Humans of Biology: Dr. Denis Maxwell

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Q: So why the obsession with chlamy? What’s the origin story of your obsession?
A: It’s the system I use in my research lab. I research on chlamy. It’s nice to always have a scaffold, like Tom and I, the success in first year bio comes when you have people like-minded. So Tom and I, not that we think alike but I think we feed off each other and respect each other. We tried to find a scaffold for the course. Something that students can put their information on. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of things to memorize and throw back on the test. So can we put where we teach, photosynthesis and respiration, do we have a scaffold? And so chlamydomonas, chlamy, is a good scaffold for that. It’s a great model. A cell to come back to. So the students always know that we’re going to come back to chlamy. That’s the primary reason.

The secondary reason, which is almost as equally as important—so I did my PhD in photosynthesis. Harvesting light for biology is fundamentally cool. Like, you’re mucking around with photons. Photons are cool. So photosynthetic organisms take photons and they trap them and they use that as an energy source. So chlamy does this and it also uses photons the way humans use photons: to sense their environment. And so we have a single cell that does both. So that’s also a really cool attraction that you have a single cell that’s primitive enough that we get a sense of basic ideas. Well, it’s simple enough. It’s a distinction between primitive and simple. It’s simple enough that you can understand the basics. But here’s a single cell, it’s photosynthetic like a plant, but it has something called an eyespot that’s similar in many ways to the human eye. So in one cell, that’s an awesome system. A scaffold for the course.

Q: So you first “met” it during your PhD?
A: Yeah, so in my PhD, I worked with green algae. Green algae are awesome. Yeah, lots of green algae in the department. David Smith, who’s a relatively new faculty, his research is in the evolution of green algae. So you get chlamy in first year and no, you’re not done with green algae. And second year in genetics, you’re getting a lot of green algae. The evolution of green algae, which of course, we think is awesome. And so far, so good, I like chlamy as a model. You see this giant cell every class and it’s a scaffold. Not that we don’t deviate and talk about other things, but I love it as the framework that we build the course around.

Q: How long have you been using chlamy as your scaffold?
A: That’s a good question. I think… so Tom and I’ve been teaching this course since I came here in 2003. I think we’ve been probably using it for five years? Yeah. I have students—for final exams, they have these giant posters where they’ve drawn chlamy and where they’ve drawn everything related to chlamy. It’s just a huge poster with everything we’ve talked about in class, and chlamy is at the center. So everyone’s like an expert on chlamy. So yeah, about five years. So far, I like it. It’s good. Like its eyespot and phototaxis, like, that’s really cool. It’s so basic and yet you can ask such cool questions like “What is its response? How does it know that there’s too much light and/or doesn’t have enough?” So really basic questions. Cause I think (and I can talk forever) is to get away from memorizing stuff and to understand basics. So if we have a basic model system, it’s relatively simple. Like that encourages understanding over memorizing. Which, of course, is our goal.

Q: I looked up your profile on the Western University website, but it says that you work with a lab? Or that you’re the head of a lab? So what’s that like? In your experience, what’s it like to lead a lab?
A: Yeah. In my case, it’s okay. What’s it like? It’s hard. It’s busy. So I realize now that I’m not very good at it. So I’m not very good. It’s hard; you’ve got lots of people you’ve got to oversee. Some people are outstanding, they’ve got great labs, they’re very good at it. Yeah. I’m not very good at it. So you know, as a PhD, you don’t have to run a lab, and so you don’t really know, right? You start, you run a lab. As a professor, you gotta do these two things, right? Teach and run a lab. And so what I realize: teaching is so much more rewarding for me than the research side of it. It’s more rewarding. And so I stand in front of 800 students, it’s such a drug. It’s a drug. I’ve taught, if you work it out, over 15,000 students. So you teach 800 students every day, like the impact you can have—just try to get them to open up and see things differently. I’ve been out to eat in Toronto, and a group of students stop and they look and they say, “Hey, that’s Maxwell”. So it’s not like that’s the impact you have, but I just find the teaching so much more rewarding than the research. I don’t have the best personality for research, but put me in front of 800 students and I can get them to dance. At least I think that I can. Yeah, the teaching is so much fun. It’s fun, I’m good at it, it’s rewarding. So yeah, of course, I start to move more in that direction. But yeah, it’s a long haul to become a professor. Teaching is awesome. It’s a drug. It’s wicked. Put me in a fourth year class with 6 students—oh my god, are you kidding me? But 800? Wicked. So much fun.

