Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 83 - Dr. Christine Morrison - BIO-INSPIRED ATHLETE

I think part of it was I had never learned how to run properly. But my first experience running was actually on skates. Because if you’ve ever seen a speed skating race short track, when you start you run on your skates.
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 83 - Dr. Christine Morrison - BIO-INSPIRED ATHLETE

CHRISTINE: [00:01] I think part of it was I had never learned how to run properly. But my first experience running was actually on skates. Because if you’ve ever seen a speed skating race short track, when you start you run on your skates. But in order to run on skates, you have to do a duck walk with your toes pointed out. And I would train to run on my skates over and over and over again.

That was the only running training I really had. So, this is just my theory. I don’t know how true it is. But when I would try to run like a normal person in normal shoes, I didn’t have the right biomechanics. And so it just hurt, it felt bad. I didn’t like it. But anyway, so that is the state where I existed with regards to running for most of my life.

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JESSE: [01:37] Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today has her Ph.D. in Chemistry. Currently, she’s an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Colorado School of Mines. She’s a competitive triathlete completing her first Ironman in 2017. Working on, hopefully, doing another one soon. Welcome to the show, Dr. Christy Morrison.

CHRISTINE: [01:59] Thank you, Jessie. I’m really excited to be here.

JESSE: Thanks for joining me. Every that is not in on the pre-show antics got to miss out on us– on all our technical difficulties. Your mic problems, me not turning my volume on, all the things that we should be used to since we’re all using Zoom nowadays. I wonder sometimes if I should have gone into some kind of neuropsychology or study of the brain to figure out why my brain likes to forget easy things like that so much. So, we’re talking like interesting tidbits or like little facts.

Before we got going and you mentioned to me, despite having a hiatus because of the pandemic, do you actually do West Coast Swing dancing? How do you get into that? As I mentioned before I got going, I’d done it a couple times, but I would not in any sense consider myself schooled or a dancer. So, how does that start? How do you go in with West Coast Swing?

CHRISTINE: [03:08] Yeah, so I did dance a little bit as a kid. But it was mostly once a week on a Saturday morning. So, it was more of a hobby than like a passion that I pursued for a long time. But a few years ago, I was looking for something new to do. And I had a friend that was really excited about dancing. I lived in San Diego at the time, and there’s a lot of West Coast Swing going on in San Diego.

So, I went with them to one of the lessons and before the social dance, there’s always a beginner lesson and I just loved it that night. So, that became a weekly adventure for me. Less so now. Social dancing is not good during pandemic times.

[inaudible 03:54] about a year since I’ve been dancing, but I find it just really great for a creative release. I’m an extremely disciplined and fairly intense person when it comes to neuroscience and my triathlon training. And for me, West Coast is an opportunity to just really tap into my more creative side. And it’s funny because when I got into dancing, everyone was like, “Wow, you’ve must have been dancing for so long.

What have you done before West Coast?” I’m like, “Triathlon.” There must be something about just the mind-body connection like having to control very much what my body is doing that translates to dancing and being able to pick up the moves. But I really enjoy it and I look forward to dancing as soon as I can when the pandemic has ended.

JESSE: [04:45] Yeah, it’s one of those things I think you mentioned like people wouldn’t necessarily expect it from you and sometimes I think about this it’s a little less prevalent in my mind now that I basically am just by my– me and my fiance at home all the time by ourselves. But when you work with somebody, or in your case, maybe your students who are listening. So, hello students. But if you have a professor like, that’s the avenue that you know them. Like, you go to class, they lecture you on your– in your case chemistry.

And it’s like, “Dr. Morrison knows all about chemistry, she’s not going to let us screw around. Like, we’ve got to learn this.” And that’s it. That’s that person in your mind, but you don’t see– And for various good reasons, but often you just don’t see those other aspects of people. And sometimes I think it’s easy to forget that people are very multidimensional. It’s not simply like, all I do is teach chemistry. I stop existing, as soon as you leave this room. Like, I do other things.

CHRISTINE: [05:49] Yeah, I totally agree. And I felt like that with all of my instructors too throughout all of my education is just, they’re my teachers. And that’s who they are. That must be who they are all the time. And I try to bring a lot of myself to my teaching and to my research group, just to show people that we’re all humans and working on these different things and have different passions. And it’s a really great way to connect with my students and get to know them, as they get to know me. It’s something I really enjoy about teaching and working in academia.

JESSE: [06:25] So, I kind of wonder, do you remember the point, when you, I’ll say crossed over, but what from that point of view, where you were a student, and there’s these teachers, and they did this thing, and they only existed in this place. And then you cross over to the other side, and you begin to see, well, I’ll call it for lack of a better word, all the shenanigans that happens on the other side of the ta–

Just all the real interpersonal things that happens between teachers, the things that they try to, in some kind of, I guess, bad situations, try to shelter from students from and like kind of seeing behind the curtain. Do you remember that moment?

