“When you finally get to the summit, you feel so accomplished that you are actually there that it makes that whole trip worth it.”
How did you get to where you are today?
I grew up in California, in the Central Valley, which is very agriculturally rich. Growing up I was always curious. I did not grow up as a scientist as you would say. Things that would captivate me were National Geographics and Zoo books. I was always curious about biology and how the world works in general. When I was in high school, I really did not know what I wanted to do – I had no clue. I was a good student, I had a good GPA and I was an athlete so I was in a lot of sports and I pretty much knew I was most likely going to go to college, but I did not know what I wanted to do. I did not have what we call now a scientific community for kids. We did not have internships – I am sure there were some but where I was we did not have biotech. In the summers I just worked.
I was very raw going into college not knowing what I wanted to do. Originally I thought that I wanted to be an engineer, because I was very mechanically inclined, but I stayed undeclared. One thing that did happen is I got into UC Santa Barbara, but then I did not take my senior year of AP Chemistry as planned. They withdrew my admission and by that time all of the other colleges had filled up, so I got into Sacramento State and went there for a year. Following this, I moved back home and went to community college for a year. The next year, I transferred to Cal Poly, my second choice. I was still undeclared but I was shifting to doing a medical or veterinarian degree, so I started working at the Cal Poly Veterinary Clinic. But my problem with becoming a veterinarian was that too many people euthanize their animals just because they cannot afford the treatment.
I had a professor who kept talking about systems biology, proteomics, and transcriptomics. I was one of those quiet students who observed and did really well, but I was not going to his office hours to communicate. Finally I went to go talk to him at the end of my spring quarter. I told him, “Hey, I really like this -omics stuff and systems biology, is there any way you have room in your lab?” My professor told me that he did not have room but that I could wash dishes. So, I began washing dishes, and observing people in the lab, learning about the projects, and going to lab meetings.
By my senior year, I was taking masters classes with the masters students and had my own proteomics project, and we ended up publishing a paper. I was running the Mass Spectrometer by myself – I was doing a lot of stuff that you would expect a masters student to do as a senior. Then I realized that I really like this sort of discovery stuff – when you see these gels come out and see these results it is really cool.
We had a speaker come in from Montana State, and he gave this really cool talk about thermophilic cyanobacteria and archea at Yellowstone. He mentioned that they had a fellowship at MSU. I applied for it, and they accepted me and flew me out to tell me about their program. I decided to switch gears again and get my PhD. I went straight from my undergrad to my PhD. When I got to Montana State we had rotations, so the first year, instead of going directly into a department, you could rotate between departments. In that time, I worked with three great PIs, all from different departments, all with different projects, and I ended up figuring out which one I really wanted to work on.
The entire time since undergrad, I had always kept an eye on systems biology, and the project we had for my PhD was about systems biology. I had always kept an eye on this Institute. Low and behold, right when I was graduating, Nitin posted this position on diatom physiology and systems biology. I thought I would be perfect for that so I emailed Nitin and he had me give a talk to the lab and he hired me the next day. I went straight from my PhD to here and it has been three years.
Like I have said, you are a different person when you are eighteen, twenty-four, and twenty-eight – your world changes so much that you should not be holding onto what you think you should be doing. The main thing is, are you smart and can you think critically. You can shift gears at any time and you will catch up. Do not pigeon hole yourself yet. Figure out if you are going to be happy doing what you are about to start. Do not be afraid to change something or try something else.
What are some things that you are working on right now? What are some projects that you oversee?
My main project is that I am working on the resilience of diatoms in the context of climate change. Diatoms are very present, and they account for 40% of the primary productivity in the oceans. Primary producers are very important because that is the main source of getting carbon. What happens as the CO2 builds up is that it dissolves into water and makes carbonic acid which dissociates a proton to make bicarbonate, and so you have a pH drop in the oceans. Right now, the ocean is around a pH of 7.9. The question is, what happens when the pH drops to 7.7, or 7.6 when we are at the end of the century? How will this effect the diatoms in the future? If we can figure this out, we can model better, manage better, and look for areas at risk. We perform stress tests, where we take an organism and stress it out basically. When we transition the diatoms between day and night, we give it an increasing amount of UV in the light time. When they are managing all of these tradeoffs, what is going to happen? So what happens, if you are a diatom at low carbon and high pH, you would collapse quicker. If you are at high carbon, which is when the ocean is acidified in the future, you do not have to manage that. In the future, we are expecting the diatoms to be more resilient. That will be profound because any time something will overcrowd others, the ecosystem becomes unstable. It may be really good for the diatoms but not for other organisms. This will cause a shift in the food chain.
The other project that I work on is the algal biofuel project. We are working on the algae to build a gene regulatory network model, and from that we are trying to build predictions on how we can have it make more oil or grow faster. The big thing with the algae is they will grow fast but they will not make a lot of oil at the same time. If we can figure out what valves in the network to turn so that you can make oil and grow at the same rate, that would be a very beneficial organism to have to grow fuel. One part of this is building the models, and another is to edit the genomes to make the changes ourselves.
