I am in my 5th year of Post-doctoral research, about to start as an assistant professor. (Sam is one of our 2015 DNA Day Experts - learn more at letstalkdna.ca)
Tell us about yourself
I grew up in a small town near Ottawa, did my PhD in Vancouver, and I'm just about to move to Calgary to work as a professor. For someone from Ontario, I've developed a real love of mountains, and spend lots of time skiing and exploring in the wilderness. In addition to recreation, I find being out in nature gives me time for imagination and thinking about how evolution works.
What is your research about?
A species like lodgepole pine inhabits a range of environments, from hot valleys to cold mountain tops. Individuals tend to be genetically adapted to the environment where they live, meaning that the offspring of mountain-top parents do better on mountain tops than in valleys. I study what kinds of genes are involved in this adaptation and how the organization of the genome evolves over time. If you have 5 genes that help a plant survive in cold, it’s better for them to be close together in the genome, so they are inherited together, rather than being mixed up by recombination.
I love the challenge of trying to understand the way the universe works. It's amazing contemplating why life looks the way it does, and how so much diversity is maintained on our planet.
What have you enjoyed the most about your research?
I love the challenge of trying to understand the way the universe works. It's amazing contemplating why life looks the way it does, and how so much diversity is maintained on our planet. Research gives me a way to be creative and spend time thinking of interesting ways to study these questions. It's really fun to discover something that nobody on earth has known before, and then to share this new knowledge with others.
What have you found most challenging about your research?
I would say that the hardest thing for me as a researcher is to be organized and to keep track of the growing mountain of details. I do a lot of work with computer programming and examining huge datasets, and it is very challenging (and fun) to try to sort through this data and keep track of the different ways that I have approached the problems.
How has your research experience influenced your career path?
I would have a great deal of difficulty predicting where my research will lead, but I think that's the fun of it! If I knew where I would end up, it wouldn't really be science and there wouldn't be much point in doing it. But definitely, the questions that fascinate me today lead to more questions as I try to answer them, so in a general sense, one thing does lead to another.
How has your research impacted the world?
I am working on a big project looking at how lodgepole pine and white/Engelmann spruce adapt to climate. These are two of the most economically important forestry species in Canada, and understanding this issue may one day help tree breeders to prepare our forests for the changing climates they are likely to face in the coming century.
What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?
The most predictable breakthrough in evolutionary biology may come from new technologies for genome sequencing. Currently, we are stuck with sequencing small chunks of DNA, usually around 100 base pairs. If we can read a long sequence of millions of base pairs with high accuracy, it will revolutionize the way we are able to study the genetic basis of complex diseases. Sequencing costs in general will change how we do research in the coming decades.
I realized I had so many questions, so I went back to grad school, and just kept getting more interested.
What motivates you to do research?
I always loved science, but never thought I would do anything beyond a bachelor's. When I finished my undergrad, I was looking at a job selling natural gas contracts door to door, when a prof told me about a short internship available at a research centre in Colombia, and I jumped at it. I started doing research on genetics in monkey puzzle trees, and this reignited my interest in evolutionary biology, which was my favourite course in undergrad. I realized I had so many questions, so I went back to grad school, and just kept getting more interested.
Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment
I still remember my first science discovery the most. The feeling of pressing the button on the final statistical test and seeing that the pattern that I had predicted was actually real, it was incredible. Science actually worked! I had found that we could make some predictions about genetic diversity in a species that actually happened in a real organism, the monkey puzzle tree.