Lilianna Solnica-Krezel, Winner of 2023 Edwin G. Conklin Medal


By Brittany Truong

Former Society for Developmental Biology president (2018-2019) and renowned developmental biologist, Lilianna Solnica-Krezel, has been awarded the 2023 Edwin G. Conklin Medal for her extraordinary research contributions to the field of developmental biology and her exceptional mentorship. Affectionately called “The Zebrafish Lady” by her colleagues and former trainees alike, her enthusiasm for the powerful model is palpable.

“Once I saw my first zebrafish embryos, there was no way out. I fell in love and knew I would study zebrafish gastrulation,” she said.

Solnica-Krezel received her Ph.D. in Oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with William F. Dove in 1991 studying Physarum polycephalum, a slime mold. She then completed her postdoctoral training with Wolfgang Driever at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in 1995, where she helped pioneer one of the first two large-scale forward genetic screens for mutations affecting embryogenesis in zebrafish.

Currently, Solnica-Krezel is the head of the Department of Developmental Biology at Washington University School of Medicine and was the first female to hold this position. She is also a founding director of the Washington University Zebrafish Consortium, which provides aquatic infrastructure, peer support and networking opportunities for zebrafish researchers across Missouri.

For many years, Solnica-Krezel was inspired by the work of Raymond Keller, John Trinkaus, and Charles “Chuck” Kimmel, pioneers of the cell biological approach to embryonic morphogenesis. With over 150 publications to date, she is widely recognized for her work in understanding the cellular mechanisms underlying planar cell polarity (PCP) signaling, which revolutionized the field’s understanding of vertebrate morphogenesis. She also found that during gastrulation, cell movements are coordinated with embryo patterning, which then dictates cell fate specification.

Her favorite part about developmental biology is that it is a discipline driven by questions. “We are all interested in developmental processes. One day we are geneticists. Another day we are embryologists, genomicists, cell biologists. … We follow the questions. [For example], some people will say, ‘She’s a Wnt person' or ‘She’s a Bmp person,' but no, I am not. I am a gastrulation person. I study a process.”

Today, Solnica-Krezel still spends several hours each week looking at zebrafish embryos under the microscope, as her lab recently started conducting genetic screens for maternal-effect mutations affecting gastrulation.

“I love looking at embryos in the lab. It’s like being a pathologist – you need to keep your skills sharp. You have to continually look at embryos to be able to recognize the phenotypes,” she said.

In addition to zebrafish, her lab also uses human embryonic stem cells. She stressed that each model system brings something different to the table.

“That’s what we’ve tried to facilitate here [at Washington University]—for developmental biologists not to be limited to a single species,” she said. “Perhaps in one’s own lab or through collaborations, it is important to use different models because every model has advantages and limitations.”

Solnica-Krezel has mentored countless scientists, many of whom have gone on to start their own labs and mentor their own trainees. In letters of support, her colleagues and trainees emphasized that her commitment to mentorship is unparalleled. She is remembered as being hands-on, compassionate, honest, patient, generous, and a true advocate for women in science.

When asked about her mentoring philosophy, she explained, “It all starts with finding the right people—people who, I feel, are fascinated by the questions we are interested in and fascinated by gastrulation, and then really thinking about each person as an individual and trying to get to know every person in the lab. [I try to] understand what their goals, talents, and challenges are and find a way we can work best together.”

Solnica-Krezel acknowledged several mentors that were critical to her success, including her graduate school mentor, William F. Dove, who encouraged her to explore her own ideas, as well as her postdoc mentor, Wolfgang Driever, for creating a supportive environment and generously sharing the mutants found in the lab. She also recognized Brigid Hogan and Christopher Wright for their mentorship at Vanderbilt University, where she first began her lab.

“Brigid was my mentor and advocate. Both Brigid and Chris read practically every one of my early grants, and whatever they read was funded!”

Solnica-Krezel noted that she and her research group have overcome many obstacles and even failures over the years. “It’s about doing the research, not necessarily winning every day,” she said. “If something takes longer, we try different approaches and [remember] that we were able to overcome failures and challenges in the past. Therefore, we will find ways to overcome them moving forward.”

On receiving the Edwin G. Conklin Medal, Solnica-Krezel noted, “This was not an award for a single person. I really feel this award also recognizes the many broad contributions of the zebrafish field to developmental biology. The last zebrafish investigator who received the Conklin Medal was Chuck Kimmel, and that was 20 years ago! I feel like this isn’t just for me, but it’s for all of the colleagues with whom we screened for zebrafish mutants.”

“Of course, this award is also for members of my lab because every one of them contributed so much,” said Solnica-Krezel. “It takes a village. This is an award for the village.”

Solnica-Krezel will present her Conklin Medal lecture at the Society for Developmental Biology 82nd Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL.

Last Updated 06/15/2023