The New Kid on the Block: Getting to Know Dr. Jonathon Ditlev

written by Claire MacMurray

Dr. Jonathon Ditlev joined our department in August of 2019. His current topic of interest is the postsynaptic density, a membraneless organelle found within the synaptic region of the neuron. His efforts are motivated by an attempt to better understand the way neurons communicate with each other. Originally from the United States, Jon completed his PhD at the University of Connecticut and shortly thereafter, pursued postdoctoral work in the HHMI lab of Mike Rosen, whereby his love of phase separation was firmly established. Jon now finds himself in the land of Tim Hortons and in search of the greatest Tex-Mex this city can offer. Read more to hear his thoughts on what it’s like to start a lab, his life as a father-scientist, and a bit of sage advice.

From Trainee to New PI

What is the primary difference between postdoc versus PI-dom?

J.D: I would say that the primary difference is the amount of responsibility with regard to not only projects but the business of the lab. As a postdoc, I studied what I wanted to study under the umbrella of my mentor. As a PI, I now consider the well-fare of the entire lab, while additionally designing projects.

Were you trained on how to take care of a lab?

J.D: This sort of thing is very much lab specific; in Mike Rosen’s lab (the lab of my postdoc), he gave me a lot of responsibility that translated very well to managing a lab, but I don’t know if that opportunity is available to everybody.

When you were transitioning out of Mike’s lab, did you have a lot of conversations with him about the lab you were going to establish or did he give you total freedom?

J.D: Mike gave me total freedom, but he did participate in working through ideas and also working through my job proposal. While the proposal was 100% my creation, he gave me pointers as to what would make it more attractive with respect to my employers.

In regards to the job interview experience, what was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome?

J.D: Learning how to manage the room while giving a chalk-talk… There are always going to be questions that people ask that aren’t accounted for during preparation and sometimes those question can go down a rabbit-hole. It’s important to redirect the conversation back to what I want to talk about so that the other professors in the room can focus on my research program and not a potential outcome of my research ten years down the line.

What do you think the secret to giving a successful chalk-talk is?

J.D: The secret to success is providing a good 5-10 min introduction of the problems that you want to address; this brings logic and structure to the rest of the presentation.

In hindsight, what skills from student-life translated best to your life as a PI?

J.D: Hmm, student life…I would say scheduling. My situation in grad school, where I had a young family, really encouraged me to figure out how to schedule as many things in a day as was possible, without sacrificing quality. It was really as a grad student that I was able to test different models and eventually land on a model that worked for me, all the while knowing that this model was not going to work for everyone. Grad school allowed me to fail in ways that were safe and I had very supportive advisers who really helped me focus in on what was working. This isn’t to say things always worked out… There were days that I would stay later than I wanted thereby cutting into time with my family and time to recover from the day. I’d show up the next day very tired and I’d feel convinced that staying later is something I want to go to efforts to avoid.

Life Within and Beyond the Bench

I’m sure many students in our department want to have a family, what are your thoughts as a father of four? What went into your decision to pursue parenthood while also a career in science?

J.D: I think it was one of those things that just happened. My wife and I learned to function within the context of: “we are having a family so how can we make the rest of this work…”.

Do you notice parallels between fatherhood and your role as a supervisor?

J.D: There are some. I think one of the big differences is that when my kids were young, they depended on me for everything. Whereas with being a PI, students in my lab are fairly independent, and come to me when they need help with certain things, but they are also very willing to go figure out problems on their own. There’s much more flexibility with being a PI than as a father with young children.

What are your primary goals as a mentor?

J.D: As a mentor, I want my students and postdocs to not only learn the science that they are tasked with learning but to do so in a way that’s healthy. If my students and postdocs are healthy outside of the lab, then they are more likely to be healthy inside the lab. And I want them to come to me with any problems. I want them to want to work towards fixing any issues that they might be having, but I also want to give them the flexibility to really go after—to enable them to go after—the problems that really compel them… I was fortunate that my graduate school advisers and my postdoc supervisor all had a similar philosophy. They demanded a lot but they also wanted what was best for me as a person. Because of this model, I have hopes of bringing this to my own lab.

Looking at the field of mental health (and general health), discussion of what counts as good well-being in graduate school is now sitting at the table, whereas in the past, it was pushed under the rug or locked in the closet. It’s okay to not be okay. Help is needed in this type of situation, but it’s okay because it happens to everyone.

This is fantastic to hear. How do you rejuvenate your spirit?

J.D: I make sure to get at least four hours of sleep every night…ha. Quality time with my wife and quality time with my kids is a must. I often help my kids out with their homework. My wife and I will have great conversations about non-science things (she’s not a scientist, making this slightly more feasible). I really enjoy playing with my youngest who is 4 (work-related things rarely come up in this context ). Dinner with my family each night is a priority.

Now I’m curious…what’s your favorite type of food?

J.D: Ah shoot, Tex-Mex (with Indian tied for first) and let it be known that I’ve yet to find a good Tex-Mex place in Toronto…

Team Dynamics: Thoughts on the Department

Have you gotten to know the Biochemistry Department or SickKids and what is a quirk you’ve noticed, something unique, something you like? What went into actually getting to know the people you work with?

J.D: Here at SickKids, I’ve gotten to know my colleagues fairly well. Many of them reached out to me and pursued getting to know me through casual conversations about our research programs and our common interests. Actually, the same goes with the Biochemistry Department. As soon as I signed on with SickKids, Justin Nodwell contacted me and we chatted. Justin, Trevor, and Alex enabled me to come in and meet everyone in Biochemistry within the first week here at SickKids. I’d like to make an effort to get to know everyone better (and am getting to know people better) even though we are separated by a few blocks. Fortunately, Toronto is somewhat unique. From my experience, a lot of biochemistry departments, are siloed in that each person has their own unique research which contributes to the department as a whole, but there might not be the collegiality that enables cross-talk between labs. That definitely exists elsewhere, (I’m not trying to say that it doesn’t) but it does seem to be a special perk of working here in Toronto.

Do you have any mentors in the department? Or at SickKids?

J.D: Yes, John Rubinstein is my faculty mentor and pretty much all of the other faculty that I’ve ever asked questions of have jumped in and helped me. So yes, I have a designated faculty mentor but everyone has offered me mentorship in some capacity.

The Advice We’ve Been Waiting For…

As a parting thought, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given—a mantra that you may live by, a piece of wisdom…

J.D: Hmm… actually, some of the best advice came from one of my graduate school advisers, at my graduation party (it was Less Lowe). He told me that one of the most important things I can do as a postdoc is be home for dinner every night. There will always be things to do in the lab whether I am a postdoc or PI. Essentially, “there will always be things to do, but family is very important; don’t sacrifice time with family for work that can be done later”.

And what advice do you want to share with your mentees?

J.D: Pursue the problems that you are interested in but don’t get so rooted in expectations of what it should be that you miss out on small details that might point to something else. Don’t get so rooted in the dogma (i.e. “what’s expected”) that you miss the unexpected.

…And only because I know you are a HUGE fan of Friday Night Lights (the television show), would you like to share some of Coach Taylor’s greatest advice:

J.D: Oh yes, “clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose”. -Coach Taylor

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