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The Graduates

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The Graduates is the talk show where we interview UC Berkeley graduates students about their work here on campus. Hosted by graduate students Ashley Smiley, Andrew Saintsing, and others, The Graduates airs every other Tu
Latest Episode2/16/2021

Nina Maryn

Serrano: Hello, you've tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Karen Serrano and this is The Graduates, an interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work on campus and around the world today. I'm joined by Nina Marin from the Department of Plant and Microbial biology. Welcome to the show, Nina!Maryn: Hey, thanks for having me.Serrano: It's great to have you here. How’ve you been doing?Maryn: Oh, you know, just apocalypse adjusted. I think things are going pretty well.Serrano: Nice. Yeah, I think we're all feeling the same way. Could you tell us a little bit about what you do on campus?Maryn: Yeah, so I am a relatively new PhD student in the Krishna Niyogi lab in the Plant and Microbiology department and I study photoprotection in plants, which is how plants respond to stress from high light. When there's too much light in the environment and they can't use it all to perform photosynthesis, they want to avoid the generation of reactive oxygen species, which are basically molecules that are created from radicalized oxygen which is kind of a byproduct of photosynthesis in plants that are unable to have mechanisms to protect themselves.Serrano: That sounds super interesting! For people who aren't plant people like us... I thought light was required for photosynthesis. Why is too much light bad for plants?Maryn: Right, so light is required for photosynthesis, but plants can only cope with so much. So there are only so many photosystems which are the molecular protein complexes that process photons of light. There are only so many in a leaf for example, and they can only perform it a certain density and at a certain rate. So, in kind of the middle of the day at High Noon, there’s almost twice as much light as the plants can process. And what happens to the light when they're absorbed by a leaf is that they get absorbed by these chlorophyll molecules, which people should generally be familiar with chlorophyll, it’s a pretty famous pigment molecule, and when the light is absorbed their electrons get excited and if there's no photosystems available to process that light, which is what happens in middle of the day when there's too much light around, is that energy from that will end up going to molecular oxygen which is present because the byproduct of photosynthesis and as a result that can start shredding apart the proteins in the chloroplast and in the leaf itself, and so in order to prevent that from happening they have to have another way to redirect all that extra energy.Serrano: So it sounds like the leaves just get really overwhelmed with all the energy they're taking in and they have to kind of shuttle it to other places so that it doesn’t settle into those bad oxygen species. That's pretty cool. How are you studying that?Maryn: So I actually study the natural variation of this process. So what I've looked at are a bunch of wild species at the University of California Botanical Gardens, and I'm looking for plants that are abnormally good at doing this and better at doing it than the crop species that we grow for food are so that we can kind of understand how those mechanisms work in the wild, especially in plants that are adapted to environments with really high sunlight. So where there’s lots of shade, but also a lot of kind of excessive sunlight as well, like, in dense forest canopies and Rocky deserts, I study the natural variation of these photoprotective mechanisms in wild species.Serrano: So how can you tell which plants are good at this and which plants aren't good at it?Maryn: Through this really fancy measurement system called a “fluorometer”. So what happens after that chlorophyll pigment absorbs a photon of light and its electrons get excited, there are a few different places it can go. So it can either go to perform photosynthesis, which is what it normally does when there's not too much excess light. Or it can go to and be released back into the environment as light again, and that's fluorescence. So all pigment molecules pretty much fluoresce. So, chlorophyll is a fluorescent molecule. So when it absorbs that photon of light it can either use it for photochemistry, which is what we call photosynthesis, or it can be released back into the environment as light again, and that's what we would call fluorescence. Like, fireflies also have molecules that fluoresce. Yes, and you can measure how much fluorescence there is. Fluorescence is correlated to how much photochemistry is happening. And so when fluorescence goes down, this is actually a sign that the plant is beginning to perform photo protection instead of photosynthesis and we can measure that by using a fluorometer.Serrano: Oh, I see, so the higher fluorescence measures the worse the photochemistry then?Maryn: No, it's the opposite. So yeah, fluorescence is correlated with photochemistry. So the more fluorescence there is the more likely the rest of the energy is being used for photosynthesis. But when the fluorescence goes down that means the plant is performing photo protection and it's very very efficiently funneling that light to other funneling that light energy to the other molecules.Serrano: I see, so do you like just go to the Botanical Gardens and measure the plants fluorescence? Is that how you take your data?Maryn: So that's one way of doing it, but I wanted to measure almost a hundred plants in the first data collection that I did.Serrano: Oh wow!Maryn: Yeah, so I did a survey of 100 species and what I did was I took a bunch of their leaves which I got special permission from the garden to do, and I brought them back to the lab. Made the measurements there.Serrano: Oh, I see. It must be nice going to Botanical Gardens!Maryn: Very, very lovely. I mean, I feel like I'm good friends with the curators there now. It’s so fun.Serrano: So what is your hope for your research outcomes? So do you think that you'll be able to find or use this natural variation to maybe engineer plants with better photosynthesis?Maryn: Yeah, so in my first screen I actually found a really interesting group of plants that are all fern species and most of which are xerophytic. So they're adapted to live in the Rocky desert and the southwestern United States and these were incredibly efficient at turning on and off photo protection. So when there's too much highlight, they immediately perform enormous amounts of photoprotection, way higher than both of the model organisms, Nicotiana tabacum which is a tobacco species and Arabidopsis, which is kind of this model weed. Well, they perform way better photochemistry or photo protection then those species and they're able to turn it off much more quickly when the light goes back down to a low level where they can start performing photochemistry again, and so we suspect that they're able to kind of optimize their photosynthesis and photoprotection for whatever the light regime is and we are hoping to be able to kind of understand what that mechanism is and then put it into crops to improve biomass .Serrano: That’s super cool. Do you have any hypotheses to why these ferns might be better at that?Maryn: Yeah, so ferns are a really interesting group of plants.They diverged very early in the land plant lineage. So they're very far removed evolutionarily from angiosperms, which are most of what we eat. Those are the flowering plants and you know angiosperms really didn't evolve to optimize photo protection because their biomass field is not directly correlated to how good they are at reproducing because they produce fruit and flowers. But ferns actually reproduce by forming spores on the backs of their leaves and so their leaves are their reproductive organs and so being able to optimize this photoprotection/photochemistry mechanism might be more useful for ferns because optimizing their biomass and growing bigger and better leaves actually increases their chance of fecundity or their reproductive success. That’s my pet hypothesis for why they might be better at it.Serrano: Yeah. I was kind of thinking since ferns evolved earlier than yeah gymnosperms and angiosperms that they maybe have had to deal with harsher environmental conditions than those and so they would have different mechanisms to adapt to those conditions prior to the rest of the land plants.Maryn: Yeah, I mean that's definitely one reason. So a lot of ferns grow in forest understories and the ones that I've been looking at primarily actually have adapted away from growing in forests and into the Rocky desert and so my hypothesis is that they first adapted to optimizing photosynthesis in low light and then moved to being able to do high-capacity photoprotection and high light. One of the other fun things about these species is that they perform phototropism. So in high light, when they're not being clamped to a fancy lab machine like a fluorometer, they curl their leaves and so they kind of do this self-shading and I think that that's one of the other reasons why the rate of transitioning from photosynthesis to photo protection and back is really high because as soon as there's too much light, the photosystems shade and they perform self-shading so they can still absorb a lot of light from the environment but it's not an excess wow optimize that transitionSerrano: So what would it entail for you to kind of steal these photosynthesis mechanisms from ferns and place them into crop plants?Maryn: So the project that I'm planning for my dissertation is to look at their light-harvesting complexes. So this is the part of the photosystem that holds a lot of the chlorophyll that captures light from the environment and directs it to the photosynthesis reaction center. And this is the site of that photoprotective mechanism because you have to stop the excess energy from getting into the reaction center where the molecular oxygen is. And so my project is to look at the genes in the light harvesting complexes in these plants and see how they may be structurally different to be able to redirect that energy to other molecules that bind to these light-harvesting complexes.Serrano: I see. So you're focusing on like one really specific part of the chain, basically?Maryn: Well, I'm focusing on the site of photo protection in the photosystem.Serrano: I see. Hi, just a reminder that you're tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Karen Serrano and I've been speaking to Nina Maryn from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and she's been talking about her work in photosynthesis. So Nina, have you always been interested in plant molecular biology or what did you do before your time at Berkeley?Maryn: No, I was not a plant biologist before I started my PhD. In undergrad, I worked in very basic genetics and molecular biology. So I studied sex determination in C. elegans, which is a model worm. It's super common for studying how genes are regulated and how genomes function because they have very small, well-characterized genomes. And then when I graduated, I worked for two years as a microbiologist in a lab at New York University and I studied kind of biophysics and also the formation of spores in some bacterial subspecies and then I decided that I wanted to work on something that had possible implications for climate science. I thought that, you know, doing a PhD is a really big commitment and it's a very long time and there's not necessarily the biggest payoff at the end in terms of money or fame. So I wanted to work on something that I felt had a moral resonance and I think that working on a project where I get to do basic biology and learn a lot about some of the molecular mechanisms of a really interesting system, but meanwhile hopefully down the line that will help to actually make people's lives better and help improve crop yield in places where climate change will be likereally affecting how much food people can produce for their communities down the line.Serrano: Right. Yeah, I think definitely now more than ever climate change has been on our minds. It seems like you just wanted to go into maybe like a more applied field of study.Maryn: Yeah, I think specifically I yeah, I was interested in something that would have kind of an environmental.Serrano: What made you want to study photosynthesis in particular?Maryn: I didn't plan to be a photosynthesis researcher, but I was interested in the lab when I was doing rotations in my first year because a lot of the people in the lab seemed really happy and it seemed you know, professional and well-funded and when I got in I got this like really big kind of fishing expedition of a project to do this survey the botanical garden and I ended up finding something really interesting and I felt very dedicated to solving the problem that I discovered.Serrano: I see. So it wasn't it wasn't planned at all? It was just..Maryn: Nope.Serrano: It was just something you found really interesting when you encountered and then fell into it. Were you always interested in science or were you ever interested in anything besides science?Maryn: Ever since high school. I was definitely interested in science. I always felt that at least in my science classes, I had enough questions where we reached the end of our knowledge that we could get from the textbook and I think I always had a very research-oriented personality, but it was not the only thing I ever wanted to do. I've always really enjoyed writing and performing and I seriously considered a career in stand-up comedy which I'm deeply glad I did not pursue during this time! But yeah, I've definitely considered other things besides science.Serrano: So you said you considered a career in stand-up comedy. Do you ever do that in your free time?Maryn: Not anymore, but I did during the “before time”.Serrano: I guess now you can't really! Maybe there's like a zoom comedy show, but definitely less funny that way.Maryn:Yeah.Serrano: But you also mentioned, or, you mentioned writing! How do you kind of incorporate writing into your life now?Maryn: So I do write fiction in my spare time. I like to write snow funny short stories, but science itself has a lot of writing involved. I'm writing my thesis proposal right now and it’s a lot of work and that's kind of one of the things that I love about science is that it's so interdisciplinary and on a given day, there are so many different things you could be doing. You can be planning an experiment or doing lab work, writing, presenting work, and it kind of has it all.Serrano: Yeah, I would definitely say as a fellow PhD student, there's definitely more writing than you ever expect there to be in stem fields. And so you’ve also mentioned that you were really research-oriented. Did you have undergrad experience in research or what kind of opportunities that you have there?Maryn: Yeah, so the work I did in C elegans. I did for my sophomore year through my senior year in undergrad at New York University. And then yeah, and then I worked as a laboratory technician for two years before I came to grad school.Serrano: So you got to get a feel for what research is like before you considered grad school. And then you said you worked for two years after your undergrad, right?Maryn: Yeah.Serrano: Did you ever consider going straight from undergrad to your PhD or did you want that kind of buffering time.Maryn: I did consider it but I think that the concern that I had was that I felt that I didn't have the confidence to break out of my comfort zone in undergrad and I think that I would have ended up applying to something that was very similar to what I had already been doing because it was what I felt confident in it was what I felt comfortable with and I knew that if I was going to spend five to seven years working on something I wanted it to be more thought out than just what I felt comfortable with. So taking two years to go into a different field and start over.. and start over with a little bit more experience. I think, it prepared me better and gave me more time to go to talks and go to seminars and do more reading and figure out what kind of project I really wanted to do for my PhD.Serrano: Nice. Yeah, so you mentioned that you're writing your thesis dissertation right now or your thesis project? How is that going?Maryn: I think it's going well. I guess we'll find out I guess if I become a PhD candidate in two and a half weeks!Serrano: Yeah. Wow!Maryn: I think I think it's going well. I've gotten some good feedback from my postdoc and some professors that I've been working with.Serrano:Nice! What do you think you’d like to do after you graduate?Maryn: The world scariest question, Karen!Serrano: You don’t have to have a real answer. I don’t even have a real answer to this question.Maryn: I mean, I think the honest answer is that I'm trying not to make too many decisions for my future me. A year ago. I would not have predicted anything about my life as it currently is, but I think that I don't have any answers.Serrano: All right. So I mean usually grad students are usually stuck between staying in Academia and then moving into the private research sector. Do you have any kind of preferences at the moment?Maryn: I really don't because I think that, I mean, my understanding of Academia and my experience with it is that it can be really wonderful and fulfilling but there are not very many spots for professorshipat the highest level and it it takes a lot of luck to get there and I think that if I get that luck and I get postdocs and opportunities that I'm excited about I would absolutely pursue that, but barring that I think that I would probably have it, into a career that is more writing and communication oriented rather than just doing bench work at an industry level.Serrano: Yes. You're a little interested in more science communication right now.Maryn: Yeah.Serrano: Cool. Have you had a chance to try out teaching yet?Maryn: Not yet. Not yet. I'm planning to teach next year.Serrano: Oh cool. Do you know what you'll be teaching?Maryn: No, the next academic year, so I’m not sure what’s on the …Serrano: Oh right, okay! What do you do on campus besides research right now?Maryn: I've been working on campus in the graduate student union. I'm