Feature Science: Graduate Students Interview the Faculty that Inspire Them
A Lesson in How to Communicate Complicated Science to the Public
Dr. Christine Lattin added a unique twist to her Spring 2020 syllabus for a group of graduate students; she had each of them pick and interview a faculty member from Biological Sciences whose research they find interesting or exciting. For this assignment, students were asked to write a short (~500-1000 word) interview feature. The students were instructed to ask questions related to a recent publication, an ongoing research project, or other topics (biography, career path) of interest to the interviewer.
"An important skill for the 21st century scientist is communicating with the general public in a clear and accessible way. " Dr. Lattin said.
The interviews took place over the phone and via zoom and the finished pieces are informative and interesting to say the least. Get to know some of the Biological Sciences Faculty through the eyes of the students that they inspire. Each students' work is highlighted below.
Dr. SeYeon Chung completed her undergraduate and graduate studies in Seoul, South Korea, and has been studying tissue morphogenesis – the process by which tissues take shape during development - in her own lab at LSU since 2017.
1. How and when did you decide that you wanted to study epithelial tube formation?
During my graduate training in Jeongbin Yim’s lab at Seoul National University, I obtained a very solid background in Drosophila [fruit fly] genetics and cellular and developmental biology. I studied planar cell polarity, which coordinates epithelial cell behavior in a two-dimensional plane. As I was studying epithelial morphogenesis, I naturally became interested in the formation of epithelial tissues with more specialized functions.
When I was looking for postdoctoral opportunities, I decided to choose a field where I could learn something new as well as continue to use my expertise in Drosophila genetics. The Andrew lab at Johns Hopkins University, where I did my postdoc, has been studying organ formation using the Drosophila salivary gland, which is a simple, unbranched tube with high secretory function, and the trachea, which is a branched tubular network with respiratory function. I thought that they were great systems to dissect the mechanisms driving the formation of three-dimensional epithelial tissues. During my postdoc period, I used diverse strategies to understand key aspects of tube formation during development: first, how tissue-specific genes are regulated for tubular organ formation, second, how correct tube dimensions are controlled, and third, how a flat sheet of epithelial primordial cells forms a three-dimensional tubular structure.
2. How does what you're doing now match up to what you thought you would be doing when you finished your undergraduate degree?
It matches almost 100%. I always envisioned myself remaining in academia, teaching students, and doing research, which I do now and love very much.
3. How have your goals changed since you entered the field?
My goal is to comprehensively understand the mechanisms driving organ formation. My main goals haven’t changed, but with the recent improvement of technological resources, such as advanced microscopy techniques and single-cell level analysis, the definition of “comprehensive understanding” in the developmental biology field has been changing very fast. Multidisciplinary approaches and interdisciplinary collaboration, for example, experimental data combined with computational simulations, are more important than ever to better understand the mechanisms underlying key developmental processes.
4. What is it like to run a lab in a different country than where you completed your undergraduate and graduate education?
Of course every country has a different culture, but there are many things in common in academia. Also, science is our common language. Many of the lab members in my lab are also international students, who did their undergraduate or graduate studies in other countries. I love our multicultural environment and try to create and develop a healthy and positive lab culture where people grow and benefit both personally and professionally.
5. How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will affect the way we approach and conduct science in the future?
Although we still can work remotely to some extent, for example doing image processing and analysis, many key experiments should be done in the wet lab. I hope that we will be able to go back to the lab in the near future. Still, we must be mindful of our personal routines and keep maintaining social distancing.
Regarding scientific meetings, which are key to scientific sharing and network building, I can imagine that there will be more virtual meetings in the future. After the cancelation of the in-person meeting of The Allied Genetics Conference (TAGC) that was scheduled to be held in April in Washington, DC, my postdoc Thao [Phuong Le] and my graduate student Vishakha [Vishwakarma] decided to present their work at TAGC 2020 Online. Thanks to the great work of many people involved, the transition from an in-person to an online meeting has been extremely smooth and efficient.
Tad Dallas’s research focuses on the population and community ecology of species. He applies computational approaches to understanding species dynamics, with a particular focus on ecological networks, macroecology, and infectious disease. If you happen to walk by his office when the door is open, you will likely see him standing at his desk with a Mason jar of coffee. Tad is also an avid biker, even riding in the Southdowns parade, and makes a mean hummus.
What got you interested in science? How did you decide to become an ecologist?
Like many people who end up in biological sciences and research, I actually started as a pre-med major. I’d always been interested in finding out how things work and finding answers to things. I like the idea of narrowing your focus and attacking a problem. Ecology offered a way to both enjoy the natural world as well as a lot of messy questions that needed and still need answers.
What was it like doing a post-doc in Finland, at the University of Helsinki?