CHRISTINE: [07:04] Oh, goodness. Yeah, it was probably recent, probably when I started as an Assistant Professor, which was July of 2019. So, I’ve been on the job for about a year now. And before that, I was a postdoc. And for listeners not familiar with how you proceed through academia, you do your bachelor’s degree, then your Ph.D.

And in both of those situations, you’re a student. And then typically, in chemistry, before you apply to be a professor, you do an additional training called a postdoc. And you’re still working in a research lab at a university under a professor, but you lose that student status, and you’re considered an employee. And you already have your Ph.D. experience.

So, that was a little bit of the transition period going, where I kind of had my foot in both areas, where I remember what it was like to be a student, but I’m not a professor yet. And then made the full transition back in July 2019. Yeah, and peering behind the curtain, as you say. And some days, it feels like I’ve been doing this job for five or 10 years. And other days, it feels like I started yesterday. And I try to just be really open with that with my student because we’re all humans just trying to survive this life.

But, yeah, gonna make mistakes, gonna get some things right. And to really own that with my students and show them what it’s like to be a professor. Especially as a woman in science, it’s really important to me to represent that to my students in the hope that they could see themselves in my shoes, or whatever shoes they would like to fill down the road. But to show them that we’re not just science robots in the lab, that we do other things, and we think about other things and to make the process and the jobs seem like something that they could do too.

JESSE: [09:04] I think, maybe I’ll try to speak on behalf of your students now. So, sorry, guys, if I’m putting words in your mouth. But at least when I was a student, I felt like the professors that were always very genuine about this is where I am and could be honest about owning mistakes, like, that’s part of what I mean about being genuine. It’s like, it’s not– There’s no facade. It’s not just like a perfunctory job that I’m performing day after day. Like it’s a genuine, I’m showing up to be here for you and do the best I can. I’m also human.

But it’s like, I feel like that goes beyond the topic, right? So, it’s like, it’s gonna make it easier for me to connect to chemistry if I can connect to you as a person and be interested in what you’re talking about. Because you and I are going to sit here all semester and you’re going to tell me about things. And if I either don’t have respect for you or just can’t make any kind of connection, it’s going to make it very difficult for me to try to listen and memorize equations and figure out how to put things together.

CHRISTINE: [10:14] Yes, exactly. And I’d say chemistry, in particular, has a pretty, I think, infamous reputation for that. I mean, I didn’t like my introduction to chemistry classes. I got into chemistry kind of accidentally. I thought I was going to do a research project in biology and it turned out to be a chemistry-based project with applications and biology.

But I was a high school student at the time and wasn’t able to clearly understand the research that was happening until I got there and started doing it. It was like, “Oh, I’m doing chemistry now.” And I loved it. And once I got through that summer, I never looked back. And that was how I picked my major and really started dedicating my professional pursuits to chemistry. And, yeah, that was a really transformative experience in my life.

JESSE: [11:05] I’m glad that– It’s good to hear at least somebody gets it figured out. Because I don’t know if you listen to the episodes where I’ve mentioned this before, but I, on occasion will mention how I think it’s insane we ask 18-year-olds to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. So, I’m glad that it’s kind of worked out for somebody, that somebody has made it through and said, this is it. And I mean, you look very– I mean, just us talking about it, you still look very genuinely excited to be doing the things that you’re doing.

CHRISTINE: [11:35] I am. For sure. And a lot of it’s just been following my nose. I’m a planner. I tend to have a five-year plan and a 10-year plan. But I also know that life is going to get in the way or– not in the way. Life is going to shape it and to be open to those changes and those opportunities and just follow my nose.

JESSE: [11:55] Yeah. I’m not sure how applicable this is to you, but when I think about career trajectory, like in my case, I thought about, what do I want in life? Right? So, do I want to work for somebody? Do I want to work for myself? Do I want flexible hours? You know, what do I want my life to look like as a whole? And then from that, trying to figure out what avenues fit with me both in terms of my skills and interests and kind of go at it from that point. So, it’s like, the end goal is the same.

In my case, I like a really flexible schedule. I like having dominion over what I’m doing, meaning I’m in charge. And I kind of picked an avenue that fits those things. But it could have been any number of things that I’ve done. Like I run businesses and build e-commerce businesses, but I could have done any number of things that fit those avenues. So, I think about it that way. I don’t know if you came at it from that way, or if you’re just simply like, I want to be involved in chemistry. But that’s kind of how I guess I approach career advice when I’m talking to people trying to figure out what to do.

CHRISTINE: [13:12] Yeah. I think that’s great advice. When I personally was figuring out what I wanted to do for my career, I don’t think I was thinking of it in that way. But I’m so happy with the way things turned out because I, like you, prefer a really flexible lifestyle, I prefer to be in control of the things that I’m working on. And working in academia, being a professor allows me all those things.

So, my typical weekday schedule is I wake up at six, I’m at my computer by seven, I work through lunch, and then I take a three-hour break to eat and to do a workout and come back and work for the rest of the day, which usually involves working after dinner. But that’s the trade-off for being able to take the afternoon to go do my exercising. And I really love having that flexibility and that scheduling.