a steward for our department in the graduate student union. And so I act as a representative of my fellow graduate students in how we collectively bargain with the university to make sure we are paid enough to live and we have rights..Serrano: That's definitely important and thank you for your work in that! Are there any other clubs or organizations that you’re also part of or is the union work your main sort of focus right now?Maryn: The union is my main focus. In my spare time, I used to also do swing dancing occasionally on campus. There is a Lindy Hop on Saturdays, which was so much fun.Serrano: Oh that’s so fun!Maryn: But alas so many of my hobbies were social so they've been rendered illegal.Serrano: Are you still in Berkeley this semester or have you decided to go home?Maryn: I am still in Berkeley. I currently live in Oakland.Serrano: I wonder if.. I wonder if they'll approve any sort of outdoor activities soon such as swing dancing because I feel like that could be done outdoors. And I think I have in fact seen people do it like in the main little square like next to Sather Gate.Maryn: Yeah, but it does require touching strangers… Which I don't know about.Serrano: Oh wow! Yeah, you need a partner to dance, don't you? Yeah, I guess you could do like the Middle School.. like six feet apart.Maryn: I think yeah six feet apart is farther than middle school dancing!Serrano: But yeah, I think we all struggle with lost hobbies now. Since you’re studying plants, what’s your favorite plant?Maryn: Ooh, that's a good question. So I'm going to say that it's one of the ferns that I study. One of the plants that I study is a maidenhair fern called Adiantum raddianum and you can buy it as a houseplant and they are absolutely beautiful. They have very like tiny and delicate leaves that are just like a very Vivid bright shade of light green and I highly recommend it as a lovely addition to your home.Serrano: Do you have one in your house?Maryn: I do not have one in my house. But I am going to probably grow them in the greenhouse soon at school and steal some home for free.Serrano: I imagine ferns are a little bit hard to take care of because they require a lot of water, right?Maryn: It depends on the species. But yeah, this is probably so far is quite a bit of water.Serrano: I'm glad you had a real answer to that because every time someone asks me, and for the audience, I also am a plant biologist. So people often ask me what my favorite plant is and I always blank on every single plant I know when I hear that question! So it’s nice that you had one.Serrano: You know, we end the show with usually asking our interviewees what they like to leave the audience with. Do you have anything you'd like to leave the audience with?Maryn: Yes, so I like to listen to podcasts when I'm working in the lab on something that’s tedious and my number one recommendation for podcast listening for the scientifically minded is the podcast 0% scared and it’s a podcast where a viral biologist and a person who believes in the Paranormal argue about paranormal topics.So the scientist likes to break down why the logic of the paranormal thing makes no sense! But occasionally she says “this is plausible” and it’s real fun. It's a real fun time.Serrano: I actually have to start listening to that. I love it. I listen to a lot of crime podcasts when I work, but I recently started listening to one called “Two Girls One Ghost”. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that one but it’s just to best friends and they talk about paranormal experiences, but I’d love to hear a scientific debate between a believer and a scientist.Maryn: It's fun, I think because she's genuinely aggressive about it. Like she's like “No! This doesn't make any sense astrology isn't real.” So sorry to the astrology believers out there in the audience, but it's great. It's really fun.Serrano: Sorry, I'm really interested haha! Is this, are they like reviewing cases that have happened to other people or is it like their own experiences?Maryn: It's like topic by topic. So there's one episode about mermaids and the paranormal believer co-host…Serrano: Oh so it’s not like “this is a ghost story, do you think this is real?”Maryn: It’s like “Are mermaids real?” So it’s the funniest! Okay so this is a great episode because the Paranormal believer is like “I've seen a mermaid” and she was like, “you definitely did not see a mermaid, you saw something else” and then she goes through like the history of like mermaid debunkings and she brings in like scientific papers and she's like here's why mermaids can't exist because of evolution and it's great.Serrano: I love that. That's a great recommendation! All right, we're coming to the end of our time here. So thank you so much again, Nina and great to have you on here and tune in next week for the next episode of The Graduates.Maryn: Thanks so much!
2/16/2021

Nina Maryn

Serrano: Hello, you've tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Karen Serrano and this is The Graduates, an interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work on campus and around the world today. I'm joined by Nina Marin from the Department of Plant and Microbial biology. Welcome to the show, Nina!Maryn: Hey, thanks for having me.Serrano: It's great to have you here. How’ve you been doing?Maryn: Oh, you know, just apocalypse adjusted. I think things are going pretty well.Serrano: Nice. Yeah, I think we're all feeling the same way. Could you tell us a little bit about what you do on campus?Maryn: Yeah, so I am a relatively new PhD student in the Krishna Niyogi lab in the Plant and Microbiology department and I study photoprotection in plants, which is how plants respond to stress from high light. When there's too much light in the environment and they can't use it all to perform photosynthesis, they want to avoid the generation of reactive oxygen species, which are basically molecules that are created from radicalized oxygen which is kind of a byproduct of photosynthesis in plants that are unable to have mechanisms to protect themselves.Serrano: That sounds super interesting! For people who aren't plant people like us... I thought light was required for photosynthesis. Why is too much light bad for plants?Maryn: Right, so light is required for photosynthesis, but plants can only cope with so much. So there are only so many photosystems which are the molecular protein complexes that process photons of light. There are only so many in a leaf for example, and they can only perform it a certain density and at a certain rate. So, in kind of the middle of the day at High Noon, there’s almost twice as much light as the plants can process. And what happens to the light when they're absorbed by a leaf is that they get absorbed by these chlorophyll molecules, which people should generally be familiar with chlorophyll, it’s a pretty famous pigment molecule, and when the light is absorbed their electrons get excited and if there's no photosystems available to process that light, which is what happens in middle of the day when there's too much light around, is that energy from that will end up going to molecular oxygen which is present because the byproduct of photosynthesis and as a result that can start shredding apart the proteins in the chloroplast and in the leaf itself, and so in order to prevent that from happening they have to have another way to redirect all that extra energy.Serrano: So it sounds like the leaves just get really overwhelmed with all the energy they're taking in and they have to kind of shuttle it to other places so that it doesn’t settle into those bad oxygen species. That's pretty cool. How are you studying that?Maryn: So I actually study the natural variation of this process. So what I've looked at are a bunch of wild species at the University of California Botanical Gardens, and I'm looking for plants that are abnormally good at doing this and better at doing it than the crop species that we grow for food are so that we can kind of understand how those mechanisms work in the wild, especially in plants that are adapted to environments with really high sunlight. So where there’s lots of shade, but also a lot of kind of excessive sunlight as well, like, in dense forest canopies and Rocky deserts, I study the natural variation of these photoprotective mechanisms in wild species.Serrano: So how can you tell which plants are good at this and which plants aren't good at it?Maryn: Through this really fancy measurement system called a “fluorometer”. So what happens after that chlorophyll pigment absorbs a photon of light and its electrons get excited, there are a few different places it can go. So it can either go to perform photosynthesis, which is what it normally does when there's not too much excess light. Or it can go to and be released back into the environment as light again, and that's fluorescence. So all pigment molecules pretty much fluoresce. So, chlorophyll is a fluorescent molecule. So when it absorbs that photon of light it can either use it for photochemistry, which is what we call photosynthesis, or it can be released back into the environment as light again, and that's what we would call fluorescence. Like, fireflies also have molecules that fluoresce. Yes, and you can measure how much fluorescence there is. Fluorescence is correlated to how much photochemistry is happening. And so when fluorescence goes down, this is actually a sign that the plant is beginning to perform photo protection instead of photosynthesis and we can measure that by using a fluorometer.Serrano: Oh, I see, so the higher fluorescence measures the worse the photochemistry then?Maryn: No, it's the opposite. So yeah, fluorescence is correlated with photochemistry. So the more fluorescence there is the more likely the rest of the energy is being used for photosynthesis. But when the fluorescence goes down that means the plant is performing photo protection and it's very very efficiently funneling that light to other funneling that light energy to the other molecules.Serrano: I see, so do you like just go to the Botanical Gardens and measure the plants fluorescence? Is that how you take your data?Maryn: So that's one way of doing it, but I wanted to measure almost a hundred plants in the first data collection that I did.Serrano: Oh wow!Maryn: Yeah, so I did a survey of 100 species and what I did was I took a bunch of their leaves which I got special permission from the garden to do, and I brought them back to the lab. Made the measurements there.Serrano: Oh, I see. It must be nice going to Botanical Gardens!Maryn: Very, very lovely. I mean, I feel like I'm good friends with the curators there now. It’s so fun.Serrano: So what is your hope for your research outcomes? So do you think that you'll be able to find or use this natural variation to maybe engineer plants with better photosynthesis?Maryn: Yeah, so in my first screen I actually found a really interesting group of plants that are all fern species and most of which are xerophytic. So they're adapted to live in the Rocky desert and the southwestern United States and these were incredibly efficient at turning on and off photo protection. So when there's too much highlight, they immediately perform enormous amounts of photoprotection, way higher than both of the model organisms, Nicotiana tabacum which is a tobacco species and Arabidopsis, which is kind of this model weed. Well, they perform way better photochemistry or photo protection then those species and they're able to turn it off much more quickly when the light goes back down to a low level where they can start performing photochemistry again, and so we suspect that they're able to kind of optimize their photosynthesis and photoprotection for whatever the light regime is and we are hoping to be able to kind of understand what that mechanism is and then put it into crops to improve biomass .Serrano: That’s super cool. Do you have any hypotheses to why these ferns might be better at that?Maryn: Yeah, so ferns are a really interesting group of plants.They diverged very early in the land plant lineage. So they're very far removed evolutionarily from angiosperms, which are most of what we eat. Those are the flowering plants and you know angiosperms really didn't evolve to optimize photo protection because their biomass field is not directly correlated to how good they are at reproducing because they produce fruit and flowers. But ferns actually reproduce by forming spores on the backs of their leaves and so their leaves are their reproductive organs and so being able to optimize this photoprotection/photochemistry mechanism might be more useful for ferns because optimizing their biomass and growing bigger and better leaves actually increases their chance of fecundity or their reproductive success. That’s my pet hypothesis for why they might be better at it.Serrano: Yeah. I was kind of thinking since ferns evolved earlier than yeah gymnosperms and angiosperms that they maybe have had to deal with harsher environmental conditions than those and so they would have different mechanisms to adapt to those conditions prior to the rest of the land plants.Maryn: Yeah, I mean that's definitely one reason. So a lot of ferns grow in forest understories and the ones that I've been looking at primarily actually have adapted away from growing in forests and into the Rocky desert and so my hypothesis is that they first adapted to optimizing photosynthesis in low light and then moved to being able to do high-capacity photoprotection and high light. One of the other fun things about these species is that they perform phototropism. So in high light, when they're not being clamped to a fancy lab machine like a fluorometer, they curl their leaves and so they kind of do this self-shading and I think that that's one of the other reasons why the rate of transitioning from photosynthesis to photo protection and back is really high because as soon as there's too much light, the photosystems shade and they perform self-shading so they can still absorb a lot of light from the environment but it's not an excess wow optimize that transitionSerrano: So what would it entail for you to kind of steal these photosynthesis mechanisms from ferns and place them into crop plants?Maryn: So the project that I'm planning for my dissertation is to look at their light-harvesting complexes. So this is the part of the photosystem that holds a lot of the chlorophyll that captures light from the environment and directs it to the photosynthesis reaction center. And this is the site of that photoprotective mechanism because you have to stop the excess energy from getting into the reaction center where the molecular oxygen is. And so my project is to look at the genes in the light harvesting complexes in these plants and see how they may be structurally different to be able to redirect that energy to other molecules that bind to these light-harvesting complexes.Serrano: I see. So you're focusing on like one really specific part of the chain, basically?Maryn: Well, I'm focusing on the site of photo protection in the photosystem.Serrano: I see. Hi, just a reminder that you're tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Karen Serrano and I've been speaking to Nina Maryn from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and she's been talking about her work in photosynthesis. So Nina, have you always been interested in plant molecular biology or what did you do before your time at Berkeley?Maryn: No, I was not a plant biologist before I started my PhD. In undergrad, I worked in very basic genetics and molecular biology. So I studied sex determination in C. elegans, which is a model worm. It's super common for studying how genes are regulated and how genomes function because they have very small, well-characterized genomes. And then when I graduated, I worked for two years as a microbiologist in a lab at New York University and I studied kind of biophysics and also the formation of spores in some bacterial subspecies and then I decided that I wanted to work on something that had possible implications for climate science. I thought that, you know, doing a PhD is a really big commitment and it's a very long time and there's not necessarily the biggest payoff at the end in terms of money or fame. So I wanted to work on something that I felt had a moral resonance and I think that working on a project where I get to do basic biology and learn a lot about some of the molecular mechanisms of a really interesting system, but meanwhile hopefully down the line that will help to actually make people's lives better and help improve crop yield in places where climate change will be likereally affecting how much food people can produce for their communities down the line.Serrano: Right. Yeah, I think definitely now more than ever climate change has been on our minds. It seems like you just wanted to go into maybe like a more applied field of study.Maryn: Yeah, I think specifically I yeah, I was interested in something that would have kind of an environmental.Serrano: What made you want to study photosynthesis in particular?Maryn: I didn't plan to be a photosynthesis researcher, but I was interested in the lab when I was doing rotations in my first year because a lot of the people in the lab seemed really happy and it seemed you know, professional and well-funded and when I got in I got this like really big kind of fishing expedition of a project to do this survey the botanical garden and I ended up finding something really interesting and I felt very dedicated to solving the problem that I discovered.Serrano: I see. So it wasn't it wasn't planned at all? It was just..Maryn: Nope.Serrano: It was just something you found really interesting when you encountered and then fell into it. Were you always interested in science or were you ever interested in anything besides science?Maryn: Ever since high school. I was definitely interested in science. I always felt that at least in my science classes, I had enough questions where we reached the end of our knowledge that we could get from the textbook and I think I always had a very research-oriented personality, but it was not the only thing I ever wanted to do. I've always really enjoyed writing and performing and I seriously considered a career in stand-up comedy which I'm deeply glad I did not pursue during this time! But yeah, I've definitely considered other things besides science.Serrano: So you said you considered a career