It was really nice. I entered a research group that had formerly been the metapopulation research group, I believe they called it. It was founded by Ilka Hanski; I don’t want to say he invented the field of metapopulation ecology, but he basically did. My direct advisor was one of Ilka’s students. I still own [Ilka]’s copy of the [book] The Theory of Island Biogeography [by E. O Wilson and Robert H. MacArthur], which has his name in the front; it’s like a piece of ecological history. Scientifically, it had that awesome legacy, it had a lot of challenges in a positive way. The data they have on the Glanville fritillary butterfly is just fantastic. It is well over 20 years of data on nest dynamics and population dynamics of this butterfly in the Åland Islands, mainly in the form of colonization and extinction. I think it is one of the best datasets we have in ecology.
What has been your favorite project to work on?
I think it was one I worked on in graduate school. I was a third year PhD student and I received a small grant with a little bit of funding, so I designed an experiment in zooplankton to test how competition between two species could influence epidemic dynamics. I bought these tanks with the grant money I received, and I had this idea that I was going to pursue; it was going to be awesome. It was the first time I felt real accomplishment. I was proud of designing the study, proud of building the study units, proud of the theoretical modeling work that went alongside it. And it ended up going in [the journal] Ecology, so I felt pride in that as well. I felt ownership of it, which was really nice.
Do you have a favorite study system?
Not really, I definitely move through systems pretty freely. My PhD used a Daphnia [water flea] fungal parasite system. During my first postdoc at the University of California Davis with Alan Hastings, I worked on a flour beetle system. We used Tribolium beetles [to examine] spatial spread and competition. And then pretty much throughout, but especially in Helsinki, I have worked with any interesting data I could get access to. Recently, more of my research has been large-scale, global macroecology. It is very difficult to actually collect that data as a single researcher, so most macroecological studies use distributed experiments [experiments run in parallel by several research groups in multiple locations around the globe] or existing data. Beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to ecological data.
Do you have any collaborations you would like to talk about?
There are a bunch going on, but most of the ones I’m excited about are in their early stages. I don’t know if I can talk about some yet, but I’m collaborating with a group of disease ecologists, virologists, and others in epidemiology to start addressing questions about host-virus associations. It’s still early but I think it’s going be really cool. It has some obvious applications with COVID-19. It was started well before the pandemic, but there are a lot of cool questions that can be asked there. Within the department, Bret [Elderd] and I are looking to push some stuff forward.
If you could meet one famous historical scientist, who would it be?
I think I’d go with [Carl Barton] Huffaker. He designed a [famous] mite experiment related to metapopulations to observe empirical evidence of predator-prey cycling. He started with oranges and [herbivorous and predatory] mites [on trays] and saw quickly that the predatory mites would eat the prey mites, so exclusion, then the predator population would crash. Then he started adding all this [environmental] complexity. He separated the oranges in space, he added fake patches that weren’t resources at all, he added a fan at one point, he had string connecting certain things for dispersal. He added other things as well; it was crazy. The main reason I want to meet him is just to hear the description of his mindset as he was going through that experiment. It is insane, the layers of complexity he had to add just to get one complete predator-prey cycle before it crashed.
How has you first year been?
It has presented a lot of challenges, but it has been generally positive. The community of scientists, researchers, graduate students, and postdocs have been really supportive. The thing I knew beforehand that was going be a shift is from thinking about relatively short-term questions to the long term. When you are in graduate school, you think about the next five years; when you’re a post doc, you think about the next year or next couple of years. Your questions tend to be strained by that. As a professor, now I’m thinking way farther ahead in terms of projects and the scope of research in the lab as well as about teaching and mentoring students.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
It actually has, but not as much as people with more experimental systems. Right before the pandemic, I had been setting up a wet lab, and getting things ordered and into the lab and prepped and reading about the system I was setting up. All of that got put on hold. I didn’t have live organisms yet, so it was something I could easily take a step back from, and shift towards other projects. A good amount of the research in my lab is computational. I remember the last day before lockdown, I made sure everyone in the lab had access to the IP addresses of all the computers in the lab so we could all use remote access. So, we are impacted, but we’re getting by as a lab.
Dr. Terry M. Bricker is a protein biochemist whose research focuses on photosynthetic complexes in cyanobacteria and plants. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has served as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Photosynthesis Research since 2016.
Who inspired you to follow a scientific career path?
In high school, one of my teachers drove my interest towards biological sciences. Then I ended up getting an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Cincinnati. I worked on a cellular slime mold, which was considered a plant at that time, but not anymore. That pretty much piqued my interest in plant sciences. After that, I ended up going for a graduate degree in the Department of Botany at Miami University.
During your Ph.D. at Miami University, Ohio, what was the specific research problem you were trying to solve?
I went to a laboratory that was interested in plants. My major advisor was David Newman and he was interested in studying lipid biochemistry during the senescence [aging] process in plants. I worked on lipids for about two weeks and then I went and told him that I can't work with lipids. There are too many solvents. The experiments you have to do are just terribly nasty, you are isolating lipids using chloroform-methanol extracts and then separating those on thin-layer chromatography plates with solvents. So I told him that I would like to work on proteins, those change during senescence as well. My advisor agreed, and then I specifically worked on changes in photosynthetic membrane proteins during senescence.
