Humans of Biology: Dr. Amanda Moehring

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Q: If you were given five words to come up with your own autobiography title, what would it be and why?

A: That’s actually tough to just have five words for an autobiography title. I’ve come up with some, but they would not be a catchy title. Essentially it would be “She was Fierce but Kind.” So, I’m very passionate about the things that I do and also about particular causes. Especially recently there are a lot of issues that I think have come to the forefront that I think people need to be more vocal about. But I also think it’s very important to treat others with respect and pull them through. I think that’s really dictated how I’ve lived my life and how I’ve interacted with people. So that is the non-catchy autobiography title that I came up with.

Q: Could you expand on some of the issues that you think have been brought to the forefront that people should be more vocal about?

A: One of the things that you might not know about me is that I’m American so a lot of the aspects of the political landscape in the US impacts me since I’m from there and I know a lot of people there. I am also horrified by some of the things that have been going on. The things that I think require more vocalisation are things that have always needed people to be vocal about: sexism, racism, xenophobia, bigotry. More recently it has also become clear that as scientists we need to be vocal about the necessity of the public understanding science and the validity of science. And how important it is to have politicians use science and data in making their policy decisions. I think that we as scientists tend to be in our offices or our labs. We don’t necessarily interact with and speak to the people who are making those kinds of decisions. We need to encourage them to fund scientific research and make policy decisions based on the data. Lately it seems that there has been less respect for science, and also a bit of an attack on science by some politicians, including the stance that being an intellectual is a bad thing. I think that this is a problem of perception that we as scientists need to start addressing.

Q: What steps do you think you can take?

A: First of all, I’ve been very vocal with starting to interact with politicians. I actually organized the local London March for Science a year ago. My society – the society for the society of evolution, which I am a member of – paid to send me to a workshop in DC on how to meet with and interact with politicians. Then I’ve held several workshops back with my society to pass that information to others that are interested in becoming activists. I’m doing steps but it’s hard of course as being an activist you don’t get paid to do that and there’s no extra time for doing that. So you have to fit it in in the places you can. Even for just small things I have become much more vocal, such as if I observe a microaggressions against somebody I speak up. Where I think in the past, not that outrageous things I would have let them go, but, I might have just hurried about my day and not have given that the weight of importance that it really is. Of making sure that people address those issues.

I don’t want to be a bystander. I also, more than that, I don’t just not want to be a bystander, I want to proactively do things to fix things when I think that they are broken. I think that’s been true for me as a person in a variety of ways and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to apply that to broader political things. So, I’ve not ever been a person to sit on the sidelines. I’ve just not applied it before to political type of events and it’s been very frustrating because it feels like a tiny mouse scratching away at the bottom of this giant monolith but I think if you get enough people together who are doing that it can make an impact. So, I think it’s worthwhile and important.

Q: On the subject of the march you organized last year, will you be organizing another one this year?

A: Haha, no I’m not simply because I just don’t have time this term. I will tell you that if that did happen, there is a number of people who are very eager and willing to contribute and make that happen but not be the lead organizers. So that really requires somebody to take charge and do it and it just couldn’t be me this year.

Q: What is something you think most students do not know about you?

A: It’s funny, I think most things. I think that undergrads know such a tiny facet of what we are as people that there are huge amounts of my life that are not things that undergrads know. So, I think that’s the most surprising thing, to see how diverse and deep our individual lives are outside of what you see inside of the classroom. I suppose the things that might be surprising are that I’m actually very quirky. I have a very inappropriate sense of humour. I mean I work on sex in the laboratory and that sometimes comes out in normal conversations in ways that would be very awkward for other people. There are those aspects and I also have a family, I have three young children. I love to paint, so I do that in my spare time. I do gardening. I own a hundred acres and I love to go out there and away from people.

Probably the most shocking to your generation is that I do not own a cellphone. I’m sure I’ll break down at some point, but it’s been the simplest thing for me to do, to be able to keep my work life from integrating into my personal home life and allowing me to have that separation. We have small children, so we have a landline anyway just so we’re there if they ever need to call for some reason.  I’m also in my office with my landline but I know it’s shocking too. I have tons of technology, we have million-dollar pieces of equipment that we use so I’m not opposed to technology. However, I find a cellphone works its way into your life in a pervasive sort of way and I think right now I’m more serene not having it. Eventually the benefits will outweigh that cost and I’ll get one. It’s amazing when I talk to people about it because people cannot imagine living without it. The response almost always is like, “wow good for you.” There’s this feeling that it’s a big accomplishment. I do think once I break that seal and get one it will be really hard to go back but right now it really helps me keep myself not immersed in that kind of — I don’t know the right word for it — that “virtual world,” rather than being in the real world.