in stand-up comedy. Do you ever do that in your free time?Maryn: Not anymore, but I did during the “before time”.Serrano: I guess now you can't really! Maybe there's like a zoom comedy show, but definitely less funny that way.Maryn:Yeah.Serrano: But you also mentioned, or, you mentioned writing! How do you kind of incorporate writing into your life now?Maryn: So I do write fiction in my spare time. I like to write snow funny short stories, but science itself has a lot of writing involved. I'm writing my thesis proposal right now and it’s a lot of work and that's kind of one of the things that I love about science is that it's so interdisciplinary and on a given day, there are so many different things you could be doing. You can be planning an experiment or doing lab work, writing, presenting work, and it kind of has it all.Serrano: Yeah, I would definitely say as a fellow PhD student, there's definitely more writing than you ever expect there to be in stem fields. And so you’ve also mentioned that you were really research-oriented. Did you have undergrad experience in research or what kind of opportunities that you have there?Maryn: Yeah, so the work I did in C elegans. I did for my sophomore year through my senior year in undergrad at New York University. And then yeah, and then I worked as a laboratory technician for two years before I came to grad school.Serrano: So you got to get a feel for what research is like before you considered grad school. And then you said you worked for two years after your undergrad, right?Maryn: Yeah.Serrano: Did you ever consider going straight from undergrad to your PhD or did you want that kind of buffering time.Maryn: I did consider it but I think that the concern that I had was that I felt that I didn't have the confidence to break out of my comfort zone in undergrad and I think that I would have ended up applying to something that was very similar to what I had already been doing because it was what I felt confident in it was what I felt comfortable with and I knew that if I was going to spend five to seven years working on something I wanted it to be more thought out than just what I felt comfortable with. So taking two years to go into a different field and start over.. and start over with a little bit more experience. I think, it prepared me better and gave me more time to go to talks and go to seminars and do more reading and figure out what kind of project I really wanted to do for my PhD.Serrano: Nice. Yeah, so you mentioned that you're writing your thesis dissertation right now or your thesis project? How is that going?Maryn: I think it's going well. I guess we'll find out I guess if I become a PhD candidate in two and a half weeks!Serrano: Yeah. Wow!Maryn: I think I think it's going well. I've gotten some good feedback from my postdoc and some professors that I've been working with.Serrano:Nice! What do you think you’d like to do after you graduate?Maryn: The world scariest question, Karen!Serrano: You don’t have to have a real answer. I don’t even have a real answer to this question.Maryn: I mean, I think the honest answer is that I'm trying not to make too many decisions for my future me. A year ago. I would not have predicted anything about my life as it currently is, but I think that I don't have any answers.Serrano: All right. So I mean usually grad students are usually stuck between staying in Academia and then moving into the private research sector. Do you have any kind of preferences at the moment?Maryn: I really don't because I think that, I mean, my understanding of Academia and my experience with it is that it can be really wonderful and fulfilling but there are not very many spots for professorshipat the highest level and it it takes a lot of luck to get there and I think that if I get that luck and I get postdocs and opportunities that I'm excited about I would absolutely pursue that, but barring that I think that I would probably have it, into a career that is more writing and communication oriented rather than just doing bench work at an industry level.Serrano: Yes. You're a little interested in more science communication right now.Maryn: Yeah.Serrano: Cool. Have you had a chance to try out teaching yet?Maryn: Not yet. Not yet. I'm planning to teach next year.Serrano: Oh cool. Do you know what you'll be teaching?Maryn: No, the next academic year, so I’m not sure what’s on the …Serrano: Oh right, okay! What do you do on campus besides research right now?Maryn: I've been working on campus in the graduate student union. I'm a steward for our department in the graduate student union. And so I act as a representative of my fellow graduate students in how we collectively bargain with the university to make sure we are paid enough to live and we have rights..Serrano: That's definitely important and thank you for your work in that! Are there any other clubs or organizations that you’re also part of or is the union work your main sort of focus right now?Maryn: The union is my main focus. In my spare time, I used to also do swing dancing occasionally on campus. There is a Lindy Hop on Saturdays, which was so much fun.Serrano: Oh that’s so fun!Maryn: But alas so many of my hobbies were social so they've been rendered illegal.Serrano: Are you still in Berkeley this semester or have you decided to go home?Maryn: I am still in Berkeley. I currently live in Oakland.Serrano: I wonder if.. I wonder if they'll approve any sort of outdoor activities soon such as swing dancing because I feel like that could be done outdoors. And I think I have in fact seen people do it like in the main little square like next to Sather Gate.Maryn: Yeah, but it does require touching strangers… Which I don't know about.Serrano: Oh wow! Yeah, you need a partner to dance, don't you? Yeah, I guess you could do like the Middle School.. like six feet apart.Maryn: I think yeah six feet apart is farther than middle school dancing!Serrano: But yeah, I think we all struggle with lost hobbies now. Since you’re studying plants, what’s your favorite plant?Maryn: Ooh, that's a good question. So I'm going to say that it's one of the ferns that I study. One of the plants that I study is a maidenhair fern called Adiantum raddianum and you can buy it as a houseplant and they are absolutely beautiful. They have very like tiny and delicate leaves that are just like a very Vivid bright shade of light green and I highly recommend it as a lovely addition to your home.Serrano: Do you have one in your house?Maryn: I do not have one in my house. But I am going to probably grow them in the greenhouse soon at school and steal some home for free.Serrano: I imagine ferns are a little bit hard to take care of because they require a lot of water, right?Maryn: It depends on the species. But yeah, this is probably so far is quite a bit of water.Serrano: I'm glad you had a real answer to that because every time someone asks me, and for the audience, I also am a plant biologist. So people often ask me what my favorite plant is and I always blank on every single plant I know when I hear that question! So it’s nice that you had one.Serrano: You know, we end the show with usually asking our interviewees what they like to leave the audience with. Do you have anything you'd like to leave the audience with?Maryn: Yes, so I like to listen to podcasts when I'm working in the lab on something that’s tedious and my number one recommendation for podcast listening for the scientifically minded is the podcast 0% scared and it’s a podcast where a viral biologist and a person who believes in the Paranormal argue about paranormal topics.So the scientist likes to break down why the logic of the paranormal thing makes no sense! But occasionally she says “this is plausible” and it’s real fun. It's a real fun time.Serrano: I actually have to start listening to that. I love it. I listen to a lot of crime podcasts when I work, but I recently started listening to one called “Two Girls One Ghost”. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that one but it’s just to best friends and they talk about paranormal experiences, but I’d love to hear a scientific debate between a believer and a scientist.Maryn: It's fun, I think because she's genuinely aggressive about it. Like she's like “No! This doesn't make any sense astrology isn't real.” So sorry to the astrology believers out there in the audience, but it's great. It's really fun.Serrano: Sorry, I'm really interested haha! Is this, are they like reviewing cases that have happened to other people or is it like their own experiences?Maryn: It's like topic by topic. So there's one episode about mermaids and the paranormal believer co-host…Serrano: Oh so it’s not like “this is a ghost story, do you think this is real?”Maryn: It’s like “Are mermaids real?” So it’s the funniest! Okay so this is a great episode because the Paranormal believer is like “I've seen a mermaid” and she was like, “you definitely did not see a mermaid, you saw something else” and then she goes through like the history of like mermaid debunkings and she brings in like scientific papers and she's like here's why mermaids can't exist because of evolution and it's great.Serrano: I love that. That's a great recommendation! All right, we're coming to the end of our time here. So thank you so much again, Nina and great to have you on here and tune in next week for the next episode of The Graduates.Maryn: Thanks so much!
2/16/2021

Mohamad Jarada

Andrew Saintsing: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Mohamad Jarada from the Department of Anthropology. Welcome to the show, Mohamad.Mohamad Jarada: Hey, hey. How are you? How's it going? Thanks for having me.Saintsing: It's great. I'm so glad you're here. How are you doing?Jarada: I'm doing well. Beautiful day in Berkeley today.Saintsing: Yeah, weirdly unseasonably warm when we're interviewing this in January – doing this interview in January.Jarada: Yeah.Saintsing: So, I'm so glad to have you on here. I don't think I've had anyone from the Department of Anthropology, yet. And so, I'm really interested to hear more about your research. I'm also really interested to hear about your research because I saw that you do a lot of it in North Carolina, which is where I'm from. Could you just kind of introduce us a little bit to what you're doing? What your research is?Jarada: Yeah, sure. So, my research essentially takes civil rights as its focal point, but it does so by expanding our understanding historically and in the contemporary about how civil rights is practiced within local communities and how civil rights gets shaped within legal, political, and social discourses throughout post-Reconstruction United States of America. So, what I try to do in my research is look at certain communities certain, racialized communities, in particular communities who are criminalized, to see how they have used and construed the concept of civil rights and how that has been developed historically since again the late 19th century up until the present. And I do this in particular by trying to look at certain security documents because what I'm trying to do with the civil rights focal point is expand our understanding of civil rights beyond questions of voting political participation, etc., etc. And to think about how communities could protect themselves and defend themselves against things like hate violence and austere surveillance from the government or something of that sort.Saintsing: Wow, so your research is very relevant right now, right? It's… you're getting a lot of news stories that could probably be something you could look at for your research?Jarada: Absolutely, yeah. I mean right now civil rights is certainly a hot topic to discuss. I think it's sometimes, it's over-determined and misplaced about where it could be talked about or addressed publicly.Saintsing: What do you mean by over-determined?Jarada: I think that sometimes when we talk about racial struggles in the United States or communities who are criminalized by law enforcement agencies, oftentimes civil rights gets tokenized as the only resource or only form of recourse that these communities can seek. I think that it's important for me in my dissertation and in my research is to kind of delimit that space of what civil rights can do for these communities and the limits of what it can do for these communities as well.Saintsing: Sorry, but can you just say what you mean specifically by civil rights then?Jarada: Yeah, so the way I understand civil rights and the way I construe it as a, both as a historical concept and as a legal concept in my dissertation is something that is particularly referring to certain legal entitlements that are, that is offered by the state or by the federal government or by, depending on the time or era you're speaking about, by state government. And so, when I say civil rights I say the particular legal entitlement that a citizen, or a non-citizen for that matter, is given by the state generally and historically speaking. And this is where it gets kind of confusing or complex. It's differentiated especially by the Supreme Court by two different kinds of rights. So, there’s civil, there’s social, and there's political rights. And so, often times the Supreme Court, at least in the post-Reconstruction era, they differentiated these three different kinds of rights in order to address how they should matriculate formerly enslaved people into the national citizenry. So, the goal of civil rights is to ensure those legal entities and legal entitlements that are essential to being a citizen or living in the United States.Saintsing: Okay, and so you're saying that maybe the other rights that you talked about are not as emphasized and could be more important to the discussions that we're having in racial justice and social justice issues?Jarada: Precisely. So I mean these are discussions that are happening within political activists, social activist communities, where civil rights is often not really a significant part. Or it is a significant part, but the problem with civil rights is the legal regiment in order to get some kind of redress or get some kind of cure for a political, social, or legal injury. So, for example, if a civil rights of mine is transgressed, in order for me to get that remedied I would have to go through a large and extensive legal process that is a headache. And so, there are these other kinds of rights, particularly social, political. There are things like economic rights, too, that people are considering on the local level as well, to think about different ways or different forms of recourse that these communities could find in times of need or in times of vulnerability.Saintsing: Okay, and so civil rights we're saying we have to go through legal channels to address injustices or to make sure that people have these civil rights. But these other rights, political, economic, social rights, these are things that are addressed outside of court systems?Jarada: Well, no, they're… So, they are outside of court systems in the sense that they could be used or addressed or spoken about outside of legal processes and court systems, precisely. But they're highly defined by and created and constructed out of the Supreme Court essentially because… or legal debates that were happening, or presidential debates. So, part of my research is looking at this really funny early debate between this guy named Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. So, before Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States, he was running for the Senator in Illinois. And he ran up against this kind of robust racist Stephen Douglas who truly believed in the institution of slavery. And so, it's in these debates (these are really famous debates) where the idea of social, political equality and rights somehow gets differentiated from legal, civil equality, rights, and entitlements. And it's so… they're constructed within these legal these legal arguments, these political debates, the court system. But they are… they have a more expansive capacity, or they're more expansive in the sense that communities can use them or address them or speak about them in a way that isn't limited by the courts per se. Okay, it is confusing. It definitely is. But it's both confusing, ambivalent, and unstable, and for all those reasons it makes political and social rights all the more contested and gives them potential to be used for these social justice or political justice initiatives.Saintsing: Okay, so you research specific case studies around this. So, could you kind of walk us through like a specific example that could help illustrate you know the intersections of these rights and how communities use different rights to address different issues/Jarada: Sure, so the community that I work in particularly is in North Carolina, and I've done research across the South. I've tried to do stuff in Virginia and Tennessee, but I chose North Carolina just because it was a pragmatic decision that I made. And it's kind of high… it's been highlighted within public channels especially within the communities I work with (which are particularly Muslim communities) because there was a kind of a brutal murder of these three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by this guy named Craig Hicks. And so, after this kind of tragic situation where these three Muslims, you know, Yusor, Deah, and Razan (that's what their names were) were murdered, the question about how to protect the community and what resources to use in this community to protect them was, you know, kind of got, kind of exploded. It's like, “how can these Muslim Americans protect themselves both from the fact that they're being surveilled by the government and at the same time being, you know, hurt, murdered, assaulted, vandalism on their on their religious basis, etc. And so, what I do with this community, or what I examine in particular this community is the kind of language they use, and the kind of resources they use. And essentially to get to the nitty-gritty and to reduce it to one element it goes back all the way to the question about civil rights and how they're differentiated from things like political and social rights. And so, for example, this community wants to protect themselves from, let's say, the possibility of their space being vandalized. So, what do they do? Some communities find recourse in law enforcement. So, some communities, say in Raleigh, North Carolina, are engaging with federal and state law