What particularly drew your attention towards these photosynthetic systems?
The [proteins] are beautiful, they are green. You don't have to stain the gels to actually see them. We used to run mildly denaturing gels, and you can resolve these beautiful chlorophyll proteins. In large measure, we didn't know where they came from exactly but as the project progressed, we then knew they were associated with either Photosystem II or Photosystem I [two systems that capture energy from sunlight during photosynthesis].
How would you describe how your research has developed from the early days in the field until recently?
After studying plant senescence, I went to the lab of Louis Sherman, where we weren’t looking at senescence, but at photosynthesis in cyanobacteria. I then did a postdoc with Kim Wise before taking my first academic position. I wanted to go to his laboratory to learn how to make monoclonal antibodies. So, when I started my own lab, we initially were heavy into making monoclonal antibodies that could recognize individual components of Photosystem II. After that we worked on a whole lot of things, we looked at Photosystem II extensively for many years. We did a lot of mutagenesis to look at Photosystem II in cyanobacteria. Then we looked at how individual extrinsic proteins [proteins found outside the cell membrane] were associated with one another, and how those extrinsic proteins associated with core subunits [of Photosystem II]. Then, we moved on to higher plants and doing mutagenesis using RNA interference techniques, asking the question what happens when you suppress one or more extrinsic proteins associated with Photosystem II?
Now, basically, most people would describe my laboratory as being a mass spectrometry laboratory interested in Photosystem II, Photosystem I, cytochrome b6f complexes and light-harvesting complex II proteins, which are very interesting too.
If you could solve one photosynthesis research question, what would it be?
Something I've always been interested in is the whole process of repairing Photosystem II and the mechanisms involved in that both in higher plants and cyanobacteria, that whole set of questions is very intriguing.
What led you to LSU?
The only thing that leads any investigator to any place, is that's where a job was available. Because in any given year - and this is true for any graduate student - positions available in the field of your expertise will be at a very small subset of universities. Suppose you apply to 10 universities, you might get interviews at two or three of those if you have an absolutely stellar CV. The universities are interviewing three to five other candidates with a great CV for each of those positions. So it all comes down basically to random chance. I mean, you do your job and your job is to do the best possible research, produce the best possible publications, get the best possible letters of recommendation. But that's all you can do, everything else is out of your hands entirely.
What do you love most about being a professor?
Research. If you would have asked me during a regular year and not a coronavirus year, I would say I enjoy teaching. I enjoy the interaction with the students immensely.
What is your perspective about the COVID-19 situation and its impact on research?
It's a complete shutdown. I'm in my last year with a Department of Energy grant and I have a postdoc who is not able to do any research, so that’s not a good situation. It has strongly impacted the research, teaching, and graduation timelines of students. But these things are minor considering the scope of the problem, you've got all these people that are dying and getting really, really sick, and that’s far more important to deal with than anything we're doing.
What would be your first choice of an alternative career and why?
That's a tough question because this is all I've ever really wanted to do. I'd be a teacher, but certainly not at a high school level because that’s a lot [to handle]. I can see myself teaching two or three sections of a course each year like what an instructor does.
You’ve mentored so many students during a successful academic career. What would be your words of advice to the youngsters pursuing scientific research?
For me, it's been the best possible job I could possibly have. If it's something you want to do more than anything else you can possibly think of, then you should definitely go down that path. But life in academia is difficult, so if you can’t answer the question in that manner, then find some other line of work, you're going to be happier in the long run.
Dr. Adam Bohnert studies the biology of aging. You can usually find him in his lab working with graduate students, or rubbing elbows with his wife and fellow Assistant Professor here at LSU, Dr. Alyssa Johnson.
I'd like to start like just with what you were like as a kid.
I was the oldest of four. I have a sister who is about two years younger than me, and then a brother and sister who are twins that are about four years younger. Being the oldest was fun. I was the leader of the pack, always doing things first, and figuring things out. I was really big into sports, my dad played professional soccer, so I played soccer some, and ended up transitioning to tennis, learning from my uncle. I played competitive tennis from when I was eight until college. It provided structure and taught me strategic problem solving. I learned a lot from playing tennis, trying to build something while creatively troubleshooting to figure out how to beat an opponent. Now in my research it's more like, how do you attack questions that have no precedents. I always see myself going back to thinking like when I was a kid and applying it to my work now.
Where did you go to college?
I went to a small liberal arts college in Memphis called Rhodes College. I played tennis there, we were nationally ranked as a Division 3 program. It was not as huge of a commitment as playing Division 1, so it was a good balance. I could still give a lot of time to academics. At Rhodes College we had very small class sizes, which was great, but it was a tradeoff not being at a big research university. We had research, just not the variety of a large university. I did environmental science research on the benefits of open forests within a city like Memphis. I also did summer research at Rutgers University, getting more training and experience. While there I did research on deep sea volcanoes. The groups I worked with were studying bacteria from these deep-sea vents. We were characterizing new species and trying to understand how they live and what sort of genes they have that allow them to survive in this weird environment. There is just this crazy diversity of life and we were trying to understand it from the bacterial standpoint.