JESSE: [14:07] Well, I think anybody that has not been involved in triathlon or Ironman specifically, and I’ll be the first to say that the fulls have– I’ve never been interested in the full because of how much time it took me just to devote to do the 70.3s. But it’s an enormous undertaking, even for somebody who’s not trying to podium. And I actually don’t know, performance-wise where you are, but I’m just saying regardless of whether you’re going to be the last person finishing or the first person finishing, it’s an enormous undertaking to be ready for race day.

So, I feel like a lot of people watching on TV, watching championships every year and think, “Well that’s really cool,” but don’t really get the scope of all the hours and I feel like emotional turmoil that you go through the ups and downs throughout the entire year to get to that point.

CHRISTINE: [15:07] Yes, definitely, I’ll never forget my first Ironman experience. I was really excited to take that challenge on. But the training volume was really hard. It was a part-time job. It wasn’t just the training time, it was also the extra sleep that I needed extra, the time I needed to spend eating to keep up my calorie intake. And at the time, I was finishing up my Ph.D., and a lot of people thought I was crazy for doing my first Ironman and getting ready to defend my thesis at the same time. But it actually worked out really well. It was —

The discipline and one area of my life just translated so easily to the next area. And my whole existence became about taking care of myself, getting in my work, and getting in my workouts. And I felt like the two passions really fed off of each other. And so that ended up working out quite well. And I hope to repeat that experience going up for tenure here in a few years. My goal is to do my second full Ironman, during that process and hopes again, of those two passions feeding off of each other.

JESSE: [16:28] Did you ever find times when you’re out for– So, if you’ve not trained for a long-distance event, it’s often going to be like 80/20. 80% of the time you’re doing long, slow miles, and 20% you’re doing faster stuff. It can vary depending on who you are. But as a general rule of thumb, that’s a good balance. Did you ever find when you’re out doing your mileage, especially the bike because it takes a considerable amount of time to put in the miles for that, that because of the rhythm to it and in some ways, the monotony like it gave you time to think and solidify some of the things you’re doing professionally?

CHRISTINE: [17:13] Oh, yes. Absolutely. 100% agree. When I’m off doing those long, slow miles, which is most of my workouts, I kind of just get into this meditative state or this flow state. And I kind of liken it to that feeling, right, before you fall asleep, where your brains just kind of wandering and you’re not really conscious of where it’s wandering, but it just goes places.

It gets into that state and a lot, I’m often thinking about work and how to be a better mentor, how to be a better teacher, how to be a better scientist. And yes, those miles are very good for solidifying my approaches to things and my science. And yes, I really enjoy that part of the long, slow miles.

JESSE: [18:00] I kind of feel like it’s almost like if I let go of what my active mind is doing, like right now I’m actively engaged in talking to you, right? So, if I let go of what my active mind’s doing, and I let my active mind kind of go on autopilot to keep myself moving, then it’s like, all those underlying thoughts start, like percolating up. Those things that like, I had just been mulling in my head all day, whether it’s– Like, now I’ve kind of come back and began writing music earlier in the year. So, sometimes tunes will pop in my head. Or sometimes I’ll be thinking about work, I’m thinking about new products, or– It’s like all those kind of things that I’ve been shoving back I’m like, I need to think about that eventually, start filtering their way to the top.

And, as you mentioned, the kind of a meditative process where like, you just let things like arise and fall away. And sometimes I find I have like little eureka moments where I’m like, aha, like it goes that way. Or maybe I need to look into that. And my toughest time is, especially if I’m out for a long ride, remembering that moment when I get back so I can actually look it up.

CHRISTINE: [19:14] Yes, I agree. Yeah, you mentioned the 80/20. And I suppose that’s where the 20 comes in. “Okay, time to get home. I have to write that down.”

JESSE: Right. You gotta haul just to make– I guess it doesn’t happen consistently enough, but I guess you could bring a pen and paper on the bike and just like stop the bike somewhere and be like, “All right, I’m gonna write myself a note and come back to it later. That’s what I find myself doing as I get older. Not that I’m old by any means but just, I know, I have to make myself notes. Otherwise, all of those thoughts are gonna percolate over each other. And then I’m gonna have lost whatever special moment I had.


JESSE: [19:58] So, I have to give you a little bit of a hard time ’cause in the notes you’d sent me kind of giving like a little bit of background on you. You mentioned you hated running as a kid. So, that hurts me deeply because that’s what I do. No, it really doesn’t. But how do you– And Ironman is a lot of running. I mean, it’s a lot more cycling, but it’s a lot of running. How do you go from ‘I hate running’ to I’m going to run a marathon after I’ve already been working out for hours and hours and hours?

CHRISTINE: [20:31] Yeah. So, spoiler alert, I guess running is now one of my favorite things. I usually have at least one ear button listening to my favorite jams. And it’s my little dance party of one when I’m out on the trails. But yes, I hated running as a kid. I honestly wasn’t much of an athlete. I did some athletic things. I got into dance. I did some sports teams at school, but nothing really stuck throughout school until I started speed skating, which my mom got me into. It became a family thing actually. My mom, my dad, my brother, and I would all speed skate together on our team and go to meets together.

