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Spotlight on Dean Procter: Postdoctoral Fellow in Microbiology-Immunology

Modified: February 5, 2018

Dean Procter is a postdoctoral fellow in Microbiology-Immunology working in Derek Walsh’s lab through Feinberg School of Medicine. Previously, he attended the University of Sydney for his undergraduate and graduate degrees.

What were you doing before you arrived at Northwestern? Please, provide a brief outline of your educational experience.

I grew up in the outer suburbs of Sydney, Australia and eventually escaped to the inner city to study. I still think it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. For my undergraduate training I completed a Bachelor of Advanced Science, majoring in Microbiology and Biochemistry at the University of Sydney. During this time, I was awarded a summer scholarship to the CSIRO (the closest thing Australia has to the NIH) to work on bacterial food spoilage and high pressure food processing. This experience started my fascination with microscopic organisms that continued into an honors year in the lab of the recently appointed virologist, Tim Newsome. Tim came from a postdoctoral position in Michael Way’s lab at Cancer Research UK where they used advanced microscopic methods to determine the host and viral factors that drove the polymerization of actin pedestals beneath vaccinia virus particles, pushing them away from the cell surface. Visually stunning, captivating science. I loved these techniques so much I went on to complete a PhD in Tim’s lab (we don’t have grad school rotations in Australia) studying virally encoded ubiquitin ligase substrate adaptors. Unfortunately, Australian graduate research scholarships only last 3.5 years, so at the end of my PhD I also worked part-time as a freelance graphic designer and political adviser in the state government. If you thought science was cut-throat, wait until you see politics!

Why did you choose Northwestern for your postdoctoral training?

Because I got a job offer! Although my PhD work was on a large DNA virus and my new project was on a different large DNA virus, I was completely changing fields from the ubiquitin proteasome system to microtubule regulation, something that I’d never worked on previously. Looking at the output of my new lab, we seemed to use a variety of techniques to address lots of different problems (we work on many viruses). So there was a lot of new things to learn and new skills to acquire! A few other job interviews I had either weren’t studying anything particularly interesting or at institutions that seemed to have terrible work cultures. I honestly had little understanding of American universities outside of those featured in movies and TV (e.g. Ivy-league, NYU, or UCLA) but Northwestern looked like they supported their postdocs well and had great resources, and Chicago seemed like a fun city to spend a few years. It turned out to be an amazing opportunity in an excellent lab at a fantastic institution. Looking at the opportunities and support I have here makes me very glad that I’ve moved from the severely underfunded research environment in Australia. 

Tell us about your research in non-specialist terms.

My current work focuses on human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), a herpesvirus that is known to cause microcephaly and other birth defects. It infects the majority of the world’s population, but is more prevalent in developing nations. What makes HCMV unique is that it has an incredibly long infectious cycle compared to other herpesviruses and it forms a fascinating cytoplasmic structure called the assembly compartment where it assembles infectious virus after genome containing capsids are exported from the nucleus. I study the formation of the assembly compartment over long periods of time and the factors that are critical in this process.

What is a rewarding aspect of your research?

I love to generate captivating movies of viral effects on host cells using live-cell microscopy. Nothing is worse than sitting through a dry lecture of western blot after western blot. Hopefully the movies I generate can wow people just enough to wake them up and perhaps get them excited about the things that I study. 

What is a challenging aspect of your research?

Not killing the cells all the time, it’s much easier than you would think! That is, it is a challenge to shine enough light on the cells to have good enough image resolution but not too much that they die because of the light intensity. You have to keep them alive and healthy for the entire duration of imaging (which can be several days) to ensure you capture the events you’re after! 

Describe a typical research day.

Because HCMV has an incredibly long replication cycle (most viruses take 24 hours, HCMV is 7-10 days depending on the strain), so I’m often working on something like an infection, inhibitor treatment or siRNA transfection at various points throughout the day. Otherwise I’ll be culturing cells, doing a western, or acquiring/analyzing microscopy images. If it is a Friday, I’ll be setting up the live-cell microscope to monitor the progression of virus infection over the weekend (usually 72 hours). An outsider would see that I’m on my feet for most of the day and that some of my unavoidable timepoints are either really early in the morning or really late in the evening. Ugh! But that’s science.

What’s one thing you’re passionate about beyond your research?

I came from a critically underfunded research ecosystem in Australiaisn’ where it’s basically impossible to do a postdoc in the country after you finish your PhD. When I arrived in the United States I was amazed by the number of postdocs employed in the research labs here, yet concerned by the number of us who were still postdocs after many years at the bench. That’s why I love my work with Northwestern University Postdoctoral Forum (NUPF). I get to meet academics and professionals who have successfully transitioned from their postdocs. I get to learn about how they got to these positions and where they dream of going to next. Now as the Chair of NUPF I love organizing career exploration and networking events so my fellow postdocs can continue to have these valuable interactions. Further, I’m also a board member of the Future of Research (FoR), where we advocate for increased training, funding and opportunities for postdocs.

I’m also passionate about my dog, Finnegan. He’s the best!