I also work on the ENIGMA project where we are building these anaerobic bioreactors to mimic soil microbes and microbiomes. We have the bioreactors going but really I need to find more time to work on this.
Then I work on all of the intern stuff. I enjoy working with all of you guys. I also set up the Near Pear program which we started this year and hopefully we will continue to improve upon that for the following years.
The thing about having multiple skills is that you get brought into doing so much more. This has helped me in many ways because I get to learn so much more.
What is something that you learned about yourself when you went through undergrad and grad school?
Like I mentioned, I was very shy in undergrad. I kind of feel like you know you’re doing good when your grades are good, but you are not confident, or asking questions or giving answers. When I got to my PhD, I began to measure myself up to my peers, which everyone does, and I realized that I didn’t know if I belonged. But then I quickly realized that I was as smart as these guys. At the end of the day, I realized that this was not hard – studying is not hard – it is just about if you want to do it. I became very efficient in grad school in realizing that it was not about reading a paper word for word but rather about finding a way to realize the big picture, the overall meaning. I learned to obtain information like crazy, and that made me a really good scientist. Nobody is trying to invent a brand new piece of equipment in grad school, usually it is about how do you use a piece of equipment to understand something, solve a problem, or answer a question. Once you figure this out, you realize that there are not intellectual gaps anymore. This epiphany moment is what I learned in grad school.
Is there anything else that surprised you about being a scientist that you did not know prior to doing research in undergrad?
One thing that surprised me about getting a postdoc position is how much orthogonal stuff there is to research – meetings, interns, public relations, grant writing – just so much other stuff to physically drive a project. In grad school, your project is laid out for you because the funding is already there. Here, you have a project, but you always have the next question, which is, how can you build a research program from it. I don’t think a lot of people realize that there is so much other work put into research. There is a lot of management involved, which is good and bad. I like it, because I like interacting with people. If you like to be a leader or a primary investigator, you quickly find out if this sort of work is for you.
Are you happy with the decision you made to do research instead of taking a veterinary or other track? If you could go back, is there anything that you would change?
I am happy with the decision that I made on a daily basis. Sometimes, monetarily, you realize that you could be making so much more. But the best part of my job is that every day is different, it never gets redundant, and interacting with young people like you is incredible. One thing that I believe in is that research is a grind. I compare it as trying to climb a peak. It is a long climb, and you get tired, and you always wonder how much longer, you might see a false peak and think you are almost there, but you’re not there. When you finally get to the summit, you feel so accomplished that you are actually there, that it makes that whole trip worth it. That is how it is for research. You have to grind, especially if you want to make an impact, but once you make it to that top, it is all worth it. If you can appreciate those moments, it makes it so much better.
How do you balance your workload and your personal life?
You should have a life outside of work. You need to make sure you are refreshed, that you are happy to come into work on Monday mornings. When you can, take as much time off as you need. Make sure you are not answering emails past 8:00pm and make sure you are taking the weekend off. Research is not usually an 8:00am to 5:00pm job. It does carry over into the weekends if you have to collect data at certain time points. You should not want to sacrifice anything. If you do too much of one thing, it is never good. Sometimes it makes people great and sometimes it makes people not great, so you must find a balance for yourself.
Do you have any long term goals you are working towards in your research?
I want to be a professor, I want to be my own principal investigator, and I want to run my own program. This means that I would write the grants, have grad students, and undergraduates working for me.
When did you adopt the philosophy of being a systems biologist?
I was in the proteomics lab. When you are in a specific lab, you feel like whatever that focus is, that it will save the world. Soon, I realized that there are limitations as much as there are advantages to proteomics. I started to realize that we needed to take a multi -omic approach. This happened when I went to a conference in Boston in my undergrad to present a poster. There, I went to the bioinformatics section, and started reading about systems biology. Since then, I have adopted this approach.
What do you think are some big problems that science faces?
Philosophically, it is hard to describe to the public how my little job can impact them. For example, if you are growing up in Kentucky, the oceans do not impact you, so you are not bothered to care for the oceans. As scientists, we need to disseminate our work and communicate with people so that they understand the value of what we are doing. When I tell people that I am a scientist, they don’t understand that all my money comes from soft money and that all the work that I produce I give to the public. Everything that I get I give to everyone else. A big danger for our science community is that people do not understand why the work we are doing is important.
Do you have any advice for high school students thinking about college?
My advice to you is that you should never pigeon hole yourself. Be open and accepting of change. Also, when you are in your undergraduate and graduate schools, do not focus on memorizing the little things. It is so much more important to be able to be a good thinker, understand things for what they are, and apply knowledge. You should understand the process.