enforcement, particularly the FBI and local police departments in order to protect themselves. And the language that they're using is civil rights, but on the side of things they're talking about how they could actually protect themselves socially and politically (precisely because the state or the federal government hasn't done their job) in order to protect themselves. Or those civil entitlements that they're given isn't sufficient to take care of themselves. So, how do they wield this concept of political, social rights is what I try to look at and what my conclusion essentially (or one of my conclusions is) that political and social rights get used to secure these communities. And it gives them impetus or motivation to take seriously their security. Like quite literally. So, they buy CCTV cameras. They go through the process of getting a license, a permit to carry a handgun. They are highly aware of their spatial awareness, and they take part in social initiatives to mend relationships between themselves and other communities. Or they take on political initiatives to make sure that people are voting for whoever they desire to vote for. In a place like North Carolina, which is a is a heavy purple state you know. North Carolina, when Trump won for the first time, he won by 0.5 percent. And so, it's these initiatives that they're focusing on. These social initiatives and these political initiatives that focus on their security, right? The focus on the security, not only of the physical livelihood, but the security of the religious practice that is outside of this boundary or this limited space of what we know as civil rights.Saintsing: Okay, right. So, you're going through the materials that these groups, like Muslim American groups in North Carolina are putting out, both in like legal documents and just in materials that (maybe like pamphlets they're handing out or like materials they're using to communicate with other groups or within their own group) and you're just kind of seeing the language they use and seeing the strategies they use?Jarada: Precisely, yeah. I mean, you're a great listener. I mean that is exactly what they're doing there. That's exactly what I'm doing as a researcher to kind of hone in on those like little sensibilities, those strategies, those relationships that they create that can't be reduced to simple civil rights or civic participation. There's something far deeper, and there's a deeper motivation, and there's a bigger stake at hand when we think about political and social justice in the United States for racialized and criminalized communities like Muslim Americans. The majority of Muslim Americans I worked with were either brown or are Black Muslims. And so, this was a heavy topic at hand that constantly got discussed in a lot of the meetings and interviews I had with my interlocutors.Saintsing: So, I saw also that you kind of look at things from a historical perspective. So, what were… was there like a big change (you mentioned the specific event in Chapel Hill) was there like actually really a big change in the way the Muslim community in North Carolina started interacting with other groups and started looking at themselves? Like what were, what were kind of… how did they view themselves before the incident? And what were really the changes we saw afterwards?Jarada: Great question. So, I mean… should… can I address the historical part?Saintsing: Yeah, definitely.Jarada: So, historically… I try to historically (again I said I look at Supreme Court cases and see how civil rights gets construed, but) I'm also attentive to the fact that, you know, North Carolina is a Southern state. And so, as a Southern state, we know that racism and racialization functions in pervasively… it's a huge part of a state like North Carolina. The first thing I remember when I got to North Carolina, and I first went when I was in… 2017. In the summer of 2017, I went to Durham. I got to Durham. I went on the bus, and the first thing I noticed was that everyone on the bus was a Black person and everyone near the bus station, which is near downtown Durham right next to Duke was white. And so, from the outset you could tell that there's these… there are these forms of racism or racialization or segregation that was just inherent to this part of the country. And so, the historical part both looks at, you know, Supreme Court cases (reading those cases trying to figure out how civil rights and social rights and political rights were construed). But the other part is being attentive to these kinds of ghostly specters that still reside and still have vestiges in a place like the American South. And so, I try to attend to that part as well in my research. But in terms of what had happened after the community had dealt with this big blow, this tragedy of these Muslims being murdered, there was a drastic change. I mean that event was a national event, not only for the Muslims in North Carolina. At that time, I was in Boston. I was doing my master’s degree at Boston in Harvard. And students across the campus were worried. They were scared. They felt a sense of anxiety about whether or not they were being protected. And this is in Boston. And so, in North Carolina, where this had happened, (and all of my interlocutors the majority of which always point to this event as a threshold) security became the essential issue in this community about how to protect themselves. And the way they did it was they created relationships with law enforcement, and they try to amend relationships with their particularly Christian neighbors and Jewish neighbors as well. And so, you see like a wave a wave of like civic, political, and social activism that's happening from the generation that grew up after 2015 when this event happened. And so, there were a lot of drastic changes after that event.Saintsing: And this was nationally. Like Muslim Americans in general. This is a huge event, and it's shaped across the country not just North Carolina.Jarada: Absolutely, and I can only speak about the effects that have happened in places that I've lived (so North Carolina, Boston, and California now) where I've seen communities take this question about security far more seriously than ever before. And that event was only one of a series of events that happened, like the Dylan Roof shootings in South Carolina at a Methodist church also was impetus. The Christchurch shootings in Australia were also an event that happened. And so, that event in particular focusing on Muslims in the United States pretty much changed a lot of the things in a lot of the ways that Muslims and mosques and the wider community thought about themselves and how they arranged their communal makeup and their spatial makeup. Yeah.Saintsing: Right, yeah, you brought up a bunch of different attacks on different denominations, different faiths and then there was also the Tree of Life massacre. Yeah. Is this, you know, thinking historically, is this an exceptional moment that all of these attacks are happening in these places of worship or on people specifically for their faith?Jarada: Yeah, I mean it's really hard to tell just because I mean historically, you know, speaking of Black churches, Black churches have been arsoned or been used as a as a tool by the KKK in particular or other white supremacy and hate groups to be to be arsoned or vandalized to foster fear and anxiety within Black communities for a very long time. Albeit these things aren't reported or documented because when you burn something it's, you know, it just disappears, or we don't have those or at least I don't have the resources to know historically about how these things have happened within the United States. But I can say that in the past two decades… I could say this. I could say that the events that have occurred within religious spaces like murders, stabbings, shootings have had a kind of singular response that has been significant. It's a significant change in religious communities in the United States, I think, where these communities are now fully taking security into their own hands. They're soliciting not only the help of law enforcement, but (I mean we could call them mercenaries) like private security firms who take care of religious communities. There are now, I know of two security firms that are particularly focused on religious communities. And they have a kind of like Christian Biblical motivation, you know. And so, I know that in the past two decades those events related to religious spaces have taken on this question of security far more seriously. So, it's interesting, you know, as a Muslim myself, when I'm in a mosque and you see a man with a handgun, that's something new. That isn't something that I was always privy to or aware of or I had to care for growing up as a young Muslim in California. So, yeah.Saintsing: It's so interesting to think about. You know, obviously this danger in public spaces in general is problematic and scary. But I guess in particular thinking about religious sites, you know churches, mosques, synagogues, temples… the fact that people have to worry about this and have to think about security when these spaces are supposed to be these welcoming spaces in general, you know. This is like a place where theoretically everyone could just come in and you know be welcome to worship. So, do you have any… has your research shown you anything about the way that, you know, these new security… thoughts about security and movement towards increasingly secure spaces has altered that aspect of places of worship?Jarada: Wonderful question. I mean you're asking a really great question, Andrew. I really appreciate this. Yeah, so this is an essential question that I'm trying to ask in my research about how is it possible that these traditions, right? These are religious traditions, like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, that's really kind of honing in on the question of neighborliness or being a neighbor with someone or helping someone out or being hospitable to people and attending to the poor, you know. And creating these virtues within a community, right? Things like charity, things like service. How do they do that given this fact that now mosques are (they quite literally… this one mosque in particular the Islamic Association of Raleigh has built a, you know… fortified their entire space with a wall, with a gate). And so, it's interesting to ask you know how the hell is someone going to know whether or not to come into space or feel welcomed into space if there's a wall blocking them from this and if they're not already part of the community. And so, the conclusion I've come to or from the interviews I've had and the people I've spoken to, it's really interesting. They believe that (and I would agree with them that) the construction of these walls, which creates a space or creates a division between oneself and one’s community and another community outside, is actually the condition for hospitality. It's the condition for a healthy relationship to one’s social world outside of themselves or welcoming someone inside the mosque, right? So, when you build a wall, one interlocutor would tell me, you're doing something to invite people in to ask questions and to be provoked in a particular way such that they ask “why is this Muslim community building a wall? And for what reason?” Or in the scenario where there was, there was cases where people would come outside the mosque wearing things like a pig, a hat with bacon and saying kryptonite for muslims or stuff like that, where they would stand outside of these mosques, and imams would come and invite them in. And so it's in this like really interesting scenario where you would think that building a wall and you would think that carrying guns and you would think that all these protective strategies that these communities are building and implementing are ways of pushing people away. But for them it's actually an invitation to both ask questions and to be welcomed inside the mosque. So long as they're safe, right? So, long they're also prepared in the situation in which someone wants to do something out of the ordinary. And I think that is where we get to the question of political and social justice or political and social rights. Where these communities take it seriously that the state or the federal and state government won't protect them. In these everyday situations, you won't have… 911 won't come immediately. And so, building these walls and holding guns, etc., etc. are both strategies to invite people in – strategies for hospitality – and strategies to protect themselves and their religious tradition. And so that they can have some kind of psychic relief when they're praying.Saintsing: Okay, yeah. So I'm really interested… I think your research is super interesting, and like the content of your research is really interesting, but I'd love to know more about like what it actually looks like when you go out and do research as an anthropologist. So, are you… so, you talk a lot about interviews? So, you're going actually into communities and interviewing people. But then you're also like looking at documents. Like how do you choose what to look at? How do you identify people for interviews? Just tell us a little bit about that process.Jarada: Yeah, I should say first and foremost, you know, I got really lucky. I mean the community I worked with in North Carolina were probably the most lovely people I've met in my life. I mean these people are caring, loving, welcoming, concerning, you know. Highly political and socially aware people that really care about both the community that are, that they live in (the non-Muslim community) and the communities they're a part of. And so, for me, I was, my job was really easy. I mean I woke up in the morning excited to do the research that I was doing. As an anthropologist, the first step for me is to gain some kind of trust between myself and this community, right? And that was kind of… I have to admit it was easy just because my name is Mohamad. I'm Muslim myself. I speak Arabic. And you know I pray. And so, I was first intending to kind of put myself within this community as a Muslim, right? And as a researcher. They knew from the outset that I was a researcher. I first… what I first did was just attend a bunch of meetings. I mean I would attend things from like random-ass dinners to you know events about civil rights to concerts to gatherings, social gatherings. I mean fires, what are they, bonfires. I mean I went to everything for like the first four months. I mean I was exhausted. But it was a lot of fun. And then people got to know me, and I got to know them. And so, as I started going to the more important events, events surrounding questions about political rights or social rights or activism or people running, Muslims running for mayor or Muslims running for political office. When I went to these events, that's when the question started happening. And because they knew me as a familiar face, and they were so kind, they were so open to giving me, giving me interviews. And so when I would do these interviews, they were just… they were just a lot of fun, man. You know you get excited about these things and these people are as excited as you, and the people I would talk to range from people who worked in tech to people who devoted their entire life to the religious communities like imams and other religious leaders. Or people who own subways. Or people who were financial advisors or people who wanted to be lawyers, et cetera, et cetera. And so, you get a diverse group of people all who are concentrated on this one task: security. And when you ask them and you provoke them, boy are they willing to talk. The job of an anthropologist is, or the job that I took as an anthropologist for the way I see, is to kind of get to know these little social minutia that surround these really important issues, right? Like you hear about these things on the news every day. You hear about these things on your podcast. You hear about these things everywhere, but nobody really knows what goes into those little interactions or those little happenings in the everyday in order to protect a community. In order to garner your social, political, and civil rights. And that was my goal, and I enjoyed it very much.Saintsing: Well, unfortunately, it looks like we're running out of time. It's been so great talking to you, Mohamad. Just a reminder: today I've been speaking with Mohamad Jarada from the Department of Anthropology about civil rights and other form of rights among different groups in America with a focus on Muslim Americans in the American South. Thank you so much for being on the show, Mohamad.Jarada: Andrew, it's been honestly my pleasure. And I really thank you for giving me the time and space to speak about my research. And truly your questions were really great. And I appreciate that.Saintsing: Thanks for saying that. Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
2/16/2021

Joshua Benjamins

