New faculty profile: Daniela Drummond-Barbosa explores physiological regulation of stem cell lineages

Daniela Drummond-Barbosa joined the UW–Madison faculty in September 2022 as a professor in the Department of Genetics.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Los Angeles, California, and raised in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where my entire extended family lives.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I received my Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and immunology from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil. I next moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to join the genetics graduate program at Yale University. I did my postdoctoral training in the Department of Embryology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (now Carnegie Institution for Science). In 2002, I joined the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center as a tenure-track assistant professor. Owing to personal reasons, in 2009, I relocated my lab to the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, becoming a tenured professor in 2016. In 2022, I accepted a new joint position as professor in the Department of Genetics at UW–Madison and investigator in the Morgridge Institute for Research and relocated by lab as of July 1.

What is your general area of study/expertise? And how did you get into your field of research?
My general area of study is the physiological regulation of stem cell lineages (and of reproduction), and my lab uses the fruit fly, a powerful genetic model organism, to investigate fundamental biological questions in this area. I have always had a personal interest in how diet (and exercise) can affect our health and well-being and became fascinated with physiology after taking a human physiology class in college. In another class later in college, I was exposed to and developed an interest in the growth factor field (fairly new at the time), so I chose to do my Ph.D. research with Dr. Daniel DiMaio on the interaction between the bovine papillomavirus E5 protein and the platelet-derived growth factor receptor in mammalian cells. During graduate school, I was exposed to cutting edge research using the fruit fly model and was in awe of how powerful genetic approaches can identify specific genes and entire pathways that truly matter in an intact living organism. I was particularly impressed at the time by the papers I read describing how curiosity-driven genetic screens had identified for the first time multiple genetic pathways controlling embryogenesis (i.e. development from a newly fertilized egg to a segmented larva, in the case of fruit flies). Remarkably, those same genes and pathways first identified in those screens turned out to be highly evolutionarily conserved all the way to humans and they control development and many other biological processes across organisms. Notably, many of those same genes first identified in flies, when mutated or deregulated, cause developmental disorders and other diseases, including cancers. Those fundamental discoveries led to unprecedented advances in many other basic and clinical research areas and were recognized by a Nobel Prize in 1995. Inspired by how much can be discovered using fruit flies, I did my postdoctoral training with Allan Spradling in the Department of Embryology at the Carnegie Institution. There I developed a new field using fruit flies to investigate adult stem cell regulation by diet and established the foundation for my independent research program.

What are the main goals of your current research and outreach programs?
My lab’s research focuses on identifying the metabolic and physiological mechanisms that link the behavior of stem cell lineages to diet, stress, and other systemic inputs using the germline stem cell lineage of Drosophila melanogaster as a model system. Over the past ~20 years, we identified specific roles for insulin and other known diet-dependent pathways, nuclear receptors, and adipocyte factors in linking diet to germline behavior, highlighting the complexity of the physiological network that modulates the germline stem cell lineage. More recently, we found that chronic exposure of adult Drosophila females to warm or cold temperatures leads to significant reduction in rates of egg production through distinct cellular mechanisms, providing a conceptual framework for investigating the effects of temperature and climate change on insect reproduction. The main goals of our current research are: 1) To figure out how diet, physiological factors and metabolism are integrated for proper control of stem cell lineages; 2) to understand the connection between obesity, unhealthy diets, and reduced fertility; 3) to determine the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the effects of temperature on the germline stem cell lineage.

What was your first visit to campus like?
The weather was cold (but pleasant) and everyone I met was warm, welcoming, and had interesting things to share.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope they appreciate how important it is to truly understand and question new information, as opposed to simply memorizing it, and that they feel excited about always learning more.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
I have been training graduate students, postdocs, undergraduates, and high school students through laboratory research for the past ~20 years. Regardless of whether my trainees pursue careers as scientists or otherwise, they learn valuable and transferable skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, which helps them contribute in a positive way to society.

The pandemic forced us all to reconsider many things we took for granted. Is there something you’ve learned that has helped you through these challenging times, personally or professionally?
I learned that it is really important to have a job that you love to help you cope with personal difficulties. This full realization prompted me to go in the job market, find my dream job at UW–Madison and the Morgridge Institute for Research, and relocate my lab to Madison this past July.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
The fruit fly is a very powerful genetic model system to learn about the fundamental ways in which all cells, organs and organisms, including us, work. In our research, we take advantage of this powerful organism to study how a small number of stem cells in the fruit fly ovaries manage to work in perfect coordination with diet, hormones, and other environmental and physiological factors to adjust how many cells (e.g. eggs) they produce depending on the specific conditions. What we learn can inform us about how many other types of stem cells across many organisms are controlled.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I enjoy reading, cooking, spending time with my family, and different types of physical activity. For example, I love hiking, running outdoors, practicing yoga, indoor biking and rowing, and other strengthening exercises. Since coming to Madison, I have been developing a taste for CrossFit.