Smart Athlete Podcast Ep.41 - Ben Martin - OLYMPIC PHD - Part 3 of 3

So, when I made the decision, I think the answer would have been no, and that I wouldn't have joined a lab where I couldn't have done it. And actually no, to be honest, all through when I was playing the answer, still would have been, I would have kept playing and would have not joined the perfect project.
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep.41 - Ben Martin - OLYMPIC PHD - Part 3 of 3

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BEN: So, when I made the decision, I think the answer would have been no, and that I wouldn't have joined a lab where I couldn't have done it. And actually no, to be honest, all through when I was playing the answer, still would have been, I would have kept playing and would have not joined the perfect project. ?? 00:18> probably a different answer priorities in life have changed. But no, I think for me to-- it was important for me to do both and to, it was important to find a place where like, both my field hockey coach is actually very accommodating as was needed. Like he was very understanding about me having this academic side and then my PhD supervisor, just incredible. She gave me so much leeway and so much support in my pursuits. And so I think it was, I got very lucky and I think I wouldn't have been able to do it otherwise. JESSE: Well, it sounds like you're, like you said, I'll say fortunate. I hate using lucky because I feel like sometimes it belies the fact that you know, who you are draws you to certain opportunities, and then you take them. I guess in the sense, that's luck. But I feel like there's probably some sort of underlying drive to figure out how to make it happen when it's something that you want. But it definitely sounds like you're fortunate that you’ve met people that were accommodating and not-- Because I know, academics that are like, almost anti-sport or outright anti-sport like they don't want student-athletes involved because they’re like you're just-- you're not going to be serious enough about the research or whatever we're doing here in the lab. And it's like I kind of get it because it's like you want, same thing with a coach. Coach wants ?? 02:01> that all in mentality. You know, don't want your divided attention but it's like it cut short kind of the potential for who somebody is like that you are in both worlds. I mean, that's-- you're the kind of person I talked to that lives in both worlds. And yes, the kind of person that you are is a little more rare. Not everybody lives in both niches, especially at such a high level. But it's like, why would you try to stump somebody’s potential to be the best human they could be just because of your bias, you know? BEN: Yeah. JESSE: So, tell me about your PhD research, and we'll kind of work forward from there. BEN: Yeah, so I mean, ?? 02:52> your background in biology is, but-- JESSE: Not a lot, but explain like I'm five and I'll probably be able to follow along. BEN: Yeah, so big picture, what was I studying, I was studying something called gene activation. So, you’ve probably heard about genes before, they’re in your DNA. And so something that's helpful to think about why would you care which genes are turned on or off. So, every cell in your body contains the same copy of your DNA. And it's a genetic blueprint and it tells every cell in your body how to be a cell. So, a brain cell is using that genetic code to be a brain cell, as is a skin cell or heart cell or muscle cell. The fact that you've got all these different cells from the same blueprint tells you they're using that blueprint differently. And so just in some ways, just as important as what your DNA is, how your DNA is being used in all the different cells is what makes you. An analogy for that is like a cookbook. So, if you think of The Joy of Cooking, it's got all these different recipes. And from that same cookbook, you can make many different meals. And just because you have the cookbook doesn't mean you're always going to make every recipe in it. You'll make some on Sunday and some on some others. And cells are like that. They're not going to use every gene all the time. They're going to use specific genes to make specific parts of cells. So, something like insulin is a gene that's in every cell in your body, but it's only expressed in the pancreas. And so how do cells control which genes are on, which genes are off? How do the mechanisms work is what I study? And in my PhD, I studied this in yeast. So, baker's yeast, essentially the same use us to make bread, there's some aspects of how this process of turning a gene on, that's the same-- fundamentally the same in yeast as it is in humans or in any other eukaryotic cell. And that's what I studied. And I studied how the physical packaging of DNA changes when it's expressed or not. And so, basically, what some, to some degree we can observe is that when a gene is on the region of the genome that it is becomes more open and accessible. And when a gene is off, it becomes more closed and compact. And I studied one chemical modification that's associated with that. JESSE: Okay. So, and we'll, we'll talk about Cheryl here in a second. But so are you, I guess I'll say Cheryl talked about switching models and you're talking about working on yeast. Do you basically commit to a model and say, I'm only going to work in that model for all of my research? Or are you able to switch models later on when you go to a different project? Or like how do you take, I'll say, I'll say a theory, you