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Joshua Benjamins from the Department of Classics. Welcome to the show, Joshua.Joshua Benjamins: Thanks so much, Andrew, for having me on. It's good to be with you.Saintsing: Yeah, it's great to have you here. Really interested to hear more about what you study. So, you are in the Department of Classics. So, what are the classics?Benjamins: Right, that's a good question. I get asked that a lot because Classics is a term that doesn't really have the same currency it used to. But in this context Classics really means having to do with the classical civilizations, which means Greece and Rome. So, essentially, I'm in the discipline that studies Ancient Greece and Ancient Roman civilization, culture, literature, all the things that are involved with the ancient world in that part of the Mediterranean. So, it's a bit of a heterogeneous discipline in that it's not defined necessarily by a set of guiding questions or particular methodology the way that a lot of other disciplines are, but it's really defined more by some loose chronological and geographical boundaries. And, within that, anything that falls within the purview of Greek and Roman culture could be a part of Classics. So, it could be anthropology, could be linguistics, could be history, could be religion. All of that falls into the discipline of Classics. So, it's a bit of a heterogeneous and even an interdisciplinary field to be in. And that's one thing I really like about Classics.Saintsing: And so, you can study anything that uses… basically it has to be rooted in the Greek or Latin language essentially?Benjamins: It’s not even necessarily the languages. The languages are kind of the foundation for doing everything else because, if you really want to get into the culture, you really have to know the languages. But you can address any kind of question that touches on Greek and Roman culture that may not involve language directly. So, you might be interested in the development of astronomy in the Roman world, for example. Or the transition of astronomical knowledge from Persia to Rome or Greece. Or you might be interested in purely political questions. What kind of state was the Roman state? How did it operate? How did it come to be? How is power managed? How was the grain supply managed? Or all kinds of different sorts of questions you might be interested in that have to do with the ancient world. And so, the languages are a useful and even in most cases a necessary step towards formulating answers to those questions, but you might be pretty unconcerned with the languages themselves as anything more than a tool. Then there is another part of the discipline that would be very concerned with the language itself. Maybe if you're a philologist and you really want to know how the Latin language came to be and how it evolved from Indo-European and how word formations came to be the way that they are. All that could be part of Classics. But sort of a different sector, as it were, of the field. And literature of course is a big part of Classics. But you don't need to work on literature to be in Classics. It's just one way that you can go. One direction you can take. Greek and Roman language and culture broadly defined.Saintsing: I got you. So, essentially you can study whatever you want just as long as it's based in Roman culture or Greek culture.Benjamins: Yeah, and often the sorts of questions that you might ask would require you to bring in a couple of different lenses or a couple different kinds of knowledge. Maybe if you're interested in religion, you also have to look at literature on the one hand. But also, let's say cults. And maybe even archaeology. The archaeology of temples. The evidence that we have for certain rites and their development. And so, often there's a sort of interdisciplinarity that comes along with answering questions about the Classical world. And that's something that I really enjoy about the discipline. Because I've always been a lover of interdisciplinarity and multi-disciplinarity, and this is one way to avoid being really tied down to a very tightly confined space and be able to roam freely as it were, at least within the boundaries of space and time that are set by the discipline.Saintsing: Are you more Roman or Greek? Do you at least have that defined?Benjamins: Yes, I'm more on the Roman side, and I'm also more on the late side. As I said, there's a chronological range, and the end point of that range is not clearly defined. But I work on the later end, so let's say 300 to 600 AD. So, chronologically later than most people. And I also work primarily on Roman authors and Roman texts, and my research focuses on Italy and the city of Rome especially. But the thing about Classics, especially for those of us who are Latinists (are interested in Roman culture), is that Roman culture and Roman literature are both so heavily dependent on Greek culture and Greek literature that if you want to be a Roman historian, it's an absolute prerequisite to be really familiar with Greek culture and Greek literature. Because all the authors that you're studying were intimately familiar with and constantly shaped by and constantly interacting with their Greek predecessors. And to understand them at all you have to know that world that was also their world. And so Latin and Greek always really do go together. But I'm on more on the roman side.Saintsing: So, you read Latin?Benjamins: Yes.Saintsing: And, do you read Greek as well?Benjamins: I do read Greek as well. Also, a little bit of Syriac, which is another ancient language not quite as often studied. And then of course the modern languages are really important just for the sake of scholarship. So mostly German, French, Italian, a bit of Spanish.Saintsing: Oh, wow, so you can read all of these language as well?Benjamins: Yes, not with equal fluency, but yes. It’s a very language-heavy course of study to involve oneself in, and it's a little bit frustrating early on because so much of your time kind of has to be devoted to cultivating the languages because that's as it were the passageway into all the other things that you want to do. So, languages are definitely a big part of the discipline, but once you've mastered the languages you can really branch out into lots of other things.Saintsing: Right, yeah that sounds… how long would you say it took you to get to a place where you felt comfortable saying you just were fluent reading all these languages?Benjamins: Yeah, it varies by the language I think, and it also depends on what you mean by fluency. I think to really get to the place where you understand the language inside and out and, as it were, think in terms of the language takes longer than it does to get to a point where you can decipher the words on the page. So, I think Latin and Greek would be the languages I feel that I have the most intimacy with. And that probably takes about – it might vary by the person, but – six or seven years or so to really feel like you know it inside and out.Saintsing: Right, yeah. That's interesting. I guess I think of, you know, Classical studies. Like people are, you know, looking back at things, at records and trying to bring them into modern languages, right? Like, you know, thinking about people translating Egyptian hieroglyphs or translating, you know, runes or something. But I guess with you, you don't really… I mean you want to be able to translate obviously, but like you want to also be able to be fluent in Latin. And be able to like think in Latin. Is that accurate?Benjamins: Yeah, that's a great point. And there are, I think, two things to say there. One is that the way that we tend to teach Classical languages is very translation-based. So, the way you learn Latin is by constantly translating Latin into English, and that's the established pedagogical method that we've had for Latin and Greek for the longest time. And it's still persistent, and it's not necessarily the method that you'll see used in teaching modern German or modern French or modern Spanish. But it's been very persistent in the Classical languages specifically. And so students, when they're at that level of language learning, are always being prompted to translate into English. But really as you go farther along in the field you want to and should move away from that and get to the point where you can work with a lot of facility with the languages without having to or even tending to then convert it back into your own language. So, that's one thing I would say. And then the other thing is that translation itself is a really important work, and it's not necessarily part of Classics, but there are people in Classics who do a lot of translation work. And, I've done quite a bit of translation work myself. And I find it a very challenging and rewarding enterprise to figure out how to convey something best in English that was written in a remote context both in time and space.Saintsing: Right, yeah, that would be so challenging. Yeah, I think about… I took some Latin in high school, and it's always… it was kind of funny seeing things pop up. Like at one point, I was reading I think the Aeneid or something, and it was like, they talked about an ear of corn. And I was like, I don't think they would have had corn. But yeah, I mean obviously there's obviously much more… there are like examples of technologies, right, that people wouldn't have had. But then also just like the connotations that like you know you would completely miss, right?Benjamins: Exactly. And often it's the less obvious things that are the biggest obstacles or challenges that you maybe don't even see. Like the whole conceptual world of Rome is different than that of ours. And simple ideas like space and time for example don't translate easily from one culture to another because they're inhabiting different idioms of thought and of language.Saintsing: Right, yeah. And that kind of brings us to your research, right? You actually are studying the concept of time in Roman culture, right?Benjamins: Right, yeah, I'm interested in both ways that romans thought about time and ways that they divided and marked time. That's kind of on the granular uh easily approachable level, but then also kind of broader questions about how Romans thought about history and the relationship of past, present, and future. And how they saw their place within that broader movement, if there was a movement from past to present to future. So, that brings in questions about what is history and what is progress. And I'm interested in how Romans thought about those sorts of questions as i say especially in this period called Late Antiquity, so between roughly 300 to 600 AD.Saintsing: Is there an idea of progress in Rome like we have the idea of progress now? Like has that already started to develop? That we're like kind of in a linear history?Benjamins: I think in some ways we can see some of the genesis of the idea of progress in my period. But certainly, the ancient world doesn't have an established notion of the necessary betterment and progression of things over time in the way that moderns are very attached to. That idea is a very modern supposition. And it's actually one that's especially dangerous for historians. I'm mostly an ancient historian. And as an historian it's very easy to tell the story of the past in terms of this necessary guaranteed progression of things from a less civilized or more barbarous or less enlightened age to more enlightenment, more progress, revolution, improvement, betterment. That's the way we tend to think about how history goes in the modern age. But that's a very modern notion, and it's not one that was endemic to ancient culture necessarily at all. As you say, the difference… one way to think about that would be the difference between kind of cyclical time and linear time. That once you have a strong notion of beginning and end and the idea of history as a kind of timeline moving from some origin to some destination, then the idea of progress becomes very natural. But ancients didn't have that assumption of the linearity of time in the way that we do, in the way that we naturally conceive of time with a timeline, as it were.Saintsing: So, ancients. You are referring to your time period with the word ancients?Benjamins: YeahSaintsing: So, you're… you said the progress idea or linearity kind of had started to appear, but wasn't really cementing in your time period, right?Benjamins: Right, so one of the most famous markers of linearity is this division of history into BC and AD, for example. And that's a sort of unifying and homogenizing way of plotting time because everything has a place on the number line. And that division in terms of BC and AD didn't even come into existence until the first half of the sixth century. It was this Scythian monk named Dionysus Exiguous who came up with this pattern of AD and BC, before Christ and after Christ, anno Domani. And he didn't even come up with that with the intent of providing a convenient dating era. He actually came up with it because there are a lot of disputes over how to calculate Easter, and this was one way of answering those disputes. So, that whole notion didn't even come into existence until the sixth century, and it didn't take root until much, much later. It really wasn't until the 18th century actually that it became really conventional to use BC and AD. So, that's just one example of a very abstract dating scheme that we all take for granted because we all are used to calculating dates this way. But it was not endemic to the ancient world at all. Another example would be centuries and decades, you know. We easily think about the past in terms of centuries, the 18th century, the 16th century, the 14th century. And then decades as ways of plotting and subdividing the contents of a century. But those also are very recent notions. In fact, the idea of a century has only been around for about three and a half centuries. There's a famous poem which says the 19th century the 20th century, there never were any others because we didn't invent the idea of the century until that recently. And the notion of decades is even more recent. It's only been seven decades that we've thought about the past in terms of decades. And these sort of homogenizing schemes for time are very new, and it takes a little bit of work to put ourselves outside of those time schemes. That's really what we have to do if you want to understand how the ancients thought about and placed themselves in time. They didn't have these all-encompassing, homogenizing schemes in the way that we do. And they didn't think about the past in terms of dates. They thought about the past in terms of events instead of numbers, which is a very different way of conceptualizing the past and situating yourself in in the past or in the present.Saintsing: So, I guess like what intervals were present in the Roman concept of time?Benjamins: Right, so Roman conceptions of time really come out of Greek conceptions of time. And the way that Greeks situated themselves in time was really with the use of events. And actually a date really is an event if you think about it. That fact is concealed by the homogenizing force of the BC/AD or BCE/CE framework. But even that framework is kind of event laden because there's some event that's taken to be the dividing point between BC and AD. And so, event dates really are events whether we notice that or not. We're always plotting a date with reference to some event, and you can see that because once you move away from events you find it really hard to have a date number make sense to you. It's easy to say 1960 and come up with some correlates for that date because we have events we can link with that decade: Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam War, any number of the, you know, various kinds of Cultural Revolution. And it's those events that help us quickly place ourselves in 1960, for example. Similarly, with 1940 you can think of the World War. And the farther back you go in time the less you have the benefit of those events to latch onto like hooks to place yourself. So, you know, if you're reading about the history of China a very, very long time ago a date like 2200 BC or 3000 BC really doesn't mean anything to you because you don't have events to link it with. And so, I would say a date really always is an event, but we've lost that recognition. And, in the ancient world, if you don't have the timeline, you don't have an all-encompassing numerical scheme, all you have are the events. And that's kind of neat because that kind of shows the conceptual work that always goes into placing yourself in time. You always use an event. So, for an ancient historian they might use the Trojan War, a really big important event. Or the death of Alexander, something that got recognized pretty soon after as a really epochal event. And then, you can date yourself by measuring the interval of distance either before or after. So, five years before the Trojan War. Ten years after the death of Alexander. 20 years before the founding of Rome. The date of the founding of Rome becomes a really foundational date in Roman culture for how you situate yourself in the past. 200 years after the foundation of Rome. So, how you might use an event to set you up yourself in time if you're in ancient Rome or in ancient Greece.Saintsing: All right, so you talked about BC/AD is like this cut off that like we use in modern times. Or I guess people try to make it like BCE and CE. But I guess with that, you know, when people first implemented it, right, there was this idea of like, “this was like this really important date.” But now I guess we've kind of moved to this idea that like, “okay, we're all using this date as like a standard cut off so that we can all situate ourselves like universally.” But essentially I guess you're talking about in Rome they just… or in this time period every culture would have its own signifying dates. And like people wouldn't really, you know, be able to communicate about large time scales with each other because they would have… they would be all like, “I don't know what event that is,” if you went to another culture.Benjamins: Yep, exactly right. Every culture has its own. And not even necessarily every culture, but every city might have its own calendar and its own rulership. And it might count its years by the reign of a certain ruler, but if you don't live in that region in that polis and that city, that ruler’s dates of reign don't mean anything to you. And so, it's really a world of local time. And that's something that's so foreign to us because in the modern world we've adopted universal time. This is a world that doesn't have universal time. Each city, each local area has its own time. So, there's no such thing as Greek time for instance. You might have Athenian time and Sicilian time and Spartan time and Argive time. And those are all different. They all have their own calendar. They all have their own rulerships. And there's a complex and difficult process of adjustment if you want to place an event in one region in terms of the calendar and civic regime of another region. And one of the interesting things about that is that of course this world doesn't have the pressures of mass media and mass communication and mass transportation which really were the driving forces behind the synchronisms that we've developed in the modern world. It's especially the industrial revolution that presses us to have these kind of synchronizing time scales. So, in some ways interestingly that the conquest of space necessitates then the conquest of time. If you're moving around really quickly from place to place, it becomes necessary to have these homogenizing schemes. But if life is lived on a smaller scale, it's not as important to be able to frame events in one place in terms of events in another place. I think it's the problem of synchronizing railway timetables for instance that drives