Was there anybody throughout your undergraduate or high school years who was a big influence on you?
A lot of people, of course my coaches were very supportive, encouraging, and challenged me. In college, I had tons of biology professors that influenced me, and because it is a small college, I knew all my professors very well. The professor I did research with was Dr. Rosanna Cappellato. She spent a lot of one-on-one time with me. At Rutgers, Dr. Costantino Vetriani was my advisor and he took a leap of faith on me. I had no real experience; I was just some undergraduate from a small college. I did come in as part of a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) program the first year. I enjoyed it so much the first summer, I wrote to him and he had me come do it all again the next summer outside of the program. The way he opened his lab to me for just two or three months at a time was a valuable experience for me. I am so appreciative of what he did, and all the other people along the way.
How do you think that your previous mentors influence you as a mentor?
My graduate advisor at Vanderbilt University was Dr. Kathy Gould. Kathy always led by example and put a lot of effort into graduate training. She challenged me to take ownership of what I was doing and not rely on other people to analyze my results or make conclusions. Whenever I wrote a manuscript, she wouldn't necessarily just take it and write it for me. She would make corrections here and there, and then for parts of it she would circle three paragraphs, give it back to me, and just say, do it again. I really appreciated that. I felt like with her, when she would say that you did a really good job, I knew that it was. I am like that too, because I really appreciate being challenged. I feel that if you are never really challenged, you are not making progress. We are in a line of work where it does not matter what level you are at, you must constantly challenge yourself. I try to take that on with my own students. I try to make them figure out what the answers are for themselves, I think that is very valuable in order to be successful. My post doctoral advisor was Dr. Cynthia Kenyon. She is extremely creative, she asked questions that nobody else asks. I always really admired her, and got much stronger [as a scientist] when I worked for her. Learning how to push boundaries and think of things in a different way than how someone else had thought of it before. We are in a time in science where there is such exponential growth in information. How do you ask questions that are fundamentally novel, that give new creative insights into fundamental biology? I think that throughout her career she has been remarkable in doing that. Now, when I talk to my students about questions that we are asking, I try to not to see it just from the nuts and the bolts of the details, but also to take a step back to think, why do we care about this in the first place? That is how you really break ground.
What are you working on now?
We are working on a lot of different things. I would say the fundamental driving question is, how is aging regulated? What is the biology of aging? We are approaching this from a cellular level. We are interested in aging because it is one of these aspects of biology that everybody can appreciate. Anybody can walk down the street and see someone who is 20 years old and someone that is 70 years old and pick out who the younger and the older individual is. This is not something that is restricted to humans. You take a dog that is 2 years old and dog that is 10 years old. You can tell which is the young one and which is the old one. What is interesting to us as cell biologists is that you can take a cell from the old individual and one from the young individual, not even looking at them from an organismal level but just looking at their cells, and tell which one is the older and younger. There is something that is really conserved about aging across species. For instance, we are trying to understand the parts of the cell that keep cells healthy. What are the mechanisms that would be used to fight natural aging at a cellular level to help to keep ourselves and our bodies healthy?
To conclude, what advice would you give to any young scientists that would like to get in this field, or who do not really know if science is their thing?
My advice is to be somewhat fearless. One of the things that is really daunting about science as you get into it is that it is not like coursework. You don't necessarily have a syllabus, you don’t have a checklist, you don't know at the end of the day what you have to do to get an A or really discover something. You do not know what those steps are necessarily, so you have to have a level of grit and fearlessness to keep going. Every day that you are in the lab you are going to fail on some level. Some days you will have small failures, some days you will have big failures. That is just the nature of it. You have to keep diving into the deep end time and again until you learn how to swim. This is how you learn and get a mastery of something without even realizing that you are actively doing it. Suddenly you take a step back at your years in graduate school, and think, wait, when did I learn how to do this or when did I learn that? When did I learn to think like this? You don't consciously realize that it is happening, you just take it in. You must be like a sponge. So from an attitude level, that is my advice. From an approach level, you must let the science take you where it takes you. What I mean by that is sometimes people get into projects thinking that they are going to answer some [specific] question. Then they see something that is really interesting, but it is not exactly what they wanted to look at in the first place. You have to let science take you where it guides you because otherwise you are knocking at some obstacle that may never fall over. Let it direct you somewhere and you will find something. You always have to have that flexibility in your mind to know when something is interesting and when something is not guiding you to the right place. If you look at history, some of the biggest discoveries were made by accident. Do not expect to make a discovery at that level, but it could always be there. Always take another look and have that flexibility.
The recent collaborative discovery of tubular lysosomes by LSU cell biologist Dr. Alyssa Johnson may unlock potential anti-aging effects and could someday be used to treat degenerative diseases. At the forefront of science and discovery, Dr. Johnson’s trailblazing journey opens up new fields of biology that redefine what it means to be a cell.
