for example, does the pinky finger grow smaller than the middle finger? Why does the arm grow shorter than the leg? For that matter, why do the arms grow the same size? Drosophila -- and in particular its hind wing, which is much smaller than the forewing -- seemed like a good model organism to use to explore these questions. It turned out that the molecules Rogulja studied -- the ones that formed gradients -- were critical to making the hind wing smaller, Crickmore says. "This was some of the first evidence for how nature goes in and changes the sizes of structures, and the interesting thing is that these molecules do the same things in humans as they do in flies." (Crickmore recently won the 2009 GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists for his essay on this research.)
Converging research interests would become a recurring theme in Crickmore and Rogulja's life together. When Rogulja finished her Ph.D. in 2006, she decided she wanted to try her hand at Crickmore's original interest: neuroscience. She also wanted to move to New York City, where she could be closer to Crickmore; they had been spending only 3 days a week together since he had left New Jersey to start graduate school at Columbia. Fortunately, she landed a postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University in the laboratory of Michael Young, who studies circadian rhythms. The couple married and moved in to Rockefeller's student housing, just steps from Rogulja's lab.
In her postdoctoral research, Rogulja is using the fruit fly to elucidate the genetics of sleep regulation, a topic related to circadian rhythms and one that interests her personally. "I have some kind of weird sleep patterns where I'll fall asleep easily but then I'll wake up throughout the night, and that always kind of drove me crazy," she says.
When Crickmore graduated from Columbia in 2007, he also got a postdoctoral position in neuroscience at Rockefeller, in the neurogenetics and behavior laboratory of Leslie Vosshall (a former student of Young's). In looking for a position, he had pitched his idea to many lab heads: He wanted to use Drosophila to study "what drive is," such as the drive to eat, have sex, and, yes, sleep.
About this time, a new drive appeared in their personal lives: Rogulja was ready to start a family, and Crickmore "was very receptive to it," Rogulja says. In mid-2008, their son Cyril was born. Once he could sleep through the night, he seemed to slip effortlessly into the rhythm of their lives. Crickmore would take him to the nearby Rockefeller daycare in the morning on the way to his lab. They would pick him up together in the afternoon on their way home. "I feel like I'm more efficient now," Rogulja says.
Even as their research interests have converged, Crickmore and Rogulja have tried to keep their careers and professional identities separate. They decided, for example, not to include each other as co-authors on their papers even though "we easily could have been," Crickmore says. "Dragana reads my manuscripts more than my boss." It's not rivalry, they say: They simply think they can help each other more if they keep some distance. "My secret weapon is that Dragana is both my adviser and my postdoc," Crickmore says. They even have complementary traits, they say: Crickmore obsesses over the details of problems whereas Rogulja likes to zoom out to see the big picture.
Crickmore and Rogulja both hope to run their own labs someday, perhaps soon, but they worry that it will be difficult to find a situation that works for both. Their plan is simple: For both to do research that's important enough that universities will want to offer them both jobs. "What other plan could you have?" Crickmore asks. "You have to have some kind of blind confidence that everything is just going to work out."
Chelsea Wald is a science reporter in New York City.