Biochemistry faculty profile – Assistant Professor Judith Simcox

Photo of Judith Simcox
Assistant Professor Judi Simcox.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?  Where did you go to school?  

I grew up in Huntly, Montana: a small town of less than 500 people. I went to college at Carroll College in Helena, Montana where I started my research career studying sympatric speciation in black fly populations.

Where did you carry out your postdoctoral research?

University of Utah Department of Biochemistry, studying the contribution of lipids to thermogenesis

As a child, who was your biggest influence?

My grandma and my mom. My grandma raised me for the first few years of my life. She was an interesting mix of absolute love and honesty. She was widowed at the age of 46 and had to raise seven children on her own while starting a small grocery store to support everyone. Whenever I was worried about a test in school, she would scold me by saying “that’s your problem, you’ve failed, and you haven’t even taken the test yet.” This taught me to focus on preparation and then go into challenges fearlessly.

My mother worked tirelessly to support us by working as a night shift nurse so that she could take my sister to doctor’s appointments during the day. Even with all of this work she still found time to volunteer as the nurse for Special Olympics, volunteer in a group home for people with disabilities, and drove to remote rural homes on Sundays to deliver eucharist to house-bound parishioners. She taught me that if you’ve been given opportunities it’s your responsibility to help others. I’ve been blessed to be raised by women who are strong, resilient, and work to make the world a better place.

Why did you decide to study science?

My sister Jan was born with Down Syndrome and when she was 7 years old she developed type 1 diabetes. Because my mother was the nurse for the special Olympics team, I learned that four of the twelve kids who had Down Syndrome also had type 1 diabetes. After searching in the literature as a teenager, I realized that the link between Down Syndrome and Type 1 diabetes was well established but the molecular mechanisms that regulate this linkage were unknown. This was the first time I wandered to the edge of knowledge, and I’ve been trying to pursue the unknown ever since.

Why did you come to Madison?  When?

In 2017 I gave a talk at the DEUEL lipids conference; I became fast friends with Alan Attie and his wife Jean. Alan invited me to give a talk at Madison and I instantly fell in love with the beauty of the city, its trails, and the campus community. I started my lab here in February 2019.

What do you like most about being a professor?  

This is hard because there are many great things about being a professor. The number one thing is the trainees. Being able to lead a team that is talented, creative, and hard-working is such a privilege. I constantly feel humbled to work with the students at UW-Madison. A close second is the friendships. You form these incredible bonds that last decades that lead you to form collaborations and push cross-disciplinary science.

What is the focus of your research?  

My lab is trying to functionally characterize various lipids that we measure through mass spectrometry based lipidomics combined with molecular biology and animal physiology. This includes working to understand how they are regulated and determining their contribution to energy homeostasis. There are several projects in the lab including identifying transporters of circulating acylcarnitines, discovering novel regulators of liver lipid processing, and using lipids as biomarkers for metabolic disease in human population studies.

What advice would you provide to a new assistant professor who is just starting his/her career?

​​​​​​​Ask for help whenever you get that stuck or lost feeling. It’s funny I thought mentorship probably ended with my postdoc, but I turn to mentors now more than ever. I feel lucky that I get to call on many scientists in the department as mentors for personal and professional struggles.

When you are not working, what do you like to do?  What is your favorite place in Madison?

​​​​​​​I like to explore nature by watching birds, fly fishing, kayaking, and hunting. In Madison my favorite place is the shoreline trail to Picnic Point from Shorewood, it’s the best for spotting warblers. My other favorite place is where I gather morels, but that is a secret I will take with me to the grave.

Favorite Quote

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” -Albert Camus

Friends Describe Me

I asked my two best friends, and this is what they said: “You’re always trying to save the world” and “you’re an ally, you’re always making sure to give others confidence to help them find their voice.”

Fantasy Dinner Guests

​​​​​​​Hans Krebs, Gerty Cori, Jeff Simcox, Plenty Coups, Percy Julian, and Harriet Tubman

Best Advice I Ever Received

​​​​​​​“If you’re not falling, you’re not challenging yourself enough.”

My Worst Subject In School

​​​​​​​Health in high school

If I Weren’t A Professor, I Would

​​​​​​​Lead ornithological expeditions

In College I Drove

​​​​​​​Honda accord

Favorite Books

​​​​​​​“The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner

“The Plague” by Albert Camus

“The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver

“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace

“Galapagos” by Kurt Vonnegut

Favorite City

​​​​​​​New Orleans

Favorite Movies

​​​​​​​The Fall

Favorite Coffee

​​​​​​​Americano with a splash of cream

Nobody Knows I…

Enjoyed competing in barrel racing when I was young