[21:12] But anyways, so as part of warm ups for speed skating, our coach would have us run for 10 minutes, and I would do everything I could to try to get out of that 10-minute run. And I think part of it was I had never learned how to run properly. But my first experience running was actually on skates. Because if you’ve ever seen a speed skating race short track, when you start you run on your skates. But in order to run on skates, you have to do a duck walk with your toes pointed out.

And I would train to run on my skates over and over and over again. That was the only running training I really had. So, this is just my theory. I don’t know how true it is. But when I would try to run like a normal person in normal shoes, I didn’t have the right biomechanics. And so it just hurt, it felt bad. I didn’t like it.

[22:10] But anyway, so that is the state where I existed with regards to running for most of my life. And then in early grad school, this is after I hung up my speed skates and got into cycling. In early grad school, I had a group of friends and they all decided to run a half marathon together.

And I was the only one who wasn’t like, part of that core group. And I guess it was fear of missing out, but I just, yeah, decided to sign up for the half marathon and give it a go. And I’ll never forget my first training run. It was a mile and a half around my local neighborhood. And I was swearing the whole time, going super slow, and just this sucks, and I hate it and–

[22:57] But somehow between that and race day, I learned to just love running. It took a while I had to break a lot of mental barriers. I’ll never forget my first 5K run. And now since I’m a long-distance athlete, a 5K is like, you know, yeah, no problem.

JESSE: It’s a warm-up.

CHRISTINE: Yeah, that’s a coffee break. But I had my training plan all set out for my half marathon. And so I knew like two weeks in advance when I was going to run my first 5K. And I was so nervous to run this 5K, but I just– I set the goal. And I did it. I got over that hump. And then my next big moment that I was nervous for was my first 10K, and then hitting that 10-mile run.

And I guess for me, I’ve always been a very goal-oriented person. And I do this in my science and in my athletics. If I set a goal and write it down, I will get there. And so that’s what I did with my training. And before I knew it was race day, and I was really proud of myself. That was my first running race. I ran my half in under two hours, which was a pretty good pace for somebody who’s hated running up until the last two months of their life.

[24:16] And after that, there was no looking back. I continued to keep running. I consider myself a go big or go home person. So, when I get involved in something it’s what’s the biggest, baddest thing I can do? So, when I picked up running after biking, it was, “Okay, well now I got to do an Ironman.” So, yeah, that’s how that story came to be. But yeah, running in triathlon.

JESSE: [24:44] You know, the biomechanics kind of makes a little more sense. I’m not so fervent about it that I become like a zealot. But I know like– even though I ran on scholarship in college, my biomechanics were just wonky. And I was fortunate to have the help of a former pro-triathlete, Barb Lindquist after I graduated college when I was transitioning to triathlon, went to some of her clinics, and kind of worked on biomechanics and improving them.

So, it’s a lot more natural. So, much so that my father used to be able to pick me out of the crowd because of how I ran. And then once I had fixed them, we were in a race and he’s like, he told me afterwards, he just about missed me because I didn’t look the same at all anymore because of how I ran. And I have a suspicion that like, because we stick kids in shoes so early, they lose that natural touch.

[25:48] Like if you watch young kids at– like, you go like a park. I guess, as an adult, man, I shouldn’t just be going to parks and watching kids. But as an example, if you’re at a park, and you see kids running, most of them run very naturally. Like they have excellent form. But I think because of the shoes, and then just a lack of doing it, things get warped over time.

And then you’re like, I’m not even sure how to move these like dangly things at the bottom of me anymore. Like what am I doing? So, it makes a lot more sense that you’re like, “I hate doing this,” especially if you feel awkward or it hurts and all that kind of stuff altogether. It’s like, why would I do this? You know, why did I put myself through this? So, it makes a little more sense.

CHRISTINE: [26:38] Yeah. And I would say I’m going through a similar thing with swimming as well. Typical for triathletes, not all, but a lot of them swimming’s the hardest. That’s certainly true for me as well. I’m in the middle of breaking down my stroke right now and rebuilding it, which I do before every big training and race season, and really trying to get those biomechanics down. And hopefully, see improvements in my swim time.

JESSE: [27:05] Yeah. Well, it’s– And one of the things where like, if you get anywhere near a pool and want to swim in anything slightly competitive, people will talk about technique and mechanics right off the bat, because it’s so important to the pool because we’re working against water. But then it’s like we leave it, we just assume, “Well, it’s not that important when we talk about cycling or running.” There’s a lot of coaches that just are like, “That’s just how you pedal or that’s just how you run.” It’s like, “No, I mean, we’re all built pretty similarly.”

So, I can see some minute variations. But I feel like we should focus a little bit more on technique on all three of them. Both to prevent injuries and to like maximize performance. And enjoyment so you don’t hate it because you’re running like a speedskater.


JESSE: [28:01] So, I have to back up, though. With the speed skating, you said your mom got you into it, correct?