know, I don’t necessarily mean theory explicitly, but how do you take that idea forward, when you're switching from one model to another? BEN: Yeah. And so different scientists will probably give you different answers. And there's different-- and probably all those answers are right, but just different people have different ways of doing that. And so for me, I think I'm a little model agnostic and more question-driven. And so like for a particular scientific question, different models will be better suited. And so for what I was studying in my PhD, yeast were actually a great model for it. And now in my postdoc, I'm studying a couple different things, but like, one thing I've studied a little bit is how does one cell change into another type of cell. Which happens during like, development from the embryo onwards, like you have many cells, starting from just one cell. And so yeasts are a terrible model for that because they don't really do cell type changes. They're a unicellular organism. And so now in my postdoc, I'm actually working with mouse cells. And so I've switched because the questions I'm asking are different. And the ability to switch between model to model, it's not that it's super easy, but it's also not that hard either. Especially for the well-established models, there's so many people who know how to work with them and you can learn from. And so, now my career, I've made one switch. So, I've gone from yeast to mouse cells, and I think depending on what questions I'm asking, I might switch again. And my hope is that the more often you switch, the easier it is to do. But check back in with me and we'll see. JESSE: Okay. So, I think Cheryl talked about, she-- So, for anybody listening or watching on YouTube, Cheryl Keller Capone, Episode 39, she's actually the one who said I need to talk to Ben and that's how we got in touch with him. So, she, I think mentioned working with flies originally and then switching to a mouse model, and I'm not sure what she's doing now. But between the two of you that kind of conjures up this question in my head about? So, thinking about the yeast, simple model for the particular kind of research you're doing, and now you need a different model, because it doesn't fit that structure anymore. The question I have is, is there a known chain or known relationship between models all the way up to like using humans as a model, in terms of saying, if we find this out about yeast, then we can assume it is probably true about X, Y, and Z model? BEN: Yeah, I mean, we can, there's some things-- yeah. So, there is never an exact answer. But they’re certain like, at this point, we know certain processes are conserved so we go Oh, this particular process happens largely speaking the same in yeast as it does in mouse, as it does in humans. And we go okay, so we discover something in yeast. We haven't-- we don't, we can't say that's how it works in humans, but it's a pretty good guess that it would. And so then often what will happen, someone will ?? 10:17> in yeast use because yeasts are much easier to work with. You can do science a lot faster in them. And then someone will come along later in flies or mouse or human cells and kind of show this and then find out if it's the same thing or it's slightly different. And so as long as like the process is conserved or like the key genes are conserved, there often is a link. And sometimes what we’ll-- the other thing that can-- before you get to humans, you might say, oh, we see that working this way in yeast, we see the same thing in flies and the same thing in mice. And you say okay, this is probably a pretty general thing. It's conserved across like pretty broad ?? 11:04> of organisms. Humans might still be different, like humans might have diverged. But it's a good guess is the fairly general mechanism. JESSE: Right. I just think-- the reason I asked that is I think about, I'll say the general population, and I still consider myself a layman in most fields, which is why it's fun to talk to people like you. But I think sometimes people have a hard time when they say, say wherever you're studying, say, for whatever reason, by the scientific community, which really is not scientifically at large, but the people that would understand your research, decide this is a breakthrough. And then somehow it ends up in like the New York Times or something, and then people read it and they go, “It's yeast, what does that have to do with me?” So, that's what I always wonder like, how do we communicate the applicability between like what you guys are doing? And then how it affects people or how it could affect people. I know there's not always a straight, this is how it could affect you. It's okay, we don't know yet, but then it might combine something later on. And now we know, you know how it might affect you. BEN: Yeah. So, a nice example of that. So, in the late 80s, early 90s, this is before a lot of the modern techniques, a lot of biology was discovered in yeast by doing genetic screens. And you'd have some sort of phenotype. And you'd be able to pull out genes that affected that phenotype and so they do-- and the gene names would take on the type of screen that it was. So, for instance, there's a whole bunch of genes that are SNF and then a number and that's because that stands for Sucrose Non-Fermenting. So, a bunch of those genes were discovered in yeast in the late 80s, early 90s. Later, they went on to find out that those regulate how DNA is packaged, and how something called chromatin is assembled. And skip forward a bit, a few more years to 2000s, and we find out that some of the SNF genes are conserved through humans. So, the bunch of genes that are named Sucrose Non-Fermenting are classic genes that are called Sucrose Non-Fermenting in humans and are commonly mutated and cancers. And the basis for what we know about them is actually stemming from the yeast work done in the 80s and 90s. And so that for like, for your research dollar, like it's very, very cheap to do that sort of discovery work in yeast; it would cost you know, ?? 