Interview with 2024 Society for Developmental Biology Conklin Medalist Chris Doe


by Samantha Stettnisch

“Philosophically, the most important problems of biology are those which concern the origin of a new individual, the genesis of a living organism” -E. G. Conklin, 1896.

A true embodiment of this tenet, renowned developmental biologist and neuroscientist, Chris Doe, Professor of Biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at the University of Oregon, has been awarded the 2024 Edwin G. Conklin Medal from the Society for Developmental Biology for his outstanding research contributions to the field of developmental neurobiology and his exemplary mentorship of the next generation of scientists. Doe’s impressive body of work stems from a lifelong passion for biology and a desire to demystify the wonders of our natural world. His lab studies neural development in Drosophila.

Doe explained, “We study how the nervous system is assembled, how the different parts are assigned their unique identity so they can assemble into unique circuits which control our behavior.” Research throughout the years has uncovered many clues as to how neurons differentiate and how different circuits control behavior.

“How do the neurons know to connect up in the proper way to form the right circuits?” Doe identified this gap between differentiated neurons and properly developed circuits as the focus of his lab, and one of the big mysteries of the neuroscience field currently.

“Our hope is that if we understand how neurons are made and how they wire up into circuits using what instructions they have, we can then take naive neurons . . . and drive them into the appropriate neuron for neural replacements. Spinal cord transections, Parkinson’s disease, things where neurons are missing or don’t function properly.”

This passion for unraveling scientific mysteries started when Doe was just six years old, in a world quite removed from his current research area. He fondly recalls watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau on TV each week. “The combination of Jacques Cousteau and [interning at] the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration really solidified my interest in biology and marine biology in particular,” he said.

So how did he make the jump from the marvels of The Undersea World to fly neurons? Doe explained how graduate school at Stanford allowed him to dabble in many areas, including a rotation in a plant biology lab. “I could have been a perfectly acceptable marine biologist or a plant biologist. I’m pretty enthusiastic about science questions in general. But then neuroscience, the combination of beauty like Ramon and Cajal’s drawings and important unanswered questions really attracted me.”

When asked about the most exciting part of his research, Doe cited the success of his mentees. He said, “What’s most exciting to me is watching my mentees come to me with a really cool result. I like to support them . . . and I get more joy out of seeing them succeed or finding a cool new result than pretty much any other aspect of my job.”

Doe’s penchant for mentorship cannot be overstated. He has trained a slew of graduate and undergraduate students, as well as postdocs, with a vast majority of them moving on to head their own labs or work in other scientific spaces. A recurrent theme that emerges when these trainees speak about Doe is that his mentorship extends far beyond their time in the lab. 

Doe Lab 2022 (left to right): Chris Doe, Aref Zarin,  Mubarak Hussain Syed, Matthew Clark, Ellie Hecksher, Yves Chabu, Clemens Cabernard, Cheng-Yu Lee, Jocelyn McDonald, Eric Spana

Doe Lab in 2022 (left to right): Chris Doe, Aref Zarin,  Mubarak Hussain Syed, Matthew Clark, Ellie Hecksher, Yves Chabu, Clemens Cabernard, Cheng-Yu Lee, Jocelyn McDonald, Eric Spana.

Doe said of his trainees, “They’re part of the Doe lab for life . . . I will always be looking out for them in the following years. It doesn’t end after Ph.D., it doesn’t end after a job acquisition, it keeps going.” He joked, “It does tend to make things a bit crowded before the NIH deadlines.”

In addition to a steadfast mentor, Doe is a big proponent of collaboration within the field. Colleagues explain that in a space where there could be fierce competition, Doe instead opts to collaborate by talking often, exchanging manuscripts, and supporting each other’s trainees. “My strategy is to collaborate and coordinate. I love the idea of pushing science forward as fast as possible,” Doe said.

Chris Doe’s tattoo of an asymmetrically dividing neuroblast.

Chris Doe’s tattoo of an asymmetrically dividing neuroblast.

Doe and I discussed the kismet surrounding his receipt of the Edwin G. Conklin medal. “When I was an undergraduate . . .  I worked on spiralian developing snails that are full of asymmetric cell divisions. And Conklin worked on these as well as the tunicates that he is super famous for. And so I knew Conklin’s work from the first semester I was an undergraduate.”

He continued, “I feel just really lucky that I have good people that nominated me and it all worked out because that’s been in my science mind, Conklin and this compatriot of his, William Wheeler who discovered and named the first neuroblast in insects. Those two guys, Conklin and Wheeler . . . have been in my mind my entire career.”

If anyone ever questioned Doe’s dedication to his craft, they need only ask to see his asymmetric cell division tattoo. Designed by his sister who is a graphic artist, and tattooed by one of his sons, the tattoo is a neuroblast dividing asymmetrically and was derived from a figure in his very first paper in Developmental Biology in 1985.

For those interested in hearing more about the highlights of his research and mentorship careers, Doe will present his Conklin Medal lecture at the Society for Developmental Biology 83rd Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA.

Last Updated 06/11/2024