Student Spotlight: Zac Swider

headshot: Zac Swider


Santa Barbara, California

Year entered CMB program:



William Bement Lab


Brief Summary of Research:

I am studying the cell cycle regulation of cortical excitability. Briefly put, during and following cytokinesis, the cell cortex spontaneously generates propagating waves of actin filament assembly. These waves appear to be the manifestation of an excitable circuit. I am interested in how the cell cycle regulates this excitable circuit, and whether this regulation has any implications on the ability of cells to execute cytokinesis in a timely manner.

Awards and Publications:

Awards: Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara – Academic Scholarship (2015) Saturdaze Research Scholarship (2014) Hearst Research Scholar (2012) Microbiology Achievement Award – Academic Scholarship (2012) Joe W. Dobbs O.D. Fund – Academic Scholarship (2011)

Publications: Swider Z, Ng R, Varadarajan R, Rusan NM. Fascetto Interacting Protein (FIP) Regulates Fascetto/PRC1 to Ensure Proper Cytokinesis and Ploidy. BioRxiv: Mo G, Li R, Swider Z, Tao Y, Mikoshiba K, Bement WM, Liu XJ. Calcium Nanodomains in Spindles. BioRxiv: Beach JR, Bruun KS, Shao L, Li D, Swider Z, Remmert K, Zhang Y, Conti MA, Adelstein RS, Rusan NM, Betzig E, Hammer JA. Actin Dynamics and Competition for Myosin Monomer Govern the Sequential Amplification of Myosin Filaments. Nature Cell Biology 19(2):85-93. DeBruhl H, Albertson R, Swider Z, Sullivan W. 2015. Rop, the Sec1/Munc18 homolog in Drosophila, is required for furrow ingression and stable cell shape during cytokinesis. Journal of Cell Science 129(2):430-443.

Why did you decide to attend graduate school?

I was thinking about graduate school before I even laid eyes on my first pipette because I had an interest in teaching biology at a university, and I knew that I needed a Ph.D. to accomplish that career goal. Once I started participating in research projects, I fell in love with doing science and so graduate school was the obvious union of these two interests.

Why did you choose UW-Madison’s CMB Program?

To me UW-Madison was the correct mixture of the three things that I was looking for in a graduate school: research that I was interested in – in an area that I enjoyed – and could also afford to live in.

What inspired you to go into your field of study?

One of my earliest research experiences was with a uniquely talented researcher named George von Dassow at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. George introduced me to both cell biology and confocal microscopy. As it turns out, these are two of my greatest loves to this day, so I guess you could say that I didn’t need to be inspired to study cell biology – I was just shown that cell biology is really cool, and I have yet to find another field that is equally fascinating.

What is the best conference/seminar you have ever attended? Why?

The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in 2014 was pretty amazing. It was the first time that I had ever presented a poster in any context, and I had a ton of fun just talking science with people. It also took place in Austin, TX, so the food and music scene was also pretty great.

What lessons have you learned throughout your graduate career so far?

Start organized and stay organized.

What advice would you give to a student applying to graduate school?

First and foremost, go somewhere that will give you the opportunity to do the research that you are interested in. This is what you will spend most of your time doing, so it’s very important that you enjoy it. Second, pick a location where there are plenty of extracurricular activities that interest you. Despite what you might hear, you will occasionally be allowed to leave the lab, so you want to make sure that you live somewhere with stuff to do.

What are your long-term career goals?

Make a living somewhere in the scientific bubble. Whether that’s running my own research lab, focusing solely on teaching, or working in industry, I think I’ll be pretty happy.

What do you feel is the greatest challenge that graduate students face and how have you dealt with this challenge?

I think it’s the same triangle of frustration that we all dealt with as undergraduates, except a little harder. That is: 1) be a product graduate student and pass all your classes 2) maintain a healthy social life and 3) eat relatively healthy and get the correct amount of exercise and sleep. It could really be a pyramid of frustration if we bring money into that but let’s just not go there. I think that most people find that they can only adequately satisfy two thirds of the triangle at any given time, but it is important to make sure that they all receive some attention at some point. Some might say: “work hard, play hard”

What is a fun fact about yourself?

I went through a relatively brief phase wherein I became obsessed with entomology. I ended up curating a display with about 100 representative insects from 13 of the more common insect orders and donating it to my school. It was really fun, but I eventually reached a point where I felt like I had literally “caught them all” and I sort of lost interest from there.

When you are not in the lab, you are…….?

Getting ready to go back into lab. I’m kidding – I spend a lot of time walking or running with my dog. I also like rock climbing and jiu jitsu.

What is your favorite memory so far in the CMB Program?

My first CMB retreat was pretty amazing.

What is the most fun part of your research?

The microscopy is the best part of my job. A microscope is a research instrument like any other and requires just as much expertise to be applied correctly, but no NMR machine or Western blot will ever produce the same fusion of art and data as a microscope will.