What drew you to work on age-related degenerative diseases?
I always had the drive to connect [my research] to human health. Seeing the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases increasing so much in the general population, it is something that we have no treatments or cures for. I thought we could contribute a lot by understanding the cell biology behind these diseases. That was where I thought that my expertise could really lend a unique hand in that field.
I want to congratulate you on your discovery of a new class of lysosomes and your grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. Could you briefly explain your discovery of tubular lysosomes as a potential “fountain of youth”?
When I started my post-doc, I wanted to study degenerative diseases on a cellular level because they have always been linked with defects in autophagy lysosomes [the organelles that break down damaged cells]. A post-doc in my previous lab developed a new marker for lysosomes that allowed us to survey the function of different tissues. When we looked at muscle, we saw this very strange pattern where instead of having the vesicles in the cell, it formed a tubular network. We ran characterizations of it, and discovered they were in fact lysosomes, part of the autophagy pathway. This opened up a whole new area because we may have discovered a new class of lysosomes. Once I started my own lab, I started a collaboration with my husband [Adam Bohnert]’s lab who works with worms (Caenorhabditis elegans), while I primarily work with fruit flies (Drosophila). It turns out that C. elegans is a much better system because we can do live animal imaging. It wasn’t until we started here at LSU that we really got the sense that these lysosomes were very important structures that could have a huge impact on different areas of biology. We have made some interesting discoveries about their connection to health and disease. When we increase production of these lysosomes, it can extend lifespan in our animals, and when we disrupt them, it gives them phenotypes reminiscent of degenerative diseases. It’s certain that it does have potential for having anti-aging therapeutic value. It is obviously very far away from that now, and we still need to understand a lot more about the biology of these lysosomes. However, we think we have discovered a new entry point into understanding biology and tissue health in general and applying it towards treating degenerative diseases.
With that medical potential, what is the future of this research? What questions do you hope to answer?
I think the biggest fundamental question is how important the lysosomes are for cellular health across species, and particularly, humans. And then can we use them to promote tissue health in other cells? One of our short-term goals is to see if we can induce tubular lysosomes in neurons to offset neurodegenerative phenotypes. In the long term, we hope that eventually this will reach the clinic to treat human patients.
How has your lab been impacted by the COVID-19 public health crisis?
A lot of the lab has physically shut down. However, because we have to take care of the live flies, myself and my research associate are the only two people allowed in the lab. I’m mostly trying to assist my graduate students with their writing and give them feedback on their drafts. We are still holding a weekly lab meeting on Zoom, and I individually meet online with each of my students every week to touch base and keep them engaged scientifically. I am also teaching a course this semester so that is taking up most of my time.
Lastly, as a trailblazing female scientist, do you have any words of wisdom for inspiring female scientists?
In my career I have had really awesome female role models. As an undergraduate, I started working in a research lab where my female mentor became a huge reason why I decided to go to graduate school. When I was in graduate school, my Ph.D. advisor was a female trailblazer in her field and was someone to always look up to. I think having those sorts of strong female influences has really helped me a lot. There is a shift happening with more female scientists [in biology], so there are more opportunities to reach out to female mentors even if they aren’t your advisor. I think it is great to just have somebody that you really respect and regard very highly and to take their experiences and make them your own.
Dr. Ryoichi (Ryo) Teruyama is originally from Japan and joined the LSU faculty in 2010. His current research focuses on cells in the brain that receive signals from a hormone called oxytocin. Dr. Ryo is investigating why the presence of these cells in certain brain regions is different between male and female mice, and how these differences affect animal behavior.
What initially drew you towards research, and what discoveries through your career led you to your current research?
I was working on a ranch in Montana before I started graduate school, so I was not interested in graduate school at all. During the agriculture training exchange program, a retired professor in the animal science department was teaching a group of Japanese trainees in agriculture and animal science. He said, “What are you going to do after this program?” I said, “Well I haven’t decided yet. I’m going back to Japan and I’ll find a job?” “Why don’t you come to graduate school because you’re smart?” And that’s why I applied and got started. I was transferred to dairy cattle research, but I didn’t like that at all. If you have a cowboy mentality, dairy farmers are boring. I met with one of the professors who taught neuroscience. I did very well on her exams. The next day, she gave me a research assistantship, but she said, “You have to study the quail brain.” That’s how I got started in neuroscience. After that, I was interested in neuroendocrine studies. I chose to go to Dr. [William] Armstrong’s lab in Memphis, TN. It’s a medical school, and he’s the only one who accepted me. Nobody wanted anyone from animal science in the medical school.
They didn’t want a cowboy? You know why he picked me? Because I was from Montana and he’s from Wyoming. During the interview, we talked about fishing the whole day, and afterwards he said, “You’re coming here aren’t you?”
It sounds like your mentors have shaped your career trajectory. Have you had any other memorable experiences with a mentor?