CHRISTINE: Yes, she did.

JESSE: [28:08] What mom is like, “Hey, we’re all gonna get into speed skating.” It’s just not in my realm of like, this is a thing that we do. Obviously, people do it, it happens in the Olympics, but it’s not in my ecosystem in sports to choose from. So, how does that come about?

CHRISTINE: [28:27] Yeah, I get asked this question a lot. And I don’t think I have a very good answer for it.

JESSE: Do you have a phone? Just call your mom.

CHRISTINE: [28:36] Yes, I should. I should really ask her this question. So, she used to do a lot of like recreational outdoor skating on rollerblades. And she must have come across somebody who was on a speed team or something like at a local park, and got invited because that must have been the transition. She started from outdoor rec skating.

So, there’s a few different flavors of speed skating. There’s inline speed skating. So, that’s like the indoor stuff at a local roller rink. That’s actually where we started. So, when I grew up in Michigan, I was doing inline speed skating. And then, ironically enough, that was when I moved to Southern California when I switched to ice speed skating.

[29:19] So, my family and I, we did the inline speed skating together. Yeah, my mom got me into it. And then my brother tagged along and then my dad. And it was such an awesome experience. Because as you mentioned, speed skating, it’s not a super popular sport. The teams are pretty far and few between. But it also means that on any given team, you typically are able to train with world-class athletes.

And a lot of people switched from inline speed skating to high-speed skating or cycling. So, when I watch the Olympics, I’m cheering on people I used to train with. And it’s such a cool feeling to have been able to train with those people and to see them on TV and doing so great in their future sports.

[30:09] And I think my speed skating coach, Rob Dunn had a huge impact on my life. To this day, whenever I cross the finish line at a triathlon, I have his voice in my head, “You get to that finish line! You [inaudible 30:25]” I sprint to the finish line no matter what. Even at the end of my Ironman after I’ve been going for literally 12 hours I sprint to that finish line. And I think Rob was the first person that really ingrained that in me. So, yeah, I still carry his voice in my head, every race day, even though it’s been– oh, gosh, a decade and a half since I trained with him.

JESSE: [30:51] I wonder about that sometimes. I think about this because through my own journey, I always felt like I’m carrying all my coaches. And I’ve had a number of coaches over the years. Especially when I was in high school, it seemed like we switched coach– the head coach was the same for three years and switched the last year. Our assistant coaches switched out every year. And then college freshman, sophomore year, we switched coach – just – I had so many coaches, and then my coach now.

But it’s like, different things that these coaches have said over the years to me, stick with me. And I always feel like I’m carrying them wherever I’m going. And sometimes things that they’ve said will pop up in certain workouts, not voluntarily, just like percolating to the top, like we’re talking about earlier.

[31:44] And I wonder– Sometimes I wonder if they know, do they know that like parts of them are still percolating in the minds of the athletes that they coached? Are they aware that those things happen? Or is it simply a matter of like, they lived in that time, they coached those athletes, they move on, and you don’t think about it anymore?

You know, it’s kind of similar to like, if I randomly think about somebody, I’m like, does anybody ever like have me pop in their head? The same kind of like this– I just wonder if I’m living on an island or whether people are aware that some people will randomly think about them. It’s just a kind of a bad shower thought, I guess.

CHRISTINE: [32:28] That’s an interesting train of thought. I would say my relatable experience to that is as an instructor, which you might liken to coaching. I never think of my students as like keeping little phrases that I say here, and they’re stuck in their brains, but they do. I wonder which phrases they are.

JESSE: [32:53] I feel like I saw in your Twitter that you’d noticed the other day you had little repeatable phrases or something people started saying.

CHRISTINE: [33:01] Yes. So, yeah, it turns out whenever I start a class, I say like Happy Monday, Happy Wednesday, Happy Friday. And I did this for months before I realized that it was actually something that I did. And my students would like, say it back to me with a huge smile on their face. I’m like, “What’s going on? Oh, I do say that a lot.

JESSE: [33:23] And I think those things will definitely be things that like stick. It’s almost like movie quotes. There’s random phrases I know, I’ll say that reminds me of a movie or person. I can almost guarantee and I’m not generally a betting person. But I would almost bet that you’ll have students you have now that years down the road, they’ll say, or somebody will say to them, and it’ll harken back to that classroom. Like just the cadence that you say that, like it’ll come at them in that cadence? I guarantee it.

CHRISTINE: [33:56] Yeah, I think so.

JESSE: So, I don’t know, brains are funny. And people interest me. One of my undergrad majors is psychology. So, that’s part of the reason I enjoyed the podcast because people are interesting, and I get the opportunity to talk to fun people like you. But continuing with your work, what are you doing now? What are you researching on? And for all intents and purposes, treat me as like a Chem 100 students because that’s basically as far as I went in chemistry.

CHRISTINE: [34:36] I would love to tell you about my work. So, the main interest in my work is studying metals. And I think when most people think about metals, they think about steel or the metal objects that they come in contact with every day. As a chemist, when I say metal, I mean the individual metal atoms, so that atom of iron or calcium or zinc.