Q: Would you advocate that for say your children?

A: That’s funny because my oldest child just turned thirteen and so for Christmas, we got her a cellphone. But it doesn’t have a phone plan, it just has texting so she can text us when she has wifi at home and at school. That was a big decision for us, and it was because all of her friends have that item and I didn’t want her to miss out on that cultural aspect. That wasn’t a part of my growing up, so I don’t feel like I missed out on some cultural thing. Now I’m old so I don’t need that. Like if I’m not on Instagram, it really doesn’t matter. So, I don’t feel that compelling need to be a part of that for my social life. My social life is outside of that but for young people it’s different. I think their social life is very embedded in that and I didn’t want her to miss out on that. So yes, it’s funny that my thirteen-year-old has a cell phone and I don’t.

Q: Had you made a ten-year plan ten years ago, how much of it do you think would be reflected in your current life.

A: I feel so fortunate to actually be living the life that I wanted to be living. I have a fantastic marriage. Actually, I will be married 20 years this year. I’ve got a family that I love. I’ve got a job that I am so in love with. I am so fortunate to have a job where they pay me to be creative, to think and to solve problems. To be able to mentor people, to be able to teach your generation and to interact with the students, in my mind, is the most ideal situation that I could possibly have. For me, that ten-year plan, I feel like I’m living it. Subsets of that are very different. So, if it was “where do you see your research being ten years from now,” I’m in very different places than I would have predicted ten years ago just because science is always evolving and the technology changes. Suddenly you’re in a place that you thought would take you fifty years to get to it and then you’re there in a year because this fantastic tool came along. So, I think there’s certain aspects that I didn’t foresee at all. It’s the direction that research has taken me that’s been very different than what I would have predicted ten years ago.

Q: Speaking of your research, most of your work is done on Drosophila, what is your opinion on the generalizability of this model?

A: Yes, so why should somebody care that I work on fruit flies. I’ll back up a little bit and say that research on humans by and large is very difficult. Humans are terrible models because you can’t mutate them, you can’t inbreed them against their will, you can’t do weird things and then dissect them. So, there’s all of these limits. For a lot of basic science questions, and even health related questions, it’s very hard to get at the answer in humans and much simpler to get at them in models such as mice, flies or other systems. These are applicable because of evolution – we are evolutionarily related to these other organisms so the way that molecules work in a fruit fly is very similar to how they work in humans. Most of the genes in humans have a homologue in fruit flies that does a very similar function. Flies have brains and those brains process information in a way that is very similar to how human brains process information. So we can figure things out in these model systems and learn how things work and apply that up the chain towards humans. So, it gives us an idea of how things work. For me personally, my interest isn’t in trying to find some fantastic thing that applies to humans. I just want to know how things work. What drives me is just the curiosity, “why are things this way and how do they work.” One of the big questions I’m interested in is how you go from variation in a gene, a single base pair difference, all of the way to differences in behaviour. What are all of the pieces in between? How does that affect the neurons, the patterns of the neurons and how they’re firing, and how does that then result in differences in behaviour? What are all of these pieces? To get at that in humans it would be almost impossible, at least with the technology that we have now, but we can do it in these model systems. It’s a fantastic way to start to get answers to our questions about how those processes happen. So, I think of flies as little humans with wings. You can actually learn a lot. A common stat that you hear about these things is that 75% of known disease genes in humans have a homologue in fruit flies. If I take the human mutant gene for alpha synuclein, which creates plaques in the brain in Parkinson’s patients, and put that human gene into a fly, they get neural plaques and neural degeneration. There’s a huge amount of similarity between the biological systems of these organisms even though we look very different from them.

Q: Could you give us a little run down of your research in general?

A: Yes, so there are two aspects that we work on in the lab. One is sex specific behaviours and the big one that we work on is female preference behaviours. So, why is a female receptive to Male A but completely rejects Male B? People have looked at male traits relevant to that choice, but what we’re looking at is what is happening inside of a female, how she is perceiving and processing those signals, and then coming up with very different responses depending on which male she is presented with. Similarly, how come two different females when presented with the same male, one female will be perceptive, and one female will reject that male. So, what is different between those two females at the base pair level, at the neuron level, that causes them to have that very different response to the same stimulus. Humans also clearly have very different responses to the kinds of signals that are perceived, and why is that? We’re trying to get at the question of what causes these differences in choice at the gene level and at the neuron level.

