Sean was a DNA Day expert - view videos & learn more at letstalkdna.ca
What is a typical day like for you?
I work primarily at my desk on my computer, reading and writing. But I often run into the lab where the action is happening and talk to my students, postdocs and technicians about what they're up to. I also occasionally get out into the orchards and vineyards to help collect data and maintain our plants.
What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
I love trouble shooting with my students. It is often the case that we get results that are puzzling or difficult to interpret. It's up to us to then decide what step to take so that we can put the puzzle together. This requires not only hard thinking, but also creative thinking too. When we come across a good idea, like a clever way to test a hypothesis, it's a truly great feeling.
What is the least enjoyable part of your job?
Paperwork. Inevitably, there is a lot of paperwork involved in research. I spend a lot of my time applying for money, accounting for how it's spent, and then writing up reports about what I did with the money.
Explain the path you took to get to this job (education, internships, etc.).
I did my undergraduate degree in English literature, but I was more fascinated by science so I took a bunch of science courses. I read a lot of popular books about genetics and evolution, and it is these books that really turned me on to genetics. I then did a Masters degree in Human Genetics and a PhD in the same field. I became interested in grapes and wine when my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) became a professional winemaker. I figured that it would be fun to study the genetics of grapes and perhaps other fruit, and so I pursued this during my postdoc studies and am fortunate enough to be able to do that full-time now.
Who or what was the greatest influence that set you on this path?
I did my first degree in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada at a small university. I got my degree in English literature, but I desperately wanted to go to grad school and study genetics. I met a man who went to the prestigious Oxford University in England and he took the time to talk to me about my goals. He said: "Why not apply to Oxford?" I thought he was kidding. But I eventually did it. I was accepted and it was the launching point for the rest of my academic career.
What advice would you give others seeking a similar job?
Read broadly. Keeping your eyes out on the periphery of your research field will give you an overview of your own work that is difficult to get otherwise. Fields of science that were once seen as being far apart are now merging together, and having the skills and knowledge to direct big mergers in science puts you in a very exciting place.
How does your job make a difference?
We spray the food we grow with tons of chemicals to ward of pests and pathogens, but we know it's possible to breed new crops that don't require these chemicals. We're trying to figure out how to breed such crops cost effectively and efficiently so that we don't spray as many chemicals in the future.
How do you use science, math and technology in your job?
We have all sorts of cool instruments in the lab to bash up cells, quantify small amounts of DNA and visualize small molecules that can't be seen by eye. We spend most of our time though writing computer programmes to analyse data. This involves learning to read and write various computer programming languages and implementing mathematical equations with them. It may not sound like fun, but it's very satisfying to have your software out there in the world doing good.
Is there one course you wish you had taken in high school but didn’t? Why?
I wish I had taken car mechanics. I know nothing about my car and how it works and I could save a lot of money if I did.
What makes this job right for you?
I like to read and write, but I also enjoy interacting with enthusiastic young people with great ideas. Most importantly, I like to answer questions. Being a researcher is one of the few jobs that pays you to figure out something new about the universe. I have a lot of freedom and I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I do.
What's the most bizarre or silliest thing you’ve ever done in this job?
We made YouTube videos of the lab and what we do. We thought we'd get a lot of hits, but that's not really the case. You can check them out here!
What activities do you like to do outside of work?
I like going swimming in lakes and oceans with my family. We also like to do day trips on our bikes. We travel to wine regions too and taste all of the fabulous diversity that grapes have to offer.
You just won $10 million! What’s the first thing you’d do?
Put it in the bank and get back to work.