And so my interest is in those metals and the cool things that they do. And my lab tackles this from two very different directions. And that is in biology, as well as in materials. I actually find these topics to be quite connected because what I’m interested in is bio-inspired materials.

[35:27] So, I am simultaneously studying and learning from biology, and then trying to take what I know from biology and apply it to making products that hopefully we will see one day in our daily lives. And I think biology is such a great role model for us. The saying goes that cells are the best chemists. And I wouldn’t disagree there because biology has been optimizing itself for billions of years. So, biology is really good at doing a lot of complex processes and reactions that are also important in our daily lives as humans and the products and the things that we interface with.

[36:11] So, not only has biology been optimizing itself for billions of years, but it also runs all of its reactions at body temperature and normal pressure. And if you think about industrial plants, you might imagine these huge apparatuses, and they’re maybe working at really high temperatures and really high pressure, they’re doing really important things. So, it’s great. But what I envision is making materials that you can make and operate similar to how biology functions, under mild conditions. So, the temperature of our bodies, the pressure that we’re experiencing, sitting at our chairs right now. So, those are my main interests.

JESSE: [36:55] And obviously, correct me if I’m wrong, but thinking about the dichotomy of those situations, it seems like if you could achieve that, one of the potential side benefits is that you like increased safety. Because then you don’t have high temperatures, high pressure, and you also reduce energy consumption. Because it’s obviously much easier to heat something to 98 degrees than it is like, several thousand and keep it there. So, I kind of think about the downstream benefits of that situation, if you could you make that come to fruition.

CHRISTINE: [37:37] Yes, that’s exactly my thoughts as well. Yeah.

JESSE: Yeah. So, can you talk specifically about the things you’re working on that you want to become – I’ll say consumer products – but I don’t necessarily mean like, you and I, could be businesses. I don’t really know. Can you talk about that? Are you under NDAs?

CHRISTINE: [37:59] No, no, NDAs here. I’d love to tell you about it. So, as I mentioned, my group works in two different areas, in biology and in materials. So, I’ll talk about each of them separately. So, first, I’ll tell you about our work in biology. And we are working on developing new antibacterials. And this is– Well, I’m excited about both areas of my lab. But I’m really excited about this research direction. I don’t mean to scare people, but maybe scare people just a tiny bit.

JESSE: Just enough.

CHRISTINE: [38:33] Yeah, just enough. We are in a post-antibiotic era. That is a quote from a CDC report in 2019. So, I’m sure people have heard that our antibiotics are failing because bacteria are becoming resistant to them. And it’s true. They are failing right now. And if we aren’t able to come up with new ways of treating bacterial infections, we could be facing another pandemic similar to the one we’re currently experiencing with a virus. So, my interest is in developing new antimicrobials that could be used to treat bacterial infections.

[39:19] And I’m excited to be in this research direction. I think this is a place where academic labs have a real opportunity. Pharmaceutical companies don’t have a huge incentive to be working on the development of new antimicrobials because it costs about a billion dollars to bring one drug to market. And the problem with antimicrobials is that bacteria are pretty good at figuring out what the drug is doing and how to get around it. And so pharmaceutical companies, it’s hard for them to make the profit back on new antimicrobials. In an academic lab, so the lab that I run, we’re not necessarily motivated by the bottom line.

[40:12] Certainly, we want to see our science be used in society. But we, myself, I operate a lot at like the foundational knowledge and just taking on those high risk, high reward projects that will hopefully lead to things such as new antimicrobials a decade from now. But right now we’re in the foundational stages, and just trying to identify new ways of killing bacteria in a way that’s safe, and that we could use to develop into drugs.

JESSE: [40:45] So, I’m not well versed enough to make this a very eloquent question. So, I apologize for my crude way of trying to figure out how to ask this. So, being in a post-antibiotic era, we’ve used antibacterials, bacteria are adapting to the ways that we’re killing them, essentially. As you’re developing new things, new ways of killing bacteria, or getting the same effect that we’re trying to get before; how do you develop a new solution that doesn’t end up with the same problem? Do you make it as– Like my brain, and this is– again, I’m not well versed enough to make this an actual legitimate question.

[41:41] But my brain goes, how do we make like a nonlinear solution or like randomly generated solution kind of situations? Do you mean, where it’s like, maybe today this, this – we’ll call the drug – but to say maybe today, this drug works like this against this bacteria. And somehow, it’s able to switch and effect it, you know, one of the other systems of the bacteria to kill it differently so that it doesn’t have the ability to adapt. I’m not even sure that that’s possible. But that’s just like my sci-fi brain that goes, “This is how you should approach it.” So, how do you combat that without trying to end up in the same situation where we are now?

CHRISTINE: [42:26] Yeah, it’s a really excellent question. And it’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds who’s working in this area, is can we create that magical drug that bacteria could not possibly become resistant to, and the post-antibiotic era becomes a thing of the past. That would be amazing. I think there’s a few ways that we could get there.