the creation of time zones. This is the world that doesn't need that because it doesn't have that kind of conquest of space.Saintsing: Right, yeah, I see that, in terms of like high-speed transportation and things like that, the Romans obviously wouldn't have had access to that yet. But I guess the difference in my mind between Rome and Greece, right? Greece is, at least like in my… you know, pre-Alexander, maybe, it's a bunch of city-states. So, the idea of local time really makes a lot of sense because it's just people like living locally. But then Rome came in and created an empire, right? So, they had to coordinate across a vast amount of space. I guess they wouldn't have had to move quickly between those places necessarily, but I mean there, there is an idea of like conquesting space there.Benjamins: Right. Yep, exactly right. And that's why the conquest of space drives the conquest of time. Once you have a world empire the pressures upon you to synchronize all of these areas become really strong. And that starts already with Alexander because Alexander unifies the Greek world in a way that hasn't been done before. And that's why the third century BC is when we start to see universal histories, histories that aspire to cover the vast span either of space or of time. You know, if you think about it, a universal history can be universal in space, covering all places, or universal in time, aspiring to cover all times, or both. But both of those impulses become strong in the age of Alexander when the Greek world is unified as never before. And then they grow stronger when Rome becomes a world empire and the history of this one city eventually becomes the history of the world. So, by Late Antiquity, the period that I'm looking at, to write the history of Rome and to think about the future of Rome and to situate Roman time is really to write the history of the world and the future of the world and to situate the world in time. Because the city and the world had become, to some degree, one in the same. And so, a date like the beginning of the city of Rome can be a universalizing axis or coordinate on which to map the history of all places in all times.Saintsing: And so, people are at this point trying to, you're saying, like tell the story of humanity essentially by writing these histories?Benjamins: Yeah, exactly. And one of the new currents that you see in my time period is Christianity. And people often point to Christianity as the source of a new conception of time: linear time, where you have a clear idea of an origin, which is the creation of the world, this hard and fast beginning point instead of sort of the hazy mists of mythical time. You have creation, and then you have the end of the world or judgment of some kind that's a clear end point. And so, one of the interesting features of my period is to look at what happens when Christianity comes on the scene and how do Christian authors map their, what you might call, their sacred history, all these events of the Bible, and both the Old Testament events that come in biblical literature, and then more recent events with Jesus and his coming. And so, on all of these events that are seen to have a religious or sacral import how they take those events and then map them on to existing dates from what you might call secular or mundane history. And so, for example we get this Christian bishop called Eusebius who around the year 300, he creates this work called the Chronicon, or the chronicle. And what he does in this chronicle, it's one of the important steppingstones in the development of this universal history genre, is that he has a bunch of columns. And each column represents the key dates for an empire. So, you'll have the Persian empire, you have the Macedonian empire, you have the Athenian empire. You also have the Hebrew people and the Persians and the Asian peoples. And he'll list the regnal years for each king within the column. And then, on the left-hand side you'll have the Olympiads (the Olympics occur every four years so that's one of these universalizing measuring sticks you can apply), so you have the Olympiads in one column, then you have each empire, and then that goes on page after page after page. You have all these columns, and as the pages go on, you see columns appear and columns disappear. So, for a while you have all these Asian peoples that eventually go, Greek antiquity, but as you go on through time more and more empires disappear. The Persian empire disappears. The Babylonian disappears. The Macedonian disappears. Eventually, you only have the Romans and the Jews, and then the Jews disappear from his column after AD 70, when the temple is destroyed. And then you only have Rome. And so, that's a really interesting development. It's a kind of pictorial representation of the supremacy of Rome on the axis of time. For a long time, there's this miscellany, but by the last page, the only column left is Rome. Rome has triumphed in this representation of time. And he also melds biblical events with Roman events. So, it's a Christian Rome, so Christianity and Rome kind of share the supremacy or hegemony of time. So, that's one way of mapping Christianity on to Roman time and also showing the supremacy of Roman time as it were over all the times and places of these other empires that have now succumbed eventually to Rome.Saintsing: Right. I guess, so you said like the linearity that, you know, modern people kind of ascribed to history hadn't really appeared then, but I feel like that kind of suggests like, you know, this guy is like saying everything was moving towards having Rome. And then I assume in his mind probably that Rome would just be what was going for the rest of time, right?Benjamins: Yeah, that's kind of the assumption that Rome keeps on going. And that's not a new idea. The idea of Rome, that Rome will go on forever is a very old idea. Virgil, you see it in Virgil, where Jupiter prophesies that this empire will have no boundaries of either space or time. It will be an empire without end. And that's a shared notion in the Roman world. That Rome is destined to endure on and on and on. And one interesting place that we see that idea is in this ancient habit of thinking about the history of Rome (and hence, by this time, the history of the world because those two are very closely connected) in terms of the ages of a human life. So, there's this interesting idea that a human life has these different periods, your ages. You have infancy, you have boyhood, you have young manhood, you have adulthood, you have old age. And the world goes through these ages similarly. And that's an oldie in Greek culture and then Roman culture, that there's this homology between the ages of a human life and the ages of the world. And you can apply that then to the history of Rome. And we know that Seneca did this. And the historian Florus did this. He told the story of Rome in terms of these ages of infancy, boyhood, manhood, and so on. And that scheme implies that you're going to get to the end because a human lifespan has an end. We can see that at least in the classical Roman world, there's a resistance to the idea of saying that Rome will have an end. So, you know Cicero for example in his On the Republic uses this simile and talks about Rome in its boyhood, and then eventually verging on manhood, and now it's in its prime. and so on. But then, he also wants to say that it's not going to die. He says there is no death of the state. The state should be so constituted as to be eternal and for the state to die would be like the cosmos collapsing.Saintsing: Well, unfortunately it looks like we're running out of time. So is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Benjamins: Sure, I'll say first: Latin and Greek are wonderful languages, and the literatures are marvelously complex and variegated. And so, for those of you who have the chance to learn Latin or Greek and enter into this wonderful space, I highly recommend it. But I know many of us don't have the time or leisure to do that. But I would maybe just put in a little word for the value of history. Not necessarily ancient history, but maybe ancient history especially. There's a lot a lot of benefit to be gained from going through the challenge of thinking through a culture in a world and an idiom that's different from our own. And it's both challenging and very rewarding, and it frees us from a lot of the assumptions and prejudices that we share with our culture and even with our language that we have often without thinking about it just because of the way that our language and our culture tends to divide up the world. And so, it's very rewarding in a lot of ways to take advantage of these opportunities to enter a different time space in whatever way that might be. In the original language or in translation. And have some of our ideas challenged and just exposed to very different ways of thinking about such basic ideas as space or time or anything else.Saintsing: Thanks so much. Today I've been speaking with Joshua Benjamins from the Department of Classics. Thanks so much for being on the show, Joshua.Benjamins: My pleasure, Andrew. Thank you so much for having me.Saintsing: Great. Tune in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
2/16/2021

Giovana Figueroa

Andrew Saintsing: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Giovanna Figueroa from the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Giovanna.Giovanna Figueroa: Hey there.Saintsing: How's it going?Figueroa: It's going. I'm happy to be here.Saintsing: We're happy to have you. We're really interested in hearing about your research. So, you do field work in the Amazon rainforest, right?Figueroa: Yeah, that's true. I do field work in Peru, and my home base when I'm there is Iquitos.Saintsing: That's really cool. What do you? What are you looking at?Figueroa: So, I'm focusing my research on a genus of palm trees Oenocarpus, and specifically I'm focusing on Oenocarpus bataua, which is a really abundant palm tree in the Amazon. So, it's the seventh most abundant tree in the Amazon basin, and it spans like northern South America. So, I'm really interested in I guess like kind of people-plant interactions and also tropical ecology in general. So, I want to understand floristic abundance and diversity patterns and also how humans might have influenced these patterns. So, something interesting about this palm tree is that its fruit is really nutritious, and it's used to make like this beverage. It's called chapo de Ungurahui, and it's just like macerated pulp with some water. And sometimes folks will add some sugar also.Saintsing: Cool, okay. So, you're studying this palm tree that grows throughout the Amazon rainforest, and you're mostly focused on how people interact with it?Figueroa: That's like… that's a component of it. So, I want to look at the like finer scale, like variation of this palm tree. So, when I do my field work, I'm collecting a lot of fruit specimens and leaf specimens to do some molecular work to understand like the population-level structuring.Saintsing: And what do you mean by population-level structuring?Figueroa: Oh, so I want to see if there's any… like how much, I guess, structuring… like genetic structuring there is between populations. So, I visit different communities along different river, rivers in the Amazon, and I'm just, I want to like compare the genetic structuring to see if there's like any sort of like distinct genetic differences between these different populations along different rivers. But I'm also recording morphological variation in the fruits, so this… it can be related to like the size, the weight, but specifically the pulp color, So, I found fruits that are like a really deep purple. Some that are white, and then some that are like some like intermediate pinkish version of that. And then, there are some where the pulp looks like it's like essentially rotted, but when I talk to people, they're like, “this is the best one for oil content.” So, you wouldn't expect that because it looks really dry, but apparently, it's really rich in oil content. So, that's a lot of variation I'm looking at.Saintsing: Okay, cool. Okay, so this is one species of palm tree, but you're looking to see if there just happens to be differences genetically and morphologically across this range. I guess it's kind of like how a lot of agricultural plants, like you see big differences in the way their fruits and different parts of their vegetative structures look. Like that's kind of like what you're looking at in this palm tree?Figueroa: Yeah, I'd say that's correct. And I'm also looking across the genus also. Just so I have like a baseline to do evolutionary like comparisons I suppose. So, I'm not just looking at this one specific species. I'm looking at other related species which also produce fruit that's like similar in nutritional content some are also used to make beverages similar to the chapo de Ungurahui, but they're not as popular. And so, I'm like curious to see if there's like significant differences in the nutrition of these like lesser used foods. Or if maybe they're just not as popular because they're not as abundant.Saintsing: So, you you're saying that people just don't see them as much, so they don't go to them basically.Figueroa: Yeah, essentially. I don't know if that's why they're not as used because they're not as encountered or if they're actually just not as great of a food source. And I'm curious to like kind of explore that realm of my research, to like kind of also understand if people have influenced the geographic distribution of Oenocarpus bataua, this really, really abundant tree. Whether it's being used as much because it's been so abundant, it's so abundant, or if somehow through migration and past human management, this species has benefited from that and become more abundant.Saintsing: Right. Okay, so that's interesting. So, I guess when you first started talking about it, it kind of seemed like this was, we were talking about just kind of a wild plant, but is it kind of undergoing cultivation? Like people are…Figueroa: There's no, there's no evidence of like it being actively domesticated. Some folks consider it like incipient domestication, where it's just kind of like a byproduct of human presence. So, what I've noticed is that when people go collect, harvest this fruit, they just go into the surrounding forest to harvest it. But they don't actively plant it. However, like you know as you're walking through the forest and eating the fruits you can drop the seeds, and it will grow, and then when I see folks who are working their chacras, their plots of lands where they have their own like crop rotations for food, if there is one of these palm trees growing on that plot of land, they won't chop it down. They'll just like let it be because it takes a while for these to start producing fruits. So, it's more beneficial to just like leave it there but it's actually pretty difficult for, it's difficult for them to just start growing in like full sun areas. And so, a lot of these like agricultural plots are not shaded. They're full sun.Saintsing: So, these plants kind of have to be growing before people have moved in to like actually farm is what you're saying? I see. That's interesting. Yeah, in the Amazon is farming generally how we think of it in the US, or you know like people go in and clear a forest and then plant crops? Or do people kind of try to integrate into the existing ecosystem to grow? Because I assume a lot of the useful crops that would come out of the Amazon kind of work well in the natural ecosystem.Figueroa: Yeah, I think there's like a big spectrum of agricultural systems in the Amazon. And so, where like the places I visit specifically, what I notice is that folks have like an area of land that they just cut, they work. And that's their area of land. And they will just rotate through crops seasonally, but it's not like a huge chunk of land. And it's not monoculture like what we see here. So, it's kind of like mixed in. A few different crops. There might be some yucca, or like there will be plantains or something. And it's just kind of like all integrated. And then when that plot of land has kind of become like nutrient-deficient, they'll just like burn it. Let it rest for a bit, and it'll like regenerate into a second forest over time, and they'll move to like a second plot. But then they can go like switch off between these like new and like the secondary growth so that they're letting regeneration happen.Saintsing: Okay, so how much of your research would you say is actually interacting with local people in the Amazon, who are farmers or who just happen to live there and can guide you around and things like that?Figueroa: Quite a bit I'd say. So, I go to a lot of different communities, and every time I go I have to like present my like research ideas to either like the community members or the whole community. Each place has like their own protocols of like what is standard, and so I always have to like make sure that I have the permission from locals to actually carry on my work. And I always hire like a local guy to take me to the palm trees or like areas where they know that these palm trees grow. I learn a lot just like in my interactions. Like for example when I was telling you about the Oenocarpus variety, the one that looks like it's like rotted but is actually really high in oil content. Like I wouldn't have known that otherwise. And folks are just like, “oh, yeah this is good for this.” You know? So, just like in my like conversations I learned a lot.Saintsing: Yeah, definitely. Is that, is that trick (this kind of rotted-looking fruit) something that was specific to a like local area? Or was that kind of like commonly known throughout the places you're looking?Figueroa: I think it's… I think a few folks like when I like start talking to more people like here and there in different communities, they're like, “oh, yeah, those.” I think it is kind of known, but it… this variety isn't like really good for making like beverages the chapo de Ungurahui. So, people usually just let this one like stay on the tree. Or, they know this tree does not give good fruit, so like we're not going to collect them. So, like some people are just like, “Yeah, that's not good for like what we're looking for.” The beverage is like one of the main uses of these fruits. The oil is like secondary. But in some places I'm guessing like the oil is