For Shirly Pinto, the race begins when the alarm goes off. From the moment I wake up, it's rush, rush, rush, says Pinto, a postdoctoral fellow in Jeffrey Friedman's lab. Before she heads off to work, Pinto has to make breakfast, pack lunch, and get her two kids ready for the day. It's a madhouse, she says. Pinto then drops one off at school, grabs a cup of coffee, and deposits the other in the day-care center at Rockefeller University—a service that, she says, has really saved her life.
When Pinto steps up to the bench, the clock is ticking. I have to get as much done as I possibly can in the limited hours I have, she says. She sets up her experiments and collects data before she leaves to pick up the kids. Happily, her husband, a surgeon with an even tighter schedule, cooks dinner. If it wasn't for my husband, we'd eat cereal every night, says Pinto. After the meal, she bathes the kids and puts them to bed, and then she takes care of the e-mail and data analyses she didn't have time for at work.
The next morning she starts all over again. But Pinto says it's worth the effort. She finds lab work creative, exciting, and even therapeutic. It really takes my mind off everything, she says. Working with your hands, you get into the groove of an experiment and don't think about anything else. And at the end of the day, there's data.
Well, not always. Sometimes you go for months with nothing to show for yourself, says Pinto. But somehow you go on. Pinto muddles through by remaining positive during the dead times and by trying to figure out how to get around the problem when things don't go well. You have to have good instincts, says Pinto—an ability to switch gears when one approach is not yielding results. Jeff is really good at that, she says, and I think we have all tried to learn that from him.
Pinto came to Rockefeller University from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she was working on her doctorate with geneticist Tim Tully. In the Tully lab, Pinto identified and studied a gene involved in learning and memory in the fruit fly Drosophila. As it happens, the gene also turned out to be involved in the coordination of events that take place when a cell divides. This unexpected finding led Pinto to appreciate the need to remain intellectually flexible. You can never predict what will happen, she says. Instead of sticking with your preformed ideas about the way things should be, you have to be ready to go wherever the biology takes you.
Friedman, she says, follows the same philosophy. Jeff is extraordinarily open-minded about new ideas, a quality that Pinto says makes him an amazing scientist. Friedman's willingness to move in new directions allowed Pinto to pursue a different sort of project—applying what she had learned in the fly lab to her studies of the weight-regulating hormone leptin.
When flies and other animals lay down memories, their brains get rewired. The connections between some neurons get shored up, while others are pared down. What Pinto learned in Friedman's lab is that leptin does the same thing. In mice that are obese because they lack leptin, the hormone rapidly rewires the brain, strengthening connections in neural circuits that suppress appetite and pruning connections in circuits that promote eating.
Pinto plans to continue her studies at Merck, a pharmaceutical company that is developing drugs to combat obesity. She was impressed by how the Merck scientists work together as a team. Working for a large corporation would also relieve Pinto of the need to write grants—a process she says can be very time-consuming—and leave her with more time to design experiments. It seems suited for my lifestyle, says Pinto.
She'll miss the Friedman lab, of course. Jeff has attracted a lot of good people. And I have really good friends in the lab. But with Merck in nearby New Jersey, at least she'll get to stay near New York. It's the best city in the world, says Pinto, who—in her spare time—enjoys taking the kids to the playgrounds in Central Park and training for the New York City marathon by running along the East River. I visited here with my family when I was in high school, says Pinto, who was born in Israel. And I knew that this is where I wanted to be.
© 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A philanthropy serving society through biomedical research and science education.