I see mentors that have established weekly lab meetings. My PhD and post-doc mentor never had any formal lab meetings, and in my lab, I don’t have formal meetings because I never learned it. That’s kind of odd, really. Of course, you must talk to mentors. I talked to them on a daily basis. My post-doc mentor came in the late afternoons to my office because he knew that I had a bag of peanuts, so we ate peanuts with a trashcan between us talking about the research, almost everything. That was a good time, but I had to keep buying peanuts for him.
What’s the most exciting discovery that you or your lab has made so far?
It’s happened in the last couple of years. We saw sex differences in the oxytocin receptor. I think we are the first lab to show clear sex differences. In most of the brain, oxytocin receptor distributions are very similar between males and females. But in a particular area, the preoptic region, there is a clear difference. There are simply no oxytocin neurons in males, and a bunch of them in females, maybe around 4000. We counted! The really exciting part is happening right now.
As a scientist, what is something that you would change to improve the speed at which science advances? Is there anything that you think is slowing down the system right now?
If you go to the NIH [National Institutes of Health] website, they can tell you what kind of research they are looking for. For example cancer, cardiovascular, or Alzheimer’s research. These are the priority things they want to fund. That’s why I write grants in a way to interest them. I choose topics within my expertise and interests, but can I say that is absolutely what I wanted to study? I’m not that sure. But if I don’t get funding from NIH or NSF [the National Science Foundation], I can’t run my lab. Basically, we need something or some way to support basic research so all the money doesn’t go to translational [biomedical] studies.
Could you discuss some strategies for the effective communication of science?
You have to be able to communicate the importance and tell why you are interested in just a single sentence! If you need three sentences, that’s maybe okay. If you need five sentences, forget it. Nobody will listen to you.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the health of millions of people globally. Locally, we are now over a month into quarantine, and the virus has prevented many labs in the country and world from continuing hands-on research. Are there any unexpected negative or positive ways that this pandemic has affected you or your work?
We actually cannot do almost any research right now. But, at the same time, it’s okay. I still have a job. I’m working from home. I still get income. Many people don’t, and that’s very hard to see[CL1] . You can clearly show that we can at least improve air quality. I saw a picture of India yesterday, and they can see the Himalayas for the first time in their lives because there is no smog. People in Tokyo can see Mt. Fuji!
Have you taken up any new hobbies with the extra time you have at home? You were playing ukulele just before this interview.
I started in January, so I’m very much a beginner. It’s fun, but I’m driving my wife crazy playing inside, so I have to go outside. I’m not musically talented, but playing an instrument is good because you are so focused on it. Any thoughts and negative feelings that are going on in your mind, playing ukulele you really forget things like that.
Dr. Matthews has been at LSU since 2019. She is interested in understanding patterns of plant diversity, as well as the different environmental processes that help generate and maintain biodiversity.
1. How do you talk about your research to people who don’t have a strong science background?
I'll often start with the question of how plants tell whether they are in the shade or not.
I work on a family of photoreceptors that is responsible for detecting the red to far-red ratio, which tells plants when they are in the open sunlight or in the shade. Because that's a behavior that people can relate to, I think it's a way to bring them in to my research interests in plants. I also try and link that to my interest in evolution and adaptation and the production of the diversity we see around us.
2. What motivated you to pursue a career in plant research? Have your career goals changed much over time, or did you always see yourself becoming a professor?
I was brought up to love natural history from a very early age, but when I was in high school, I really fell in love with plants in particular. So when I went to university, I thought that I wanted to do horticulture [plant agriculture]. Once I took my first plant taxonomy course as a sophomore, I remember thinking, "Oh yeah, this is it." After that course, I moved away from horticulture and went down a more academic research-oriented path.
3. If you could go back and do anything differently, would you?
It's a very non-traditional career trajectory that I've been on. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I was out of school for nine years. During that time, I got married, moved to Montana, and started a family. When I first got there, I was working in a soil testing lab and taking extra courses at a teaching college. Then my first daughter was born, and that's when I started graduate school in Bozeman, Montana, where I did both a Master’s and PhD. Altogether, it was almost 10 years out of school and then it was a lot of training: seven years in graduate school and five years as a postdoc. My first assistant professorship was at the University of Missouri, but then I left a tenure track position there, and eventually went on to do government agency work in Australia. I didn't come back to a tenure-track position until I came here, to LSU. That trajectory was a bit unusual, but I don't have any regrets. I'm very excited to have been able to be involved in research through the years.
4. Since the time you joined academia, do you think the role of women in science has changed?
I feel like I haven't been in my career long enough to have seen major changes. As an undergraduate, I had some really great strong female professors. And then throughout my graduate school and postdoctoral years, I always had a good combination of male and female mentors and I saw women in strong leadership roles within those departments. But still, I think moving up higher into leadership remains challenging for women, and I think we're still not dealing well with work-life balance when it comes to starting a family. My experience was very different than a lot of my colleagues because I had I child before I even started graduate school. I did things differently and I missed out on certain things. So I think we need to keep working on making things better at those really vulnerable stages for women in particular.