really popular. But once I start talking to other people, they're like, “yeah, yeah, those are really like fatty and oily. Not great for beverage, but good for like oil.”Saintsing: Okay, so what is this beverage exactly? Like what are people drinking it for? Or is it just kind of like a good drink?Figueroa: It's just a good drink. Yeah, but it's, I find it kind of rich. And a lot of people like don't drink… like they'll drink a lot of it, but they're like cautious to not drink too much of it like too close to like bedtime because it's like heavy. So, it's just like this fruit. You let the fruits soak in warm water to kind of soften them up a bit, and then you macerate everything, and you have this like mixture of pulp and seeds. And so, what folks do is they'll like remove the seeds and then pass this pulp with some water through like a sieve. And then, you have this like really like thick mixture of like water and pulp, and you can thin it out by adding more water. You can add some sugar to it to make it a little sweet, but on its own, it's pretty, it's like creamy. And I'd say it's like nutty tasting. And it's really good. It's just, like I say, it's heavy because it's really like fatty and protein rich. So, it's like a really great source of nutrition. It's actually a complete protein. It's like, it's important for the local, like just like subsistence level economy. But what's being seen now is that it's, we're starting to see these fruits like move out of the local communities into cities. And folks are like making ice creams or just like other yummy beverages or candies out of these fruits.Saintsing: So, it's being kind of commercialized you would say?Figueroa: Yeah, yeah. I think it's like being integrated into like a larger economy. So, that's something else that's kind of interesting. Because there's like a higher demand for the fruits now, a lot of folks have turned to like felling trees to collect fruits instead of climbing palm trees which is like the traditional and like I guess more sustainable, less destructive way of harvesting. I don't really know what the implications of that are. That's something that I want to explore. But I think that's going to come later in my research. Just kind of understanding like what exactly is over harvesting of a dominant tree… like what is the role of a dominant tree in the Amazon? Does something else take over? Like fill in its place? Or is this actually not that destructive? (Which I don't believe is the answer, but I'm not sure right now.) When I do my research, I partnered with this local fruit pulp company, processing company, and it's based in Iquitos. And they've developed this specialized climbing system. It's like a harness with two loops. And two loops for your feet. And it allows you to essentially just like walk up the palm trunk. And you can, it's really easy, and it's safe, and you can just like get up to the trunk in (if you're really good) like five minutes. It takes me a little longer. And then you just cut a mature raceme of fruits instead of having to like cut the whole tree down. And you lose a lot of potential with future fruits, you know,Saintsing: Because the tree is going to put out the fruit like every year?Figueroa: It's kind of continuously putting out fruit, and there's not like a real understood pattern of like when it's like fruiting period is. And there's a lot of like variation between populations also. Like every place I have visited, except for one community, I have always found ripe fruits. And I visited at like different times of the year because that's just how I can visit. So, yeah, they're kind of continuously producing fruits. And like most individuals, it's like there will be like one raceme with really ripe fruits, there will be a green raceme that will probably be ready like next year, and then there's like a little bud that will be a raceme in a year also or something like that. It's like an abundant source of really nutritious food. It's always producing.Saintsing: Yeah. So, okay. So, you go into, you fly into Peru, right? And then you have to just get yourself around to different communities that are kind of in remote areas in the rainforest? How? What is that like?Figueroa: Yeah, that's tough. So, I'm really lucky that my advisor Paul Fine, he has been working in Iquitos for like over 20 years. So, he has a really great network of collaborators and folks that he's, yeah, just worked with over the years. So, I'm able to meet with those people when I get to Iquitos. And they kind of help me out. So, like I will like… before I start my river travel, I like sit down and like ask for their advice on like where they recommend would be a good place to go. Like just telling them like, “this is what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a place that has Oenocarpus bataua. I'm also looking for a place that has Oenocarpus bacara. Like, where are some areas where you have seen this? And like what are some like good base communities that you think I can like go to and find folks to help take me to these places?” So, yeah, that's like my first step when I arrive to Peru. And then once that is done, oftentimes I'll try to establish contact before I go to these communities. But sometimes that's really difficult because, like some places, there's like one cell phone for the whole community. And like there might not be great cell phone reception, or like whoever has a hold of the cell phone, like maybe he's on a fishing trip and can't answer. So, sometimes it's difficult. So, I'll either keep trying to contact folks, or like send word of mouth through the rivers. Just be like, “oh, yeah.” Like, I'll meet someone like at one place, and then I'll like find out that this person is going to keep traveling, and I'll be like, “oh, if you stop in this community, will you just like kind of give folks a heads up that I am interested in working and will like probably be showing up in a week.”Saintsing: That's really interesting. When you say “river travel,” you mean you're on a boat?Figueroa: Yeah, let's see. What I usually do is, when I leave Iquitos, I will either have like, try to coordinate with someone from the fruit pulp company to take me to like a large, larger like central community in the river. And then from there I'll organize, like I'll like hire someone with a smaller boat to start taking me further out. Or sometimes I'll take like a public transportation or like a public boat. There are like so many different varieties. Like I can take a fast one. It'll get me there like relatively faster. I can take a slow one if I like feel like I have time, and it's like an overnight river trip. And I just hang a hammock and can like sleep. And it's more comfortable because we're not like crammed together. And then I just show up somewhere and like ask around and find someone who can/is willing to take me to my next site.Saintsing: And people are pretty friendly about it? They're… you don't really… you kind of always have somebody that'll help you when you get to these places?Figueroa: Yeah, I usually do. So, at least for like my… like wherever that first place is, I know, I like… I go with like a name or like someone in mind that I'm looking for specifically, or like people from Razac already know folks there. And they'll go with me and like will like ask. And if that person can't, they'll be like, “oh, but like you know my neighbor probably can.” So, then we'll go ask the neighbor, and as long as like I’m paying for the gas and like also like paying for the services, like people are happy to help me get to my places.Saintsing: So, you have to I guess tell people a plan, right? Before you start these trips. But how often would you say that plan is actually what happens on the ground?Figueroa: Yeah, I'd say like, maybe like 80 percent of the time that's what happens. Sometimes I have to switch the community site or like whatever. Like I thought there was going to be trees like immediately outside this forest. And like no. We have to actually go like 30 minutes up the river or something. So… But I mean it's not like a huge change in plans. Well, except for this past year.Saintsing: Right, yeah, that's what I was going to say.Figueroa: It's like probably like most unexpected of my trips.Saintsing: Yeah, so obviously this past year the issue was COVID-19. So, like what happened while you were on location? What was going on?Figueroa: I had planned for a two-week trip down the Nanay River, which is pretty like easy. I've traveled on the Nanay many times. So, I didn't think it was going to be a huge deal. But I was going further than I ever had. So, I made it about like (it was a 16-hour boat ride to this community called Tucaurco), and I was able to get all my collections done and everything. And then just by chance one night someone had turned on their TV and heard that there is like a lockdown in place for COVID-19. So, all like travel, like ground and fluvial (like river) travel was like suspended. And they told me that, and I was like, “oh, interesting. Okay.” And like in my head, I was just like, “I don't know how you like shut down river travel. Like that doesn't make sense.” Especially, a lot of folks like fish on the rivers. Like that… like this is how people get their food. Like I don't know how like you stop this. But luckily I had this GPS that the Field Safety Office let me borrow. And I was able to contact Paul, my advisor. And I just sent him a message. And I was like, “hey, I am hearing this stuff. I don't know what this means. Can you like do some research and let me know?” Because I couldn't get a hold of Julie, who's this other grad student from Princeton that I usually do a lot of, we try to coordinate our field work to overlap. Everything was just like still like really uncertain. So, I was like, “okay. I think maybe I should like make my way back to Iquitos.” And I got really lucky, and I found a team of medical workers that was in… they were doing malaria tests, and they were going to head back down the river towards Iquitos. And so I asked them if it would be possible for myself and Chapi, my field assistant, to like get a ride with them. And they were like, “yeah, of course.” So, they like took us pretty far down the river. Up to like right before the first, where the first river checkpoint would be. So, my plan was the following day was to like go to the river checkpoint and like talk to the national police who were there and just kind of like explain my situation and try to see if like I could get back to Iquitos. But before I could do that the national police showed up to this town Yamanote, where I was, and were like (and just kind of like went door to door) and just said, “this community is on a full lockdown. You can't leave.” I was there for almost two or like to the end of the lockdown because it was only supposed to be until the end of the month or something. But while this was all happening, I was like finally able to contact Julie, and she was like, “the US is like trying to like plan a like repatriation flight. You have to get to Iquitos.” And I was just like, “I don't know how I'm going to get to Iquitos. I have to pass two checkpoints. Like the military police showed up at the door and said I can't leave. Like, yeah, we’d get arrested.”Saintsing: What happened?Figueroa: I like went to the first checkpoint. They weren't going to let me go unless I had like proof that my name was like on a roster or like, yeah, a manifest sheet. A flight manifest. And I was like trying to like get in contact, like send WhatsApp messages to the embassy, so they can send me a PDF. But like it just wasn't working out. And then Chapi was able to talk to the police officer. And then I'm not sure what happened, but they let me go. So, we made it through like the first checkpoint to a little town that was like maybe two hours from that checkpoint. And from there Chapi had been able to contact someone that he had worked with before who he knew had a boat and would be willing to take us to Iquitos. And this man was like, “yeah, yeah. I'll take y'all to Iquitos, but I'm not going to be able to take you until tomorrow.” And I thought that was fine. But then I got a call from Julie saying like, “the flight's leaving tomorrow at 10 AM. You have to be here.” And I was like, “okay. I don't know if that's going to happen.” So, like I talked to the boat driver, and I was like asking him if it would be possible to leave like immediately. And he's like, “no, we can't because of the curfew and the checkpoint. Like, we have to leave tomorrow, or we have to leave at night.” And there is a curfew that started at I think at 8. And it was like from eight to like five in the morning. And so, like at seven, the man comes up to my like (our like little campsite), and he was like, “we should just leave now.” And I was like… I was really scared because I was like, “well, the curfew's about to start, and I am not Peruvian. And if I like… I don't want any of us to get caught. But like I… like from what I’ve heard from my friends in Iquitos is that like the consequences for being like breaking this curfew (especially if you're not a citizen) are like much more severe. But I, at the same time, I was like, “this is my one chance to like catch this flight. I don't know when there's going to be another repatriation flight straight out of Iquitos that's like a direct flight.” And so, we just went, and I don't know like how… like I'm not sure what happened. I fell asleep, and then like at six, five thirty, six in the morning, we’re in Iquitos. I was like, “okay?” And then it was just like a rush to get to my… the place I had been staying (a little like office apartment place), shower, and just pack up my essentials and get to the airport. And it was just… yeah, I was running on a lot of adrenaline and didn't really process how bizarre just like the whole journey back had been.Saintsing: Down the road, not on this particular project, but you are excited to be able to do more work like you have, you had done more freely before COVID in the future?Figueroa: Definitely, I really like field work. I think I like the fact that it keeps me on my feet a lot. I don't know. I don't… I don't think I do very well with like a lot of strict structures. So, like because things come up while I'm in the field, and I have to kind of like adapt, I like that. And I like being outside, too. I find it really rewarding just like interacting with plants and people and like just being immersed in it.Saintsing: Before you started your dissertation (actually going out and doing the field work) were you kind of more on the side that you were going to do like the evolutionary relationship, the genetic, you know, makeup of these communities of plants and the morphology and all of that? And then like communicating with the people kind of drew you also to the plant-human interactions? Or was that always like part of it all together before you started?Figueroa: That was always part of it. I've always been really drawn to like people-plant interactions. And just kind of looking at like, explicitly looking at like human and human participation in our environment as an ecological force. I think, up until recently, oftentimes the academic literature, just the way we like perceive ourselves has been really kind of to remove humans from the environment. So, I was really like, “I really wanted to explore these interactions in a non-domesticated species” for that reason. Because I think like domestication is like one extreme of a spectrum. And then we have like wild plants. But like what is this like in between space? And like how have humans been a part of this you know like spectrum? I suppose. So, that's always been one of my interests, and it was just trying to find a manageable species that like I felt like comfortable like studying during my PhD that fit those criteria that I was looking for.Saintsing: Right, yeah. And like how accurate is it to say anything is really wild, right? Like absent of human interaction.Figueroa: Yeah, I think there's like this like false notion of the Amazon and like a lot of forest as being pristine when like that's not really true. It's like humans have been here for a really long time and have been interacting with these forests.Saintsing: Yeah, it's like in California, you know, with fire management. We're figuring out how important it was to have people…Figueroa: …actively managing the forests.Saintsing: Yeah, exactly. Well, unfortunately it looks like we're running out of time on the interview. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Figueroa: I think the aspect of my research that I like find most rewarding and that like I'd like to stress is just like how much there is to learn from like non-traditional, like non-academic settings. Like I learned so much just like on the like on the ground in the field just through my like interactions. And a lot of that has like really like helped how I like, how I shape my research. So, you know I think there's like knowledge to be learned like everywhere. And not just in textbooks, so yeah.Saintsing: Definitely. Thanks so much for that. Today, I've been speaking with Giovanna Figueroa from the Department of Integrative Biology, and we've learned a lot about her really cool work in the field in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. It's been so much fun talking to you, Giovanna.Figueroa: It’s been great talking to you, too.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
2/16/2021

Schuyler Laparle

