Down the wormhole: an interview with Zoë Hilbert

Zoë Hilbert is a PhD student at MIT, where she studies neuronal gene expression in the roundworm, C. elegans.
Zoë Hilbert
Zoë Hilbert. Image credit: Jeff Morgan.

Did science fascinate you from a young age?

Absolutely. I’ve always been very prone to asking a lot of questions, and I think that my curiosity made me gravitate towards science. I had a series of really fantastic teachers in elementary school who also helped to cement my love for science through activities like dissecting owl pellets and squid.

When did you decide you wanted to pursue a PhD?

Recently I discovered a pretend resume that I made for myself when I was 13. In this resume, I predicted that I would have a PhD in “Genetic Engineering” from Caltech, so you could say that I decided very early on that this was the path I would pursue (although I didn’t get the specifics quite right)! In reality though, I think it was my first research experience in a biology lab after my freshman year of college that made me realize how much I loved being involved in making discoveries in the lab. This convinced me that a PhD was the way to go.

What are you studying for your PhD?

I study how the expression of a gene for a neuroendocrine signalling molecule called DAF-7 is regulated in roundworms, and how changes in the expression of this gene influence animal behaviour. It turns out that the daf-7 gene regulates several similar but distinct behaviours, and that its expression is influenced by many different factors. This has led to some really interesting biology but we still have a lot more to understand, which has been a really fun rabbit hole to go down.

What did you find out about DAF-7 in the paper you recently published in eLife?

We found that the daf-7 gene is expressed differently in the sensory neurons of the two sexes of C. elegans and that this difference is critical for males to perform a form of decision-making behaviour known as mate-searching. We also found that the release of DAF-7 is regulated by a number of factors – including age, hunger and bacteria in the external environment – in a way that allows the animal to prioritize and alter its behaviour depending on its past and current experiences.

Why is this an exciting finding?

All of this happens at the level of sensory neurons, which we normally think of as just receivers of information and not so much as processing centres. Our work suggests that sensory neurons may be more important as integrators of many different stimuli than we thought.

How are you following up on the results of your eLife paper?

I’m currently looking into a couple of genes that we think might influence how daf-7 is expressed in males. We’re hoping that some of these genes might give us a sense of how all this information gets communicated to the sensory neurons where daf-7 is expressed, but it’s still too early to say. I also have a side project looking at natural genetic variation in C. elegans and how it influences gene expression in neurons.

What has been your favourite moment in the lab?

Making the Kim Lab video! A former grad student in the lab used to make videos every couple of years, and we’d all spend a day shooting it and just having fun around the lab.

And the most discouraging?

I can’t think of a particular discouraging moment. I’ve definitely had my share of failed experiments or confusing results, but I try to not let them get to me too much.

Who or what has most influenced your career so far?

So many people! I had some great high school science teachers, who continually encouraged me to keep asking questions. My first research mentor, Brian Kay, and the research assistant I worked with in his lab, Sang Thai, took a chance on me as an undergrad with zero research experience and really were the ones that sparked my interest in biology research. They also gave me a great foundation in molecular biology that has been essential in my graduate career. And of course, my PhD advisor, Dennis Kim, who has helped me become a more fully formed, rigorous and independent scientist and whose endless enthusiasm and curiosity has, I hope, rubbed off on me a little.

In your opinion, what single change would most improve the way that science is done today?

I think the move towards predominantly open access publishing is definitely going to change and improve the way science is done. Having access to information and also having forums for open and honest feedback from peers both in the same field and in related fields is definitely a positive move in my eyes – hopefully this trend will continue!

To give us an idea of what your working day is like, please tell us what you got up to yesterday. Was this a typical working day?

A typical day at work for me usually involves a mix of “worm husbandry”, microscope time, and molecular biology. Yesterday I picked a bunch of worms from a cross I had set up and also did some cloning to hopefully be able to make some new transgenic strains. I also spent some time looking at worms under a fluorescent microscope to get a sense of how they’re expressing the gene I’m interested in. While I was working on my eLife paper, I also spent a lot of time doing behavioural assays but I’m currently not doing as much of that.

What are your main interests outside of science?

So many! I play the oboe in an orchestra here at MIT, and the piano as much as I can find time for. I also do a lot of cooking, reading, running and hiking when I’m not in the lab and I love a good craft project when I can find the time!

If you could travel back in time to when you started your PhD, what advice would you give yourself?

Two things. Be patient! It seems simple, but it has applied to so much of what has been challenging for me in grad school. And stay organized. I’ve found that everything goes so much more smoothly if my plans/thoughts/reagents/everything is organized in some fashion.

I should note that I’m still working on taking this advice myself…

And if you could travel five years into the future, what would you hope to find yourself doing?

I hope I’m still doing science! There are so many questions in biology that I’m interested in tackling, so I hope to be actively working on some of those, either as a postdoc or potentially as an independent scientist.

What would we be surprised to learn about you?

Despite my early interest in science, I seriously considered a career as an oboist. I auditioned for music conservatories in my senior year of high school, before ultimately deciding to go to Columbia and pursue music as more of a hobby than a profession.

What is your favourite science joke?

I tried really hard to find a science/biology joke that I liked, but they just all made me cringe. I’d welcome any suggestions of actually funny jokes!

Zoë Hilbert CV

  • 2012 – present: PhD Candidate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
  • 2008 – 2012: Bachelor of Arts in Biochemistry, Columbia University, USA