Q: Given the 15,000 students, are there any remarkable memories or experiences?
A: Well, every year, I think the most disappointing thing—and I try to do this, and you guys know that I try to do this—is to connect with the bottom half of the course. Students who got the low 80. What can I do, and this is a goal, what can I do to connect with them, the students who just passed first term bio. Who are struggling, who don’t find it easy, who—whatever, have other issues, personal issues, financial issues, or they just academically struggle. The kid who got 70 the first term, or 60. What can I do to get them to come to office hours, or to just e-mail me and say “You know, it was funny but I didn’t get the last lecture. That slide, I didn’t get it.” And that’s really hard, because the people we see in our office hours, they got 90 first term. And they’re so driven, and they’re so on top of everything. And you can throw everything at them and they seem to chew it up and spit it out and they want more. But they’re gonna be successful, they’re just driven or they’re naturally super smart. But there are hundreds of other kids that don’t come to office hours, who don’t e-mail me. So I think Tom and I, how do we connect with them? How do we make sure that we don’t lose them? That’s the challenge. You’re one person, you’ve got 1,400 students, office hours are finite. So it’s a work in progress to figure out ways to connect with those students. But I think things like the Facebook page, the forum—oh my god, compared to back in the day? All the lectures are recorded so if a kid can’t come to class for whatever reason, they’re sick, all the resources are there. I think we do as good a job as we can to be transparent about what’s gonna be on a test. If you don’t want to ask me questions, go to the Facebook group. I mean, back in the day when I was in undergrad, you had one esteemed professor, and if you didn’t show up for one lecture and you realize, “Oh that’s going to be half of the midterm, a little snippet of one midterm”, and you had to guess what was on the midterm—like nonsense. We need to be much more transparent about what’s gonna be evaluated on. A big goal is how do we connect with the hundreds of students who are not 90 percenters, and who are struggling for whatever reason.

Q: What do you do when you’re not teaching or you’re not in the lab?
A: I have a two year old son. I have older kids, but I have a two year old son. He keeps me really busy. (What’s his name?) Wesley. He’s up at five, he wants to go go go at five. Outside of this, like I’m not a triathlete. I could be a triathlete, but I’m not. I like to cook.

Q: What’s your best dish?
A: I like Italian food. I’m pretty good at making Italian food. Like tagliatelle. Asian food scares me. Indian foods scare me. Like if you didn’t grow up around those spices and that kind of cooking, I think it’s really hard. But Italian, French, American. I love it all. I cook it all.

Q: What’s Wesley’s favourite dish?
A: Macaroni and cheese. So you can buy it in a box or you can make it at home. Homemade macaroni and cheese is about as sinful as you can get. About as sinful as you can get without having alcohol involved. He’s so young, he barely has teeth. So macaroni and cheese. You want to find him something that’s easy, high in calories: macaroni and cheese goes perfectly with that.

