Deborah J. Andrew named Society for Developmental Biology’s 2024 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient


By: Prableen Chowdhary

Deborah J. Andrew, the Bayard Halstead Professor in Cell Biology at Johns Hopkins University, is the recipient of the 2024 Developmental Biology – Society for Developmental Biology Lifetime Achievement Award. Andrew has made pioneering discoveries on how transcription factors regulate cell differentiation during organogenesis through her work to understand salivary gland development in Drosophila.

In an interview in March, Andrew shared she has had a rich and deep relationship with science since childhood. Her maternal grandfather and many of his siblings worked at the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island in Central Florida, where they raised their families. Andrew had once aspired to “go up in a spaceship” as a young adult – a fitting endeavor inspired by her alma mater Astronaut High School in Titusville, FL. She was ultimately discouraged from this career path following the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

When Andrew was just four years old and the oldest of four siblings, her father committed suicide. This left a lasting impact on her life which she spoke about in her speech at the dedication of her professorship.

Her mother ultimately remarried, bringing two younger half-siblings into the picture. When Andrew was just 23 years old, her mother passed of breast cancer, leaving her as the primary caregiver for her two youngest sisters, ages 16 and 12 at the time. So, Andrew brought them along to graduate school and raised them while concurrently working towards her degrees.

“I can’t say I did a stellar job,” she said with a smile. “That’s not to say they didn’t turn out okay, but I didn’t have any qualifications.”

Andrew earned a Bachelor’s degree in freshwater ecology from the University of Central Florida. While there, she took a genetics class with David Kuhn and got very excited about the subject.

“Genetics was more logical than it was memorization… it was the first time science really made sense to me,” Andrew said.

She pursued her M.S. in Kuhn’s lab and ultimately “got hooked on flies.” Andrew went on to get her Ph.D. in molecular genetics at the University of California, San Diego followed by postdoctoral research in developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder (then Stanford University due to lab move) before joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins in 1993.

During her Master’s degree, Andrew worked on what turned out to be a Hox protein, and her interest in developmental biology quickly ensued.

“I’d always been interested in the question of ‘how does a single cell that looks approximately like nothing turn into [so much more]? How do all the cells specialize? How are they all in the right place? It’s a pretty amazing process.”

Drosophila embryonic salivary glands. Salivary gland nuclei (red); Apical surface marker (green). (Credit: Deborah Andrew)

Figure 1: Drosophila embryonic salivary glands. Salivary gland nuclei (red); Apical surface marker (green). (Credit: Deborah Andrew)

Andrew used that curiosity to drive her work on the fly salivary gland for the past 31 years, which was motivated largely by her postdoc research with the Hox gene Sex combs reduced (Scr) that functions in cephalic and thoracic development (Fig. 1). She wanted to further understand the downstream targets of Scr and thus focused on an Scr-dependent organ—the salivary gland. Andrew’s lab is intrigued by “the decision to be—or not be—a salivary gland” and which transcription factors and signaling pathways govern this cell fate specification. Many efforts in the lab have been directed toward identifying and characterizing the roles of the downstream effector molecules in salivary gland specification, as well as studying the mechanism by which the salivary gland becomes specialized for secretion.

Recent advances in Andrew’s work led her to explore the mosquito salivary gland (Fig. 2). One of the lab’s transcription factors of interest is expressed almost exclusively in the salivary gland, and, when knocked down, causes massive apoptotic death in that tissue. The mosquito orthologue of this transcription factor is also almost exclusively expressed in the salivary gland and naturally led to questions about mosquito-borne diseases. In malaria, for example, sporozoites—the infectious form of the parasite—first invade the mosquito salivary gland. Bites from mosquitoes and subsequent secretions from their salivary glands cause transmission, thereby making this process an attractive target for disease prevention.

Anopheles female salivary gland showing different lobes. DAPI (blue, nuclei); WGA (yellow, O-GlcNAcylated proteins and chitin). (Credit: Deborah Andrew)

Figure 2: Anopheles female salivary gland showing different lobes. DAPI (blue, nuclei); WGA (yellow, O-GlcNAcylated proteins and chitin). (Credit: Deborah Andrew)

Aside from the research itself, Andrew is passionate about teaching younger scientists. For her, watching the transformation process of a student’s skillset is one of the most rewarding parts of her work. “I see them not really understanding how to do very much when they get there, but by the time you’re done, they are your colleagues,” she said.

Andrew also still enjoys spending time at the bench, which allows her to connect strongly with her students. When asked about her mentorship philosophy, she said, “I love doing it. And I think that makes the biggest difference.”

What Andrew loves most about developmental biology is the methodologies required to work in the field – from molecular biology and microscopy to classical and new genetics like CRISPR-Cas9. “Developmental biology is an area where you can take every tool that’s out there and put it to work. And I love the visuals,” she said.

Her biggest challenges—like many other researchers—have been the ebbs and flows of having students, funding, and, more rarely, having both simultaneously. “The important thing is, if you care about what you’re doing, just keep doing it,” she said.

Despite the obstacles and, at times, uncertain nature of the work, Andrew is extremely fulfilled by where her career has taken her. When asked what she would do if she had unlimited time, money, and resources, she said, “I would do exactly what I’m doing now.”

Last Updated 07/01/2024