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Spotlight: A real scientist in a real-life lab

BY IAN MARTIN | FEBRUARY 07, 2011 7:10 AM

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Josh Weiner stands in a laboratory wearing blue jeans and Columbia fleece. With sneakers completing his outfit, it seems Weiner is more dressed for cleaning the lab than conducting research in it.

But for those who know Weiner, the sight of him in casual clothes in his lab is nothing new. Really, it’s just another day for the 40-year old University of Iowa biology assistant professor.

Weiner is the head of his own lab in the Biology Building, doing research on how and why the brain makes synapses in development: In other words, when a neuron attaches to another neuron in the brain, as an organism is developing, why specific attachments are made. This research can be applied in looking at birth defects specifically and where the process went wrong while the fetus was in the womb.

“We all say things like … ‘Boy that guy’s wired up wrong,’ ” Weiner said. “That’s kind of colloquial, but in a sense, that’s probably true.”

As a child, Weiner said he was more interested in music than science. In fact, he still plays in a band and even has an album on iTunes. When he did become interested in science in high school, it was in chemistry and physics.

“Probably, I’d still rather be a musician,” Weiner said. “But I used to read a lot, so I was always interested in doing something kind of scholarly.”

It wasn’t until his undergraduate years at Northwestern that he took a liking to the brain while majoring in psychology.

Now, he’s put his brain to work.

Weiner’s lab has been one of the most productive at Iowa, especially for his relatively young age. He has published upwards of 20 academic papers and has contributed to many more.

Much of this can be attributed to his seemingly relaxed attitude about the whole process. None of his assistants wear lab coats or collared shirts. Most are in jeans and sweatshirts on the day of his interview. Weiner said that while some labs run the more traditional way, he just doesn’t see that as a productive method for morale.

“In my view, that’s how you get the most stuff done,” he said. “When people are happy.”

Those who work in his lab call him Josh. Never once was the word “Doctor” spoken, even though Weiner has had his degree for more than 10 years.

Undergraduate assistant Mitch Omar said that his experience in the Weiner lab has been special because he’s treated as an equal, despite just completing his first degree.

“[Josh] talks to me very candidly about all things,” he said. “He says straightforward, ‘I might have a lot of opinions that you don’t agree with, and that’s fine, but I want to have a relaxed atmosphere where we can voice our opinions.’ ”

And a calm lab often means a fun lab.

When Ph.D. student Karry Jannie cut her hand, Weiner wrote on her cast, “You’re a cut up,” just an example of how he tries to keep things light.

Jannie said Weiner’s attitude is part of a larger culture at the UI Biology Department, which is changing perceptions from the antiquated scientist to the modern-day laboratory.

“I think a lot of people have misconceptions about scientists,” she said. “That they run around in lab coats … they’re boring, shirts and ties. That’s not how we roll over here.”


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