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Schuyler Laparle from the Department of Linguistics. Welcome to the show, Schuyler.Schuyler Laparle: Thanks for having me, Andrew.Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. I'm really interested in your research. I was looking on the website, and I saw your website, and I saw that you were studying sentence construction, right? Like, you were just like looking at weird ways people construct sentences. Is that right?Laparle: Yeah, I definitely have multiple personalities of researchers and do three pretty much unrelated things, but that is one of them.Saintsing: Yeah, hopefully we'll get to all of these aspects of your research, but so for that particular aspect of your research, you're studying a unique sentence construction basically. So, can you tell us a little bit about it?Laparle: Yeah, so this is a sentence construction called locative inversion, and it's when a preposition occurs at the beginning of the sentence and what we tend to think of as the subject of the sentence appears at the end. So, an example of this would be: into the room ran a man. Where you have this preposition at the beginning, and then you have the man who's actually doing the running at the end. It's called locative inversion. It occurs in many languages including English, and it's not really well explained.Saintsing: What do you mean it's not really well explained?Laparle: So, there's a couple of things when you have some kind of sentence construction. You have, as a linguist, two jobs. You have to explain its function, so what it's doing, why it exists in that language. And you have to explain how it fits into the grammar. So, in linguistics we have systems to explain how we put words together into sentences. This is a weird one. So, how do the rules of English account for this construction.Saintsing: Yeah, it is weird. Does that ever occur… do people ever say it verbally? Or is it just something that people write?Laparle: Yeah, so this is… it's funny because when you say it in isolation it sounds like really literary, right? It sounds like something you'd read in a fancy novel, and it is in novels a lot, but where else you'll hear it is in things like podcasts where people tell stories. So, I very much encourage you to listen to a This American Life episode, and you'll hear these sentences all the time.Saintsing: Interesting. So but then it's kind of… it does play into that idea that it's kind of literary, right? Because it's kind of setting you up to think you're hearing a story essentially.Laparle: Yes, there's something fundamentally narrative about it. I agree with previous research that the function that it's playing is really to like highlight the introduction of a character, much like a punch line to a joke, where you take a pause and then say the punch line. Here you're introducing a character, and so, you create more suspense by putting something at the front of the sentence before introducing the character at the end.Saintsing: Oh, that's really interesting. So, like the subject waits until the end. So, everyone's like: who is this person? Who's coming into the room? That's really interesting. Yeah, okay. So, you're kind of interested in knowing like, you said, like what is it doing in terms of grammar. So, you're interested to know like if it's even possible like to maintain correct grammar and say the sentence? Is that kind of like where your research goes?Laparle: Yeah, so the interesting thing about this construction is that it does a whole bunch of things. It has a bunch of restrictions that you wouldn't expect. So, for example in a normal sentence, we can create a polar question. So, that's create a yes or no question out of it. So, I can say: a man ran into the room. Did a man run into the room? Fine. What you can't do is say: did into the room run a man? That sounds pretty bad. And so, one of my questions is why. Why is it that this seems to be a sentence of English. Locative inversion. But it can't do things that other sentences of English can. And so, why is that?Saintsing: Oh, okay. Do you have an answer for that? Or is that like the research?Laparle: So, one of my answers to that is functional in that, if the point of this construction, if the reason that we use this construction is to introduce a character, well then you're not going to ask if that character is introduced, right? And so, what we're hearing when we say: oh, that doesn't sound good. It's not because it's not part of the English language. It's because, well, why would you say that? It's because there's no situation in which that would be a felicitous or an appropriate thing to say.Saintsing: I see. So if you have the question, if you're already asking, then you know who the subject or like the person you're interested in in this question is. So, there's nothing delaying it.Laparle: Exactly.Saintsing: But so technically, theoretically you're saying it's not that there's grammatically an error in this sentence. So, you could say that without being grammatically incorrect. Is what you're saying?Laparle: Yeah, so that's the like hot take of my research. To say that this thing that sounds terrible when you say it out loud is actually not ungrammatical. It's just too weird, just too functionally weird.Saintsing: Interesting. Is this… so, this is kind of like a lot of the focus… well, I guess linguistics is very, there's a lot going on in linguistics, but this is kind of a common question/area of research. To see like what, why things are okay and not okay in the language?Laparle: Yeah, it's a huge question, and it's one that's actually surprisingly difficult to answer because there are cases in which things are just clearly not English sentences. So, if I say: into ran the room a man. That's just not an English sentence. That's word salad. But there seems to be something different about the reaction that we get to say a sentence like: into the room didn't run a man. Now that doesn't sound great to me, but it doesn't sound as terrible as the other sentence. So, what is the difference between those intuitions we have as speakers? What is the difference between “oh, that's not English” versus “that doesn't sound right”?Saintsing: So, it's kind of interesting. Like, I would think of you know… I mean I didn't take much English class, or many English classes past high school, but, you know, thinking back about English teachers, it would be like “this is what's grammatically okay.” But in linguistics you start off with the idea that you're like “people are trying to communicate ideas,” I guess. And then you don't necessarily exclude things for being grammatically incorrect. You really want to get behind the… get to the meaning of it instead of like the rules of it.Laparle: Yeah, exactly. Because if you're to be a linguist, you can't go into language with a preconception of what it is, right? And this is like the bane of the linguist's existence, is the high school grammatical English teacher, right? This person that says “don't split your infinitives” and “don't use passives ever.” Like this is the bane of our existence because what we actually care about is “wow, humans have this really cool tool. that's language, and we use it to communicate, and we have to do that in a systematic way to understand each other.” We're just trying to like understand how that system works, how the heck can we understand each other by just putting a bunch of sounds together. But we don't really care about being right. Like saying the sentence in the right way.Saintsing: Right, I see. You come to language as it is instead of how it should be.Laparle: Yeah, exactly, thanks.Saintsing: So, you're mostly focused on English. Have you thought about locative inversions in other languages?Laparle: A little bit. So, there's some research on locative inversion in Bantu languages where it's very common.Saintsing: So, in your particular research you've said “okay, so this can't be a question because it doesn't make sense to hold off on that subject if we already know what we want to ask about.” And so, do you have support for that in other languages? Like, is this kind of a universal truth? Or do you not have enough evidence for that?Laparle: I don't think that there's enough evidence to say that this is a universal truth. However a very strong cross-linguistic tendency is we like to hold new information off until the end of the sentence. So, we like to say old information at the beginning and the new exciting information at the end. And so, this fits in this function. Locative inversion fits into that generalization.Saintsing: You’re mostly just focused on English for your research. Is that relatively common for linguists to be focused on one language? Or to have kind of broad understanding of multiple languages to be able to try to make like a kind of more um argument that's universal to human beings communicating?Laparle: Yeah, so that's a tough question to answer. Most linguists do specialize in one language. At a place like Berkeley, a lot of the languages that the linguists specialize in is not English, but researchers tend to focus on a language because language is incredibly complex. And so, you can spend multiple lifetimes figuring out one language, never mind trying to figure out, you know, five or six. But there are linguists who are called typologists who do try to focus more generally, more consistently on generalizations across languages.Saintsing: And then, so another aspect of your research is about gestures which aren't words, which, I guess, would be, since they're non-verbal communication, those could apply to any speaker, regardless of the language. Is that… so, I guess, well, first let's introduce like what you're doing with gestures so our audience knows what you're doing. What is this other aspect of your research? You study gestures?Laparle: Yeah, so I study how we use our bodies during speech. So, this includes how we move our hands when we're talking, but it also includes how we move our head, what facial expressions we make, anything that our body does kinetically to help convey the information we're trying to convey, right?Saintsing: And we're both gesturing a lot while we're doing this interview. Unfortunately, not everyone can see it, though.Laparle: I know my research is the worst thing for radio. It's all about the visual stuff. But, yeah, specifically my research focuses on how we use these kinetic signals to tell our addressee what the structure of our conversation is. So, when we're having a conversation, not only are we exchanging information, we also have an overall structure. So, right now, I'm answering the question about my gesture research, and somehow we negotiated that we changed the topic from talking about locative inversion into talking about gesture. That was actually a really complex thing to do, right? And there is significant evidence that that gesture really helps with that process.Saintsing: So, did you… I guess we are doing this over Zoom, so it's hard for you to see all of my gestures and body language. Would you say that you noticed something that I did to try to shift the conversation, in terms of gesture?Laparle: Yeah, so one of the things that I think you did and that people do very often when they change topics: they disengage for a moment in some way. So, like leaning back. So, okay, this is what we're going to talk about now and lean back forward to start the new topic. And you did exactly that where you straightened your back and then leaned in: “okay, my next question is…” Yeah, so that momentary disengage, that momentary kind of very physical disengagement from the conversation signals to your addressee “oh, that conversation we were having, I guess that's going to change.”Saintsing: Wow, so you do you find that you're good at having conversations because you understand these rules better than other people?Laparle: No, no, no. I find that I'm perpetually distracted in conversation because I'm paying too much attention to how people are moving.Saintsing: Do you like try to… do you just like move how you'll move, or do you try to like think about the gestures that'll set people up to know what you're doing in the conversation?Laparle: I think in like informal conversation I… gesture's just still so automatic that I don't think about it, but I think in more formal situations like in teaching for example I am much more aware of how I'm gesturing and how it might be helpful or confusing.Saintsing: That's interesting. Do you… so like, what is an example of that? Like what do you like slow down while you're teaching and like “wait, I have to do this gesture”? Like, how does it play out in a class?Laparle: Yeah, so one of the examples that you see a lot that I try to do (but also you'll just see your teachers do this) is if you're contrasting two ideas: so, say people are getting confused about the difference between a gesture which helps communicate and body language which is something that we don't really have control over and we don't intend to communicate anything. So, let's say people are confused about those two things. What I'll do in class is say “okay, you have a gesture” (where I hold my hand out to one side and give some details about what that is) “and then you have body language” (and hold my hand out to the other side). And so, you iconically separate these two ideas and show. And it helps to show that these two things are separate and have separate properties to be considered as different.Saintsing: Okay, right that makes sense. So, I got us on to gesture because I was interested to know because we've been talking about comparative linguistics. So, I guess, do you just… so, you study grammar or locative inversions in English, but do you study gestures just in English speakers? Or do you study them in people communicating in all sorts of languages?Laparle: Yeah, so what's super cool about gesture is there is surprisingly many cross-linguistic similarities. And so, in my own research, the data I actually use is from English, so I primarily have been using videos of interviews on Stephen Colbert, which is very fun.Saintsing: Yeah, what, can I ask, why Stephen Colbert? I mean, obviously it would be fun to watch Stephen Colbert.Laparle: Honestly, mostly it's just fun to watch Stephen Colbert. One of the biggest kind of corpora of visual data that I have access to is the television archive at UCLA. Stephen Colbert was in that corpus, and I was like “well, it limits some of the factors to just focus on one show, and i might as well focus on a show that I don't mind watching. So, yeah, my data itself comes from English, but whenever I'm talking about the gestures that I'm observing I try as much as possible to draw parallels with observations from other languages. Gesture is a super interesting subfield of linguistics because a lot of the modern research is actually not in English. It's in German and Italian, and so I'm in a very unique position for once where, when I have an interesting finding in English data, I can compare it to data in these other languages. And that's really exciting.Saintsing: Why is gesture study so focused on German and Italian?Laparle: It's hard to say. Well, one: the incorporation of gesture studies into linguistics is very new. So, linguists didn't really start caring about gesture at all until linguistics started caring about sign language, and that wasn't until the 1960s. And gesture research in linguistics didn't really pick up steam until the 90s. And in America it still really hasn't caught on as much as it has in Europe. So, I think it's just kind of an accidental artifact of history more than anything.Saintsing: Yeah, so you talked about data. You're studying Stephen Colbert. So, what does it mean to collect data for you? You watch him and then you try to look for specific areas of the conversation that might be interesting and what he's doing with his hands basically?Laparle: Yeah, exactly. So, as I said I'm interested in particular about how we structure our conversation, and very conveniently we also have words that do that. And so, what I've been doing is searching these words that are called discourse markers and seeing if there are any patterns in the gestures that are being used along with those words. So for example, the word “anyway.” The word anyway does two things: it tells us that we don't want to continue talking about the thing that we were just talking about, and it tells us that we're about to start something new. We're about to talk about something else.Saintsing: So, it'll be paired perfectly with the backwards forwards.Laparle: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. So, this is like an incredible discourse marker because you both get to observe people disengage in some way or mark that they don't want to talk about something. And so, the things that I found are things like leaning back, leaning away from your addressee. But also, things like sweeping across your body as if you're pushing an object out away from you. So, the metaphoric topic that you're talking about, right? And I get to observe engagement, so leaning back in and holding your hands up to your interlocutor to talk about this new metaphoric topic, which is very cool.Saintsing: Yeah, so, okay. So, that makes sense of the data you're looking at and like how you're studying it for the gesture aspect of your research. What does it mean to study the locative inversion? Like, are you also watching people in conversation in a similar way?Laparle: So, I've done two things. So, one is I sometimes annoyingly stop any time I see or hear a locative inversion sentence and write it down. So, I have an ongoing corpus of all of the real-life examples I encounter, and from that I try to see patterns, see what is happening and what is not happening. And then I've used that to inform experiments. So, I've performed a series of what are called grammaticality judgment surveys. So, you make people read a series of sentences and rate each one of them for how natural they sound.Saintsing: And so, that's how you… your earlier question idea, that you can't have the locative inversion as a question, that is partially based in experimental evidence that people have said “nah I would never say that.”Laparle: Yeah, exactly. But what like a finding that's even cooler than that is something like negation. So if you say “into the room didn't run a man” that's pretty weird because you're not actually introducing a character, right? And so, people will rate a sentence like that as very bad. But if you add another clause to the end, so if you say “into the room didn't run a man, but a rhino” then suddenly the sentence is much better. So, that's really cool because it really does support the fact that it's not that it's not the grammaticality. It's that you have to introduce something. It really is this function of the sentence.Saintsing: I see. Yeah, that's really interesting. So, people don't like having nothing introduced to them.Laparle: Exactly.Saintsing: So, then I want to get to the last aspect of your research which partially came up when we were talking about gestures. You study metaphors, so I guess can you tell us a little bit about what you do to study metaphor or what do you mean by “you're studying metaphors” necessarily?Laparle: Yeah, so interestingly my work on metaphors is what led me to gesture. So, metaphor is a really interesting topic in linguistics because when you're taught metaphor in