And we really need to keep working on understanding the ways by which bacteria function. And in particular, the ways that are essential for their function, that they have no choice, but they have to do something this way in order to stay alive. And figuring out what those pathways are, and then creating drugs that can throw a wrench into that pathway, if you will.

[43:24] I think it’s hard to predict if we could come up with that one magical drug. And so to mitigate that problem, I think it’s really important to have a lot of people working on different areas of this. So, I have one pathway that I’m particularly interested in. And there are a bunch of other groups around the world that are looking at other pathways and bacteria and trying to do the same thing that I am.

And hopefully, we all find some sort of success and we end up with several new classes of antibiotics. So, one thing that I find interesting is that our last new class of antibiotics was developed in the 1980s. And all have the antibiotics that have been developed since then have been derivatives of those classes from the 1980s and before.

So, there’s a huge opportunity to identify new classes of drugs that function by a totally different way of killing the bacteria. And we don’t just want one new class, we want lots of new classes. So, I’m hoping to work on one class and my colleagues in the field are working on other classes as well. So, it’s definitely an all hands on deck effort. It’s going to take a lot of new innovative science to tackle this problem.

JESSE: [44:44] And so I’m trying to piece everything together here. So, are you talking about – I think I’d seen you mentioned covalent drugs – is that what you’re talking about?


JESSE: That pathway of destruction for bacteria?

CHRISTINE: [44:57] That is the type of drug that I’m working on developing right now. I wouldn’t say that my research is defined by covalent drugs, that just happens to be the one that I’m working on at the moment. I would say the class of drugs that more broadly that I work in is small molecules. So, creating small organic molecules that are like little– they’re like a doorstop in a door.

So, a door freely swings, but if you put a doorstop, if you wedge it underneath the door, you can stop that door from swinging. So, comparatively speaking, the door wedge is quite smaller than the door itself. It’s the right shape, it’s the right size, and it just sticks in there and stops the door from swinging. So, I’m trying to do that with molecules.

[45:50] Typically, my targets are proteins, so they are proteins that the bacteria requires in order to stay alive. So, what I wanted to do is basically create these little door wedges, or these small molecules that stop these proteins from being able to function. And when they can’t function, the bacteria dies.

JESSE: [46:12] So, what is, I guess, to summarize that, so if you stop one process, then it’s like, it can’t get to the next step and dies as a result?


JESSE: Okay. Okay. So, is that– you’re talking about being bioinspired to develop chemistry? Is that where you look at and say, okay, we know when bacteria encounter these certain things in nature, they have problems, and then look at the ways those things interact. I’m saying things because I don’t know what we’re talking about whether we’re talking about chemicals, or other bacteria, or whatever it is. Do you look at other interactions with those bacteria in nature? And how does bacteria die as a result for inspiration? Or how does that kind of creative process take place?

CHRISTINE: [47:10] Yeah. So, if I understood your question correctly, then yes, we are certainly looking at that. I collaborate with a couple other groups around the country to do a lot of the bacterial studies. So, bringing a drug to market, as you can imagine, involves teams of people with a lot of different expertise. So, my particular expertise is the chemistry, so designing these drugs, and designing them in specific ways to interact with proteins.

And then when I’m ready to move on to the, like, how effective are these against bacteria? For that, I have collaborators in California and at Rutgers University that I’m working with. So, it’s a real team effort to bring a drug up to clinical trials. So, does that answer your question?

JESSE: [48:12] I think so. I wouldn’t feel bad because it’s me trying to wrap my head around it and then form a well thought out question that even makes sense. So, no big deal there. You also mentioned you have another area of research you’re working on as well.

CHRISTINE: [48:35] Yes. So, the other research direction is where more of the bioinspiration comes in [inaudible 48:40] connecting– [crosstalk]

JESSE: Like I said, I’m trying to connect all the dots. That’s my job.

CHRISTINE: [48:46] So, on my material side of my lab, as I mentioned earlier, my main interest is developing these new materials that can do important reactions, but do them under mild conditions. And biology is really great for that because biology works at mild conditions. And it’s been optimizing its processes over billions of years.

So, what I’m interested in is taking a particular metal catalyst that we see a lot in biology and trying to install it into manmade materials. So, things that I make in a test tube or beaker. And the particular reaction that I’m interested in is carbon cycling.

[49:31] So, I think as we all know, climate change is a huge problem that we’re facing, and will only continue to get worse if we don’t take drastic action now. And one of the big contributors to climate change is CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. And so my interest is creating materials that can take those CO2 emissions and turn it back into products that we can use rather than the CO2 just floating into the atmosphere and causing all the problems that it currently is.

So, this is referred to as carbon recycling. So, it’s taking carbon waste products and then turning them into value-added products. And my approach to doing this is bio-inspired. So, looking at how biology is able to perform these reactions, and then trying to harness those same tools, those same reactions into synthetic materials.

JESSE: [50:34] See, and that’s one of the things I think is, I’ll say predictable, but I don’t mean predictable in the sense that we can put a time clock to it. But predictable in the sense of, we see– I feel like it’s predictable to see breakthroughs that people didn’t expect when you take waste products and make them something useful. Because– I’m trying to think of a good example.