In humans it’s so complicated because you have all of these environmental effects: your upbringing and your cultural influences. In the fly we can get at the bare basic idea of this concept of having a difference in the genetic code because you can manipulate in by doing things in the model system. We have tools in fruit flies where we can turn on and off individual neurons so we can hyperactivate or silence certain neurons and see what happens to the behaviour of the female afterwards. You have massive amounts of tools as well as the abilities to create these incredibly controlled environments to really get at the mechanisms without all of the unknown genetic variation and the mess of hugely variable environments.

Another question we work on is sterility. So, when you have two different species and their genomes come together, they often form a sterile hybrid. Like you have a horse and a donkey, they make a sterile mule. The question is, why do those two genomes not work well together? What causes that sterility? This is actually thought to be the underlying basis of 24% of spontaneous sterility in humans. So, we have a male that is sterile without a known biological reason for it, and we think it is due to a mismatch between the parental genomes. Why is that? What causes their genomes to not play well together and result in sterility.

Q: How do you find the balance between your work and life at home?

A: I don’t like to think of it as a balance. That implies a scale and you have equal weighting. There’s going to be tipping and all of that. I think it is much more like juggling. You have all of these balls in the air and sometimes you drop one and that’s okay as long as you don’t drop the same one too often. I think it’s in prioritizing in that moment what thing needs to really get your attention. So, there are times that I miss a thing at work because my kid is having a swim meet and I’ll go to that. There are also times when I’m not there for dinner with my kids because there is a thing at work that I need to be at and have my attention. It’s all a matter of just prioritizing your time. I also find that my time compared to when I was an undergrad is much more streamlined. I remember feeling so busy when I was an undergrad. Life was so busy, and I had all of these things. I’m much busier now than I was then but my life is filled with different things. So, I used to watch TV, but I don’t really do that anymore. It wasn’t like I got a lot out of TV – I watched a lot of “stuff.” So, those things that you do that are kind of enjoyable, but you don’t really need them, you get rid of those and then that makes time for filling your life with things that really are important to you. You learn to prioritize what you do with your time.

I don’t always succeed. Sometimes life is overwhelming and sometimes I juggle something badly and I drop the ball on something that I shouldn’t have. It’s not perfect, you make it up as you go along, but I think it’s very good to know what is inside of yourself, and what matters to you. So, if you are ever faced with that tough choice, “okay I have to pick between these two things, which thing am I going to drop,” you know which thing you’re going to pick. You know which thing should be the greater priority. For me it’s my family, so if ever I have to drop the ball on something, if I had to choose and both things are important, I will always pick my family as the priority. The work thing I will find a way around it because you don’t get a redo with your family.

Q: Can you give a little context on the matching shirts you have with your laboratory team in the photo you have on your lab website?

A: We have multiple lab shirts. This was completely driven by the graduate students and the undergraduate students in my lab. They decided they wanted to have a lab shirt, so they designed it. The one that you’re referring to is the Bat Fly. The first one that happened is very early, years and years ago when I first came. They all designed the matching shirts and we all got them, and we would wear them to things like conferences and stuff. It was actually adorable because they got me matching shirts that said F1 on them for my children. And so, it was driven by them just wanting to have something nerdy but kind of funky and our own. This most recent one is meant to look like a fruit fly but like the batman symbol. It’s got DNA on the wings and it was designed by my grad student Jalina. We had them all made, and we all pitched in money to get the shirts, so it was a fun thing. Every couple of years they do it and it always takes someone taking the lead and saying, “okay it’s time for another shirt,” and then we do it. So, we don’t do it every year. I have four right now, so not too many.

Q: What is the best and worst purchase/investment that you ever made?

A: This is an unfortunate thing but when I first came, there was this big grant for equipment that you could get for biology equipment for your lab. After it gets approved you have to get the things that were listed in that grant. You can’t shift the money to something else. There was something that was in there that was quite expensive, but technology had shifted in that intervening year. There was now something that was going to be much better, but I couldn’t get the better thing and I had to get the old thing that was written into the grant. We literally never used it except for a tiny amount, and I mean one time. It was a huge waste of money to have spent it on that. It’s unfortunate to have been constrained to get something because of the way that system’s set up to be. It was really kind of heartbreaking to get this thing and then it wasn’t used. If they would have had a sort of addendum, to say “look technology has changed and I really should get this other thing instead.” That would have been better.