13:53> magnitude more to do that in something like human cells. And so we discovered all this biology and then we find out that’s then actually what's informing us about how things are going wrong in cancer, and how we can try and hopefully, come up with new therapeutics. JESSE: Yeah. It's kind of nice to see that and I'm glad you had an example too like I said, it's just a matter of like, I feel like-- Well, I live in the Midwest, so I don't know how much you know about, I guess, as culture changes throughout the ?? 14:29> the United States, I'll be frank about being not very literate in like Canadian culture and politics as it changes across the country aside from that, there's the separatists in Quebec, that's about all I know about. But anyway, so I live in a fairly conservative and kind of religious part of the country almost like demonizes scientists at times. And it's like they're doing all this I’ll say witchcraft. I'm obviously being facetious. But it's like they're doing these mysterious experiments and why are they wasting money and all these kinds of things? And it's like, look, we're trying to figure out things that help people, they're like kind of advanced human knowledge. So, I’m just, I’m trying to share my appreciation for both the work you're doing and for giving a good example of like, how that kind of progresses into something that matters farther down the line. So, Cheryl said I need to talk to you, so how does she know you? How do you know her? How does that happen? BEN: Yeah. So, Cheryl, and I have actually never met in person. But there is a rich scientific community on Twitter, and so we've just messaged a bunch on Twitter and so kind of have some shared interests and scientists are very-- like scientists on Twitter seem to be extremely helpful and supportive of each other. And so there's lots of like scary transitions that like the PhD, the postdoc transition for me is one of those scary transitions I went through. And I got a lot of help and advice from people I've never met via Twitter. Which I'm not just getting advice from strangers on the internet, but I am a bit getting advice from strangers on the internet. But so I mean, so Cheryl, and I like because we both are scientists, we both have interest in sports, and she's got her background as a runner, and so we’ve connected on that a few times. JESSE: Yeah. Well, it's like you're both doing I’ll say gene type research. Obviously, you're not doing the same thing. But it's not like you're studying astrophysics, and she's studying genes or anything. Like there's a much closer link between your field. BEN: Yeah, and like a lot of the people, like I'll meet someone on-- I'll interact with someone on Twitter and then we'll go to the same conference and we'll have a beer and you know then we're close friends to that point. JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. This is just-- before we close out, run out of time. I just-- it's always interesting to me how like, the internet kind of changes how our culture interacts now, where it's like, say, we didn't have the internet, you didn't have Twitter, you didn't meet those people, but you still went to the conference. You wouldn't necessarily have interacted with them otherwise, you know? BEN: Yeah. JESSE: So, before we run out of time, so this is the second year I've been doing the show. I like to ask everybody the same question just because the answer will vary. This year, I'm asking people, a kind of esoteric question, and asking what do you think the purpose of sport is? BEN: Wow. That’s an interesting question. I think ?? 18:00> different ways. I don't really have a clean answer for that. I think I'll answer-- Well, I'll answer what is the purpose of sport for me. And so for me, it's really about the enjoyment. Like I just-- I get this joy from playing sport, for me, mostly from playing hockey. This you know, it's all a bunch of different things. But at the end of the day, it just makes me happy. Enjoy it. I think there's lots of other benefits that come after them, like health and fitness and all the rest of it. But really, for me, it's just about having fun, enjoying life. JESSE: Great answer. And yeah, it's totally fine to answer just for you. I don't expect you to know like answer for all of humanity. BEN: Yeah. JESSE: Since I know you're on Twitter since you mentioned that, how do people find you? How do people keep in touch with kind of what you're doing and your research or want to get in touch with you? BEN: Yeah, so my Twitter is BMart87. It's a clever handle I picked when I was quite a bit younger. I was born in 1987 so that's where that comes from. And I'm on there quite a bit. It's a big mixture of kind of just random life stuff, a lot of science. And also you'll get a lot about field hockey and caribou because the team name is the red caribou. JESSE: Okay. Thanks for spending some time today with me, Ben. BEN: Thanks so much for having me. JESSE: Take care. Go to Part 1 Go to Part 2

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