I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. But I know there’s waste products in certain industries that just like, people just throw away for years, and then somebody works like you are now and figures out, “Hey, we can actually use this to make something,” and it explodes and creates an entire new industry. Because now we have all of this stuff and it’s cheap, because nobody wants it, in our case, it’s just going up in the air.

[51:34] So, I feel like, hopefully, you’ll be successful. And through that, not only can we curb climate change, but then you’ll see like a big– People will go, “Oh, this is a massive breakthrough.” And you’re like, “I’ve been working on this for 10 years. Like, it’s not overnight.

It took me and hundreds of other people looking into this and–” But it’s one of those things I always look forward to, which maybe seems odd, but just when people figure out how to use things that everybody else thinks is completely useless, or harmful to make something as you mentioned a value-added product out of that. Do you have specific applications in mind? Or is it simply, like I mentioned with the career thing, you just want to get to a value-added product no matter what that is?

CHRISTINE: [52:27] So, our main target for value-added products is renewable fuel. So, right now we take hydrocarbons, and we burn them and it produces CO2 and turning that CO2 back into hydrocarbons. In a sense, creating a circular carbon economy, a renewable fuel. And so I say all this, but– We should absolutely be pursuing all types of renewable energy.

So, my interest in pursuing renewable fossil fuels is that we have all the infrastructure to acquire fossil fuels and to use them cheaply. So, fossil fuel usage probably isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. But what I want to do is to turn it from an environmentally harmful process to an environmentally neutral process, while there’s a bunch of other scientists working on other types of sustainable energy. So, same with the antibiotic development, it’s an all hands on deck, these huge scientific breakthroughs are– take the whole world.

JESSE: [53:39] Yeah. Well, and I think it’s awesome, because I think about it from an economic standpoint, and as you mentioned, the infrastructure that’s– I’ve been a big fan of like Tesla since they got going, when they first brought the Roadster, I was in high school. And I mentioned, “Hey, I want one of those. My art teacher reminded me of this the other day. It’s been over a decade since I’ve like seen him in person, he remembered that.

But I always thought, how do we get from where we are, and where we were a decade ago to only electric cars, or only hydrogen cars or whatever alternate fuel source? How do we get there? You know, because, like you said, we already have the infrastructure for everything.

[54:32] And that’s one of the things are, I mean, they’re working on now trying to put in charging stations everywhere. And then you’ve got charging station problems because it takes five hours to charge a car versus a couple of minutes for gasoline. So, it’s awesome you’re working on that even though it’s, as you mentioned it, other people are working on the other renewables and they should be having those intermediary steps.

I feel like it’s kind of the crux of being able to make the transition, right? Because if we don’t have it, then it’s like, we just continue to depend on what we already have. We don’t have any way to make those, like little in between steps towards getting off our dependence from fossil fuels.

We just say, let’s just continue using fossil fuels until everything absolutely breaks. And then we’re in a disaster and we’re forced to do something else. And it costs us way more money than if we had figured out how to make those like intermediary steps. So, students, if you’re still with us, and still listening, your professor is doing something very important, even if you don’t realize it.

CHRISTINE: [55:45] Thanks, Jesse.

JESSE: Yeah. No, it’s– And I’m glad you’re spending time with me because it gives me a little bit of hope for the world that people are doing important things in helping us try to move forward and I get to speak to you firsthand. But we are starting to wind down a little bit on time here. And as you know, because you listen to a few episodes, from this year, you know what I’m going to ask you. I’m asking everybody this year, the same question. I’d like to know your thoughts on what you think the purpose of sport is?

CHRISTINE: [56:18] Yeah. So, I have been preparing for this [inaudible 56:20]. And there’s so many different ways that I could answer this question. I think there’s a lot of purposes. I’m going to answer the question for myself personally, what does sport give to my life? And that is 100%, absolutely, it gives me balance. So, I feel that I’m a better scientist because of my athletics.

And I feel that the lifestyle that I need in order to be high performance in my athletics is exactly the lifestyle that I need to be at top performance in my job. And that’s a healthy sleep schedule, a healthy diet, exercise, discipline, consistency.

[57:09] So, for me, athletics is– it brings balance. I would also say joy. I love my workouts, most days. And I love racing. And sometimes science just doesn’t work. And sometimes you just have bad days or bad weeks, and being able to balance that with, “Oh, had an awesome run today or an awesome bike or swim.” It keeps me going and it always keeps me excited about something and moving forward. So, that would be my answer to your question. To me, the purpose of sport is balance and joy.

JESSE: [57:52] That works. Christine, if people want to see your research, see what you’re up to, where can they find you?

CHRISTINE: So, you can follow me on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @CMorrisonLab. So, C as in Christine, CMorrisonLab. You can also find me on the Colorado School of Mines website in the chemistry department.

JESSE: Awesome. Thanks for hanging out with me today, Christine.

CHRISTINE: Thank you, Jesse.

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