Visitor of the Week: Jordan Becker


Meet Jordan Becker of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Jordan recently joined Reuben Harris’ lab as a postdoc after earning his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison last October. He received the Uta von Schwedler Prize last year and returned again this year – his third, consecutive Retroviruses meeting – to present a talk titled "Subcellular distribution of APOBEC3 proteins regulate interactions with and restriction of HIV-1".

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
Viruses are the world's best cellular biologists: they are amazing at learning how to manipulate their hosts. Much in that way, I'm a cellular biologist who has used viruses to understand how cells function and how viruses hijack, avoid, or remove cellular factors. More specifically, I study viral RNA trafficking, interactions with cellular RNA-binding proteins, and how a family of nucleic acid mutating enzymes (APOBEC3 proteins) lead to viral mutation and evolution.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
I completed my PhD with Nathan Sherer and became adept at fluorescence microscopy to, literally, observe how fluorescent versions of viral and cellular proteins and RNAs move in cells. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and seeing where things are in cells and how viruses can mess that up are powerful. However, being able to quantify those images and support my observations with traditional biochemical methods (e.g. blots, PCR, infectivity assays) is even more powerful. To be fair I like the way I study RNA trafficking just as much as the field and results themselves.

How did your scientific journey begin? 
Prior to beginning   my PhD, I worked first as an undergraduate researcher then as a technician in a cancer immunology lab with Douglas McNeel. I processed blood samples and performed functional immune assays from clinical trials in prostate cancer patients. I enjoyed working with translational/clinical samples that could inform patient health as well as tell us about cancer immunology. More than that, I really learned to love the academic environment with great graduate students, postdocs, fellows, and my first mentor Doug. His lab was a place where happy people thought about interesting ideas; and as I've worked in other labs, I have always found broad curiosity and interesting/creative ideas to be one of the most important features of a lab! That was the case with Nate Sherer and my graduate lab coworkers, and it continues in my new lab with Reuben Harris. 

Was there something specific about the Retroviruses meeting that drew you to attend?
The retrovirus community is intense but also quite friendly. The CSHL Retroviruses meeting is an amazing venue to both incite and settle controversies – some again and again. Science is iterative and by knowing the history of the field and returning to interesting ideas we can gain insight into what has been done right and what can be done better.

What is your key takeaway from the meeting? 
For me, the key takeaway is it’s time to take imaging of HIV RNA trafficking and RNA-binding proteins to a new level. There’s definitely an expectation or hope to keep trying new experiments in more relevant cell types and with diverse viral strains. I’ll see how that goes!

What did you pick up or learn from the meeting that you plan to apply to your work?  
I really enjoyed the recent fluorescent microscopy performed by the Markus Thali lab using lightsheet microscopy to image HIV-1 lymphocytes over long periods of time, and work by Collin Kieffer using multiscale imaging techniques to look at sites HIV-1 assembly in humanized mice. I'm always excited of new ways to look deeper and see more.  

If someone curious in attending a future iteration of this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
Come, bring your data and love for virology (and coffee and beer). The scientists who attend this meeting are all incredibly friendly, creative, brilliant, and always willing to settle disagreements over a beer.

How many CSHL meetings have you attended?
This is my third CSHL meeting – all Retroviruses (2016, 2017, and 2018). 

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
CSHL is like going to summer camp. You're here, you're not going anywhere else, and you meet amazing new friends. I like to go for walks along the bay or out to the end of Bungtown Road, and have lunch out on the lawn to work on my tan. 

Thank you to Jordan for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.