5. What is the best part about your job?
Well, I love LSU and I love the biology department so that has been amazing. In science in general, one of the things I love the most is constantly being challenged to learn and understand something new. Being in academia requires you to take on new areas of knowledge, and that's something that I love. I love discovering where the questions are, and figuring out how to do experiments or collect data to answer those questions. And I love the students; being with people who are young and smart - it's very energizing!
6. Do you have a favorite experience from doing fieldwork?
I think my favorite trip so far was last May when we traveled from the tropical part of Australia almost halfway across the continent through the outback of North Queensland. Part of it was the length of that trip and just the chance to see a lot of different habitats.
7. What kind of impact do you think the COVID pandemic will have on science in your field, if any? Has it affected your work so far?
If collecting data stops for too long and we can't get to the field to get the samples that we need to process in the lab, it is going to slow things down. Because I have been so focused on my course this semester, and I still have work to do just to get my lab set up, I can get back to getting ready to bring everything in and get set up. What it has hindered in the short term, though, is a field trip that I had planned in Australia for May. This was to finish up one of the projects I have going there focusing on the Australian hibiscus plant. It's frustrating not to be able to do the fieldwork because getting that funded and organized is a bit of a challenge.
8. What is your favorite Louisiana plant?
One of the plants that I've run into here is the bladderwort (Utricularia), a carnivorous plant. It's not like a Drosera [sundew], which has those obvious sticky glands, but it does have leaves that trap insects. I went out with a graduate student, Jamie Phelps, to the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge because she was scoping it out as a possible study site. This little yellow bladderwort, for some reason it just really took my fancy. I realized that not a lot of work has been done on its phylogenetics or its pollination biology, even though they are a fairly diverse group of plants. I might think about working on them.
Dr. Karen Maruska is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Her lab works on social behaviors such as courtship, reproduction, and aggression, and how the brain controls those behaviors. Fish are used as a vertebrate model to study these questions.
What got you interested in the field of neuroscience?
I’ve always been interested in the brain. We know a lot about it, but there is still more and more we don’t know. The field is never going to get old, there are always going to be new things that spark interest in neuroscience. In this field, we can approach research questions from all levels of biology, from molecular or gene-level aspects all the way up to how an animal behaves. Behavior is just so fascinating. So many animals do so many cool behaviors and understanding how the same basic building blocks of neurons are controlling all these different behaviors is just kind of mind-blowing to me.
What question did you set out to address when you started this work? How has that changed through your research?
The thing I’m most interested in is the plasticity of the brain. Hormones can influence brain activity and sensory function. It is becoming more and more recognized now that a neuron isn’t always that same neuron all the time - it doesn’t always fire the same way, and it isn’t always influenced in the same way. The animal’s internal physiology is always changing over time, which changes how the nervous system responds. For example, animals in the breeding season have very different hormone levels, and their sensory systems have different perceptual abilities. In the non-breeding season, a female might not care about what signals the male is giving, and her hormone levels are low. She ignores him, even though she has the same nervous system. The connections change, and different things modulate how those hormones influence neural activity. That is the question my lab is moving towards.
You use fish as a model organism for studying social behavior, but can these be applied to humans?
Not everything we do has to be applied to humans, but it does have some human implications because it is a vertebrate. The brain structures are the same and the neurons are very similar. If we use a simpler animal like a fish, we can manipulate them in ways that you can’t do with people. You can then start looking at other animals to see if [the behaviors and neurobiology] are the same, well conserved and retained through evolution. In that case, it’s going to also exist in humans. One example is that our fish are mouthbreeders, so they hold their eggs inside their mouth for two weeks. During that two-week time, they don’t eat, and they lose a lot of weight. When they release their babies, they need to start eating right away. Our project is trying to understand how the brain controls the switches between eating a lot, stopping eating immediately, starving for two weeks, and then eating again. So that has a lot of implications for [understanding human conditions] like eating disorders.
Can you describe the most exciting discovery you have made in your research?
The one that’s most exciting to me has been these changes in sensory processing with hormone levels. In a recent study, we showed that the female’s visual system changes across the reproductive cycle. When a female is growing her eggs and getting ready to spawn with the male, her visual sensitivity and hearing improves. She is looking for visual courtship signals and auditory courtship signals, so her sensitivity is heightened during this time. The time frame to find a mate is very short, so she’s maximizing her ability to detect. I suspect that this type of sensory plasticity related to reproductive state and hormones is more widespread than we realize.
As we wrap-up, do you have any advice for young women scientists?
I was pretty fortunate to have really supportive mentors. The reality is that women are going to experience things that our male colleagues are not. My best advice is to just be true to yourself and know that you can do it. Find people that are going to support you, cheer for you, and give you opportunities. Take yourself out of situations that are harmful to your mental health. Women have such awesome ideas and we can’t let them be silenced. So fight for what you believe in and fight to have your voice heard.
