Dirk is one of our DNA Day 2016 experts.

Dirk Steinke

I am somewhere between a PostDoc and a professor. The perhaps best term for that is Senior Researcher. But I am also responsible for education and outreach programs in our institute.

Tell us about yourself

I was always fascinated by nature. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, as a kid I spend most of my free time outdoors and together with my dad I bred freshwater fishes from around the world. After apprenticing as a gardener, I did a Masters in Zoology, Ecology and Evolution and a PhD in Evolutionary Biology. In 2006, I moved with my family to Canada to join the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO).

What is your research about?

DNA barcoding is a genetic approach to species identification. Once a barcode sequence has been obtained for a species, it is placed in a database – a reference library that can be used to assign identities to unknown specimens. This ever growing library of DNA sequences also allows us to look into how species are related and how they came to be. This is what I am most interested in. How do species evolve? How do their genomes change over evolutionary history?

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

Any time when I was able to find out something really new, something no one knew before it reminds me why became a scientist. Every kid enjoys discovering things but when you become older it gets more and more difficult to actually continue with that. As a researcher you have a chance to become a child once in a while especially when you are exploring new things and new territories.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

You need patience. Sometimes our new discoveries might be small in the eyes of everybody else but require years of hard work. It is not always easy to be persistent. Very often you need to repeat experiments or analyses many times until it gets really boring. There are also the non-science parts of every researchers work. We spend a lot of time trying to find the money for our research. Not always easy as you have to convince people that might not share your enthusiasm.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

Well, first of all it brought me to Canada. Working on DNA barcoding was initially a small side-project during my PhD time. It didn't even make it into my thesis. However, a year later I moved to Guelph and worked with it ever since (10 years). I am currently both a researcher and an educator which means that at one point I will need to decide which path to take. I haven't yet decided...

How has your research impacted the world?

Have you ever heard of "Sushigate"? That was one of the real-life applications of DNA barcoding that actually made the headlines. The research we are doing on DNA barcoding of fish allows us to check if fish species sold at restaurants or retailers are actually what the label says they are. Unfortunately, too often they aren't.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

Miniaturization! The next big thing will be a handheld barcoder, a gadget that allows everyone to use DNA sequencing as a means of identifying organisms and learn about them. A bit like the good old Star Trek tricoders or perhaps more like an extension for the smart phone.

What motivates you to do research?

I remember quite well that I watched pretty much all TV series that had to do with nature, wildlife, animals in general etc. Once outside in the 'wild' which was essentially a small forest behind our backyard, I tried to be one of those researchers out in the field. So, the plan to become a scientist was there all along although I had to learn that real research is a lot of computer work as well. Most influential in my life were my dad, who shared my fascination for nature and life, and a number of professors during my undergrad times. The latter mostly because they were willing to listen to students and enjoyed discussions about the wildest theories out there.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

I cannot recall having such a big moment. There are small Eureka moments, whenever an analysis is done, results available after a long series of experiments or data collection. Every time you get a first glance at them you have the feeling of accomplishment no matter if they are what you predicted or not.

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