The best purchase… Maybe this is more of a personal thing but it’s not one thing. I’m a bit of a scavenger so I very much have a lot of things from thrift stores. I have things that have been pulled out of dumpsters. I have things that were on Kijiji that were for free, just a go and pick up. I’ve actually got some really incredible artwork out of the bin behind the Arts building at the end of term when students throw away all of their artwork. I’m very much an environmentalist. The consumerism and the waste really bothers me, so I feel extra good about something if I saved it from landfill while simultaneously getting something awesome for free. Right, so it’s a win in every possible way. It’s the best type of recycling.

This is kind of again when you see a problem and you think there should be some sort of way for you to fix it. So, at the end of April I’m sure you have seen the piles of things that people throw out at the curb, most of it perfectly good and it goes into all of that landfill. It really bothers me. It’s actually really disturbing, it’s furniture and it’s also dishes, blankets and like everything gets thrown out by people who I guess are leaving and can’t take it with them. Maybe they can’t take it on the plane, so I understand that part. But I don’t understand why the curb and why they can’t take it to Goodwill or something. So, I actually drove around and picked up all of the usable stuff I could and brought it to the Women’s Shelter, for people from battered families trying to start over. So, I took everything like houseware and things that might be useful for that to save it from landfill. This aspect of things going into landfill really bothers me. Whenever I see useable things, I try to save them and get them to someone who can use them.

Q: If you could live in any fictional universe, which would it be and why?

A: That’s tough, there’s so many good ones. I like Niven’s ringworld. I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, so this a world when it’s essentially an artificially created future world that’s a flat ring surface. They have this artificially small sun that they made to put in the middle. The reason why I think it would be interesting is that the description of the landscapes that are there was really fascinating, but also it is enormous. So, this surface would be like if you took twenty Jupiters, stretched them and put them around into a circle. You would never run out of places to see and things to experience. So, that would be cool. It’s like a flat strip and the inner surface is the world. Way across you would see the far side of the circle. Maybe that.

I don’t know, I’m not sure what other. I like worlds that have some element of something unusual and weird. So, things that are far into the future and you can go to different worlds. I do like things that have an element of magic in them which is a bit funny as a scientist. I really do like stories that involve those elements and have that, perhaps because it’s fantastical and you get these amazing unusual things and I like things that are unusual and different.

It’s not so much the escaping of our world. It is creative and makes me think in a way that I didn’t think before or consider things in a way that I never considered before. Funny, I heard somebody phrase it once, “if you look at strips of dead tree with lines on them and wildly hallucinate, that’s kind of what reading is.” I think it’s amazing to be able to immerse yourself into these other worlds. I like stories where they are really creative, where they’re clever and they’ve thought of things in a very unusual way. Writers are amazing, they can come up with these different worlds.

Q: What advice do you have to offer to Western students actively pursuing and undergraduate degree in science in the context of the world we live in today?

A: I would say one thing is to show your passion. I think that people when they’re talking to someone that is in science and that person shows their genuine excitement and passion for what they are doing, that automatically pulls people in. It’s so much more interesting to talk to someone that is passionate in what they are doing than just somebody that is blasé about it. So, I think just show your passion for the things that you’re interested in and the things that you’re working on.

I think it’s important also to be persistent. If you want to have a position in a laboratory, write to somebody, and if you don’t hear weeks later, write again. If you don’t hear several weeks later, try again. Be persistent because sometimes opportunities go to those who preserve rather than those who were the first at the goal post. Make those opportunities for yourself.

Also, if you don’t have a passion, find something that you can be passionate about. Find something that you feel engaged by and then pursue that. I find that a lot of undergrads that do come in, and I was certainly one of these, come in with the notions of what you want to do that are very largely flavoured by what your family has told you is the thing that you really should be doing. I think it’s really important that, as students are here and they are experiencing this time of discovering all of these topics and different ideas, that they embrace what they themselves are interested in pursuing and following, to listen to that part of themselves. I’ve had a number of students come in to talk to me about career plans. The conversation normally starts off with them saying, “my parents want me to go into law or medicine.” It feels like they haven’t really thought deeply about what they themselves want. So, to take that time to really think about what you want and to pursue things that you are really interested in.

Dr. Amanda Moehring studies the genetic basis of variation in behaviour and the genetics of species isolation at Western University. Read more about her research here.

Interviewers: Dorisa Meng & Tyler Lue