Dr. Jeremy Brown uses computational phylogenetics to model everything from how turtles are related to other vertebrate animals to the evolution of viruses
How would you describe your research to the general public?
I am a computational evolutionary biologist. I am interested in answering questions about how evolution has shaped life on Earth. But we use computational approaches to do that, so we don’t generate new data in my lab. We rely on collaborators to do sequencing for us, or we use publicly available datasets to address broad questions. We take genetic data and use it to reconstruct the tree of life. We’re essentially trying to put together the big picture of how different living things are related to each other.
How have your research interests been impacted by COVID-19? Are you interested in the evolutionary history of the virus?
Definitely. From an evolutionary perspective, there is reconstructing the spread of the virus and then there is the question of how is it going to change going forward, and what does that mean for the effectiveness of a vaccine. Thankfully, COVID doesn't seem to evolve super-fast, which should help with vaccine [development]. We've been in discussions with labs at LSU that are collecting samples, and we'll be doing some genome sequencing to figure out where the viruses that we see here in Louisiana fit into the bigger picture of the pandemic. A website called Next Strain has been keeping track of the phylogenetics of emerging diseases for a long time. Whenever new sequences are generated - whether it's Ebola, or Zika, or now COVID - they immediately pull any publicly-available data and then build [evolutionary] trees and add it to the trees they already have. This allows us to keep track of the spread of the virus in real time. Obviously, here in Louisiana, we have a local interest. We would like to know where the viruses here came from, and how many separate introductions [there were]. If we can understand any aspect of local transmission, that would be helpful for planning for future pandemics.
What is your science story? Take me through some moments when you knew you wanted to be a scientist.
I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. I grew up spending a lot of time outside in suburban Indianapolis just being outside and catching lizards, snakes, and salamanders, so I was always interested in the natural world. When I entered college, I became part of a pilot program at Indiana University that got students into research labs from day one. I started off in a purely molecular biology lab and quickly realized that I wasn't interested in the specifics of [molecular] mechanisms and was more interested in how things come to be the way they are. When I went to graduate school, I wanted to do field herpetology and then I got sidetracked into doing computational things. My advisor had this knack of taking people who came in with the intention of doing fieldwork and helping them realize how interesting the computational side was. I tell people I'm in a career long sidetrack and that I'm still trying to become a field biologist.
How was your path to achieve this position? Was it hard for you?
I feel fortunate, I should say. But that’s not to say there were not stressful times along the way. Everybody in academia struggles with some level of self-doubt and impostor syndrome: where you go between feeling you know everything and that you know nothing. There are not times when you say, “I have already accomplished everything I needed to accomplish for now, and I can rest and then get up and start the next thing the next day”. It’s always a cycle of things that need to be done, so it can be difficult to maintain mental health. That is one aspect of Computational Biology [that] is difficult, because it is mobile. For me, it means that at some level I should always be working—it is sort of a blessing and a curse. Managing that has taken some practice, and I’m still learning.
What is the most enjoyable part of being a principal investigator and running your own lab?
Being able to help set the direction of the research is really nice. But also just to get to work with really talented and enthusiastic students. I see the role of a principal investigator as a guide. You know, if the lab is a ship then the principal investigator is the rudder.
You have been a professor at LSU since 2011, how has LSU supported your research?
One of the reasons I was really excited about coming here is because what I do sits between computational methods and organismal biology. LSU is a perfect place for that, because we have these outstanding computational resources and lots of people who think about those kinds of problems across different fields. My lab interacts a lot with people working at the LSU Museum of Natural Science because there’s a lot of interest in phylogenetics there, and with people at the LSU Vet School as well because there’s a lot of work on viruses. Logistically, LSU has been really supportive, and personally, our department has been outstanding in terms of career development.
You’ve received a good amount of grants and fellowships. Do you have any tips for successful grant writing?
It is really valuable to be on a review panel [for the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health]. Once you start being on the other side of grant applications, you start to realize what works and what doesn't. Make sure you are very clear to reviewers what you are trying to do, and convey your enthusiasm in an infectious way. Also, asking for feedback is super important. The best writing always has many people who read it and offer their opinions.
What would you say to freshmen students that are thinking of pursuing a career in academia?
There are many upsides to academia, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I value the intellectual freedom. I don’t think I could function well in a job where somebody dictated to me what kinds of question I should be addressing. That flexibility to being able to pursue your passions… I think academia is a great track. It’s probably not for everyone, there are some downsides: there are a limited number of jobs that a lot of people are competing for, and sometimes you must move to places where you don’t necessarily anticipate moving. It’s a lifestyle choice, as much as it is as a job.
Words of wisdom for graduate students?
Don’t feel like you have to experience graduate school the same way that somebody else did. Also, don't put blinders on and only focus on your exact research question. It's important to be able to put your research in perspective in a broader framework -- finding a mix of things you do because you are really excited about them, but also things you can turn into publications. I always try and have a mix of the core research that I do and side projects that I know I can turn around quickly.