On the job

I devote much of this blog to my musings about pathways through life. One of my main motivations is to show that there is more than one way and that blindly plowing through various stages of education is not always the best choice, even though it seems to be the most common choice. Many kids start on the fast track in preschool, where parents enroll them in the finest that money can buy with the ever-changing goals of getting into the next prestigious school. There is little time for play, unstructured activities, and messing up. 

Me with a hatband that I braided from kangaroo lace.

 

If you have not followed my journey through this blog, please visit my posts over the past few years that document my life as a mediocre high school student who didn’t get into any good colleges because that wasn’t a priority right out of high school, worked as a shoe repairman and transitioned into saddle making, got married (to the wonderful woman I’m still married to 32 years later), and had 2 great kids before earning a bachelor’s degree. I’ve had a blast and don’t have any regrets, even though I spent many years making belts, chaps, saddles, building fences, and riding horses while most of my scientific colleagues were learning math, physics, chemistry, and biology. I did have some catching up for a few years!

 Fast forward to 2014 and my job as a professor of biochemistry & molecular biology at the University of Florida. (I’ll be filling in some of the missing links in my path over the next several months, so please subscribe to this blog if you want to get the details.) Like almost everyone I know in basic science, I went into this career because I (finally!) realized just how exciting science could be! For a perfect example of one of my early inspirations, read my earlier post about how Striga finds its host.

worm_belt3

Worm belt

So I went into academic science wanting to teach students and do research on interest things. One lesson that I’ve learned is that almost everything is interesting, especially the more you look. We have spent nearly a decade trying to learn how worms that live in rotting fruit talk to each other. My guess is that most non-scientists (and even some scientists!) would think this is a pretty dull topic and certainly not deserving of a decade of time, a few PhD dissertations, and several million dollars in funding! But it has taught us and many other people who have built on our research a great deal. Most importantly, we understand on a much deeper level how chemical signals control behavior in a simple animal. We now have an idea about how worms sense their environment and change their behavior and even development in response to food, temperature, other worms, etc. It is very cool, and the more we dig, the more we find completely unexpected new things. This is what really motivates me. The worms we study don’t kill people or pets or crops, but they are close relatives of many other worms that do cause great damage (hookworm, heartworm, tomato root knot worms, intestinal worms, etc). These worms are the most abundant animal on earth, and they are interesting, very successful, and hard to control. Our new knowledge about how our good worms communicate is potentially leading to new ways of controlling the nasty ones. That is how basic science works. 

I’m finishing my 18th year as a professor, and like most interesting careers, the more real experience you get, the more administrative work you end up doing. It is one of life’s great unsolved mysteries. But like my comment above about every thing is interesting the more you look at it, even the jobs that one gets in the “salt and pepper” stage of a career can be great fun if you can see past the obvious drudgery along the way (paper work and lots of meetings being the administrative analogy to wondering why one should study worms on rotting fruit). 

During the past 2 years, I have been fortunate to have been part of a very big team that has had lots of meetings and written lots of grant proposals and various reports. It can really be a grind, but then you begin to see how it is emerging and you realize what you can do with the fruits of all your work. Last fall after nearly 2 years of effort, our big group convinced a bunch of smart peer reviewers and people at the National Institutes of Heath (NIH) to give us over 9 million dollars of the public’s tax money to establish the Southeast Center for Integrated Metabolomics (SECIM). It has been a lot of work, and we still have a lot of work to become fully established. My initial ideas about this came from our years of experience in learning how worms talk to each other. I realized that the methods we had figured out how to look at worms could also be applied to learning more about horrible disease such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy that kills people in their 20s and has no cure or even an easy way to identify the disease before the kids have trouble walking at a very early age. 

SECIM has an incredibly talented group responsible for promotion & outreach and getting the out the word about our research. They made this short video, which has been entered into a (friendly) competition at the NIH to highlight some of the work that is being funded by all of us in the United States. Please take a look at the video and “like” it if you like it. I’m the actor, but I just did what the very talented team told me to do. Special thanks to Alex Mills for conceiving and writing the script and making the nice drawings and to Chris Bilowich for his amazing videography skills!

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kErW35pVHQc 

Here are the rest of the videos that are in the competition. I hope that you enjoy. Who knows, maybe one of them will put a bend into your current path in life!

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