Q: Do you want to talk more about being director of the integrated science program?
A: Sure. So the Integrated Science Program is a new program. The acronym is WISc, Western Integrated Science. So this is a program that was established by the Faculty of Science. It’s got 60 students a year. You can go to the WISc website and see 60 students a year. Their first semester is very much like the other students, Science students or Med Sci students. But second semester, right now, they’re taking a single science course. One science course. It’s the only science course they take second semester. So they take Physics, Chemistry, Math, Biology, Earth Science, Astronomy, Computer Science—all together in one course. Most of it is the four courses they would not otherwise take. Math, Chemistry, Physics, and Bio. But they do a little Computer Science, a little Astronomy, a little Earth Sci thrown in. Because, for example, topics like Thermodynamics, well we don’t have to teach it in Chemistry and Biology and Physics. We could just teach it once, which frees up time to bring in these other things. So they have a cool lab on the third floor which is just for them. But why are we doing this? I think we’re trying to attract more students who have a genuine interest in science. They don’t know where they really want to end up. Not like Med School or dentistry. There are departments in the Faculty of Science which get very few undergrads. For example, Earth Science hardly gets anyone—but they have no exposure to Earth Science in high school! And in year 1, a typical student doesn’t get Earth Science, they don’t get Astronomy, they don’t get Computer Science. But if you expose first year students to a little Computer Science, they’re like “Wow, this is so cool! I’m going to do Computer Science with Biology and go into Bioinformatics and actually get a job.” But if you don’t expose a first year student to a little Computer Science or a little Earth Science, they’re lost. You can’t turn them on to these other disciplines. So that’s part of the goal. To get students exposed in first year to the breadth of science, and not just the big four (Math, Chem, Physics, and Bio). WISc is kind of an incubator, cause let’s face it, we think all students should be kind of exposed to this. That we teach more Chemistry and Physics in the context of Biology, and Biology in the context of Physics, that these silos, there should be a lot more interaction between these disciplines. So we think that this integrated science program will help foster the development of that. Of cool new laboratory experiments that kids can do. So it’s not just 60 students. We could have hundreds of students eventually that could be exposed to this kind of integrated approach.

With questions today like alternative fuels and climate change—like climate change isn’t a Biology question or a Physics question. It’s interdisciplinary, right? And so let’s teach science students from day one interdisciplinary—get them to think. Bring their biology in when they need. Physics into a question when they need it, Chemistry. Let’s not silo this stuff. So I think the WISc program, even with 60 students, will impact how we teach in the whole of the faculty. So I’m co-director, and Felix Lee in Chemistry is the other co-director. And we’ve hired other faculty to teach in this. It’s the first year. It’s got growing pains. But so far, it’s awesome. It’s exciting. Lots of work.
We’re not the first. Lots of people around the world see the power of teaching science in this integrated way. So McMaster has the iSci program. So they’ve been very generous with their time. We’ve gone down there lots of times, looked at their lab and how to build a lab. The plan for our lab, which is built now, kind of mirrors what iSci looks like. Felix and I went to Harvard last year to look at the Integrated Science. It’s not nearly as good as the McMaster one, but being Harvard, they think it’s really good.

Q: Could you roast Tom Haffie and Beth MacDougall-Shackleton? Like dis them.
A: Dis them? Jeez. I can’t dis Beth because I don’t really work with Beth. But I can dis Tom. Well, I can just talk about Tom. So he’s a 3M teaching fellow, right? They only give out a handful of these a year across Canada. For 10 years I’ve taught with this 3M teaching fellow. (What’s a 3M?) So it’s the most prestigious teaching award in Canada. Like he wins all these awards. And I don’t win anything. I win nothing. But it’s awesome to teach alongside someone who’s award-winning. And our teaching styles are very different. I think they’re complementary. So I’m not dissing him as much. It’s just the power when two people who are like-minded- we’re like-minded in what we want the goal to be. We’re like-minded in that we want first year students to have an awesome experience in Biology. They learn a lot, but the experience is just awesome. Our ways of achieving that awesomeness is different, but I think they’re complementary.

Sometimes we’re in the classroom together, which is bitchin’. It’s phenomenal. But we’re so comfortable with each other that we can finish each other’s sentences. We can say like “Tom, you’re full of crap. What the hell are you talking about?” And he’ll say “Oh Maxwell, you know, life isn’t all about chlamy.” And I’ll say, “Tom, kiss my a-” like we’ll do this in class, and it’s a hoot. But it’s out of total respect, and it’s just fun. And we get the point across. And we make the classroom an awesome place to learn.

But I think that he has taught me to slow things down. To be more active, get people to draw in class. Like this LUCA thing? He told me this, that everyone knew what they knew LUCA was, but they didn’t know that they didn’t know what LUCA was. Because you can’t draw underneath LUCA. You didn’t know that LUCA was just one form of life, it wasn’t the first, there’s no tree. So when students see the Tree of Life they see LUCA at the bottom, but it’s not really at the bottom.
Teaching doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but if you strive to make every lecture better than the last… I think that’s where my fault lies. I want the lectures to be great. And after lecture I’ll go into Tom’s office and I’ll say, “That lecture was awesome! Didn’t you think that lecture was awesome, Tom?” and he’ll go, “Eh, it was okay.” “Like whaddya mean it was okay?” “Well, you know.”

Q: What annoys you the most about Tom Haffie?
A: I think what annoys me the most about him is that he’s such a calming presence in the room. Whereas I’m like, crazy in the classroom. He’s so calming. And I know he’s excited about this, but his presence is so calming and sometimes I want to wring his neck. We’re just different. But he’s so calm and I’m way too crazy. But I think that’s why it works! Because we do well off each other.

I think what really pisses me off is that he wins all the teaching awards. He doesn’t win them all, but he has won them all. And if a new one comes up, it’s like “Hey! Tom Haffie won the first one-” Well that’s a big surprise. But it’s okay. It’s okay. Just working with him is an absolute blast. I learn a lot. I have learned a lot.

Q: Can we get a line of you roasting med school, dentistry, and pharmacy?
A: Pharmacy? So my dad was a famous pharmacologist. And I often volunteer at the University Fair in Toronto. Like hundreds of thousands of people say, “Do you have pharmacy?” And I say, “Well, no, but we have Pharmacology.” And they say, “What’s the difference?” And I say, “Well, do you want to earn a living developing new drugs or dispensing drugs?”. And I know pharmacists do more than that. But I think developing new drugs is a lot more rewarding that dispensing them.
But relating to this, first year students are under immense pressure today. Phenomenal pressure. Pressure that was nonexistent when I was an undergrad. Well, not nonexistent. First year students are often the first generation Canadians, and their parents see the advantages and opportunities that the Canadian society affords their children. “So I want you to become a doctor or a dentist or a pharmacist.” And these children have these immense pressure that I think mostly come from their parents, and if it’s not their parents, well they live with their grandparents and aunts and uncles. So you’ve got all these adults that know what your mark was on the first Bio midterm. Like that’s an insane pressure to deal with. And I think the university is just starting to understand that. So we’re putting in place various health and mental health institutions and things that can help students, because it seems like people are under immense pressure. If I don’t get into dental school then my parents will disown me. That’s not everybody, but having taught this course for X number of years, a lot of this is parental pressure or peer pressure. That if you don’t make it to dental school or some sort of professional school, then your life is over.

That’s a really hard problem. And of course, we see it in Biology. We see kids come in here who got 95 in high school and then in first year they get 75. What do you do? We are waking up to the fact that we got to help these students talk to their parents or realize: relax. Take it one step at a time. There are lots of other careers but the career paths are not nearly as defined. To become a professor: undergrad, PhD, post-doc, and you’re competing with hundreds of other applicants for one position at one school. The applicants today for any tenure track, professorship, they’re so good. They’re excellent candidates. And so, professional school, stable income, prestige. Of course first year students want professional schools. So we have to respect the fact that they don’t want to be chlamydomonas biologists. Oh my god, god forbid, I could go into cancer research or chlamydomonas. We know where most people would go. I would have gone there too in first year. It’s this pressure that concerns me the most. The pressure they put on themselves or the pressure their family puts on them. Yeah, it’s scary.

I don’t know why so many people want to go to dentistry. I used to give this dentistry lecture. Like why do you want to look at people’s mouths and pick at their teeth? But first year students, they’re 17, and they’re like “Dentistry.” The pitch that I make when I give this lecture is “Okay, I can appreciate you wanna be a dentist. And if you still wanna be a dentist in four years, excellent. But at least realize that the university is one of the greatest institutions civilization has ever invented. So give yourself four years. Take four years. Take some courses out of sheer interest or pleasure. Take a foreign language. Like every first year student takes psychology, like it’s interesting, but it’s not that interesting. Take four years to see everything the university has to offer. Then after four years, if you still wanna be a dentist, great. But the number of students who want to get in and out as fast as they can—they want to be a dentist when they’re 23 or 24. Like that’s insane! Who wants to be a dentist when they’re 24? So that’s my pitch. You’ve got four years at one of the most remarkable institutions. Enjoy it. Respect it. Then after four years, if you still want to be a dentist. If you want to look at people’s mouths for the rest of your life, I’ll give you that. But don’t be so narrow minded. Don’t have those blinders on when you’re 17. That, I feel is kind of disappointing.

Q: Has technology ever failed you in class?
A: Well, it does! It fails me all the time, like oh my god. But it’s okay, I can swear in class. I don’t know that I swear that much. But part of my goal is to grab your attention and not that swearing is the best way, but it’s an effective way. We just talk about stuff. And I always get reprimanded on my evaluations, “Oh, he always talks about stuff not relevant to the course”, but okay. What can I do? If everyone’s on Facebook, I think it’s the instructor’s fault. The instructor has to compete with Facebook or whatever. And I think in first year bio, we do a pretty damn good job of competing with Facebook. You can’t expect students to sit there and listen to a person who reads off slides and have all the words, like just don’t show up! The lecture has to be special. And we know that we have to compete with Facebook. So give me something! Give me a demonstration or give me something cool, but don’t be reading off slides, and don’t expect me to be off Facebook.

Q: Could you explain the art hanging behind you?
A: I rent this art. From the MacIntosh gallery on campus, which is the awesome art gallery Western has. So they have a giant repository of art, art that’s been donated to the school, and you can rent it! So departments can rent it, individuals can rent it, I think it cost $60 a year to rent one piece of art. And you know, MacIntosh has a giant storehouse, and it’s the greatest idea ever. Art that’s not seen, is it art if it’s not experienced? This is a way to get the art out and on campus, and get people like you to say, hey that’s cool.

Q: So what does that piece of art mean?
A: I don’t know what it means. I think it reflects who I am. It’s kind of crazy. Modern art to me is the most interesting kind of art. But all art—I appreciate art, but I don’t know much about it. So yeah, you can rent it and help support the gallery. Another reason why Western is such an awesome place.

Q: One sentence to say to all first years?
A: So I have students come into my office. And they do horrible on the midterm. What I try to convey to them, it doesn’t matter. In the grand scheme of things, one midterm, or one test, or even one course when you’re in first year, it doesn’t matter. You guys think that every quiz you take matters. It doesn’t. I try to impress on them, you know, ten years from now, you’re going to look back. Let’s say you fail Biology. It’s not the easiest course. So you take it again in the summer. You don’t drop out. It gets easier. Third year is easier. Fourth year is easier. And don’t rush, like this rush to get out. You’ve got four years. So what if it takes four and a half? Five years? Who cares? You don’t have to put how many years it took to get your undergrad on your application. So maybe in the first year, you fucked up! You’re in the wrong program, how are you supposed to know? In the long scheme, it doesn’t matter. Failing in fourth year, it matters. But in the first year, just survive. Just survive. Kids are like “Oh my god, I failed my first midterm!” Of course you can fail it, it’s really hard. Relax. Take your time. When you’re 30 years old, you’ll look back and you’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.

Dr. Denis Maxwell studies mitochondria, cell death, and stress signalling at Western University. Read more about his research here.

Interviewers: Danielle Shum & Sejin Kim