New faculty profile: Claire Richardson studies neuronal aging using classical genetics

Claire Richardson joined the UW–Madison faculty in March 2021 as an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up mostly in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I went to college at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, then went to the biology department at MIT for my Ph.D. I did my postdoc at Stanford.

How did you get into your field of research?
I got into my field of research – molecular and cellular neuroscience – somewhat by chance. My interest in biology is so broad that I sometimes think I could be happy studying almost anything. On the other hand, I have been deliberate about choosing my main approach – classical genetics. I like doing genetics because it is like doing logic puzzles. From simple experiments in which we set up crosses and look at the phenotypes of the progeny, we can develop intricate models for how biology works. I have also been deliberate about choosing outstanding mentors and a field that is medically relevant and has a lot of open questions.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
The main goal of my current research is to understand the mechanisms which enable neurons to maintain homeostasis post-development, and what causes neuronal aging.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
There are several aspects of–UW Madison that attracted me. One is that I get to be in this genetics department – the range of research topics is so broad, but we all really dig genetics, and that feels like the ideal home for me as a scientist. Another is that UW–Madison is a research powerhouse for biomedical research in general, including topics related to my work like neuroscience, cell biology, and aging. A third important draw was that the graduate programs have a reputation for attracting excellent students.

What was your first visit to campus like?
My first visit was to interview for graduate school here many years ago. I don’t remember much from that visit except that there was talk of watching and/or joining in a polar bear plunge, but it was canceled due to the extreme cold. (I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.)

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope that by the end of one of my classes, my students feel capable of understanding and thinking critically about genetics-related stories in the news.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
My research is directed at understanding and disrupting the fundamental cell biology processes that underly aging in the brain. This is important because aging is the primary risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
I can’t think of anything that would make you sound smarter at a party, but here is something that will make everyone else feel dumber (or at least humbled by how little we all know): the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, one of the major “model organisms” in research, has 302 neurons. Its wiring circuit was completely mapped decades ago via electron microscopy. Having that map did not decipher how nematode behavior works, though it has helped inform hypotheses that are still being tested. Humans have tens of billions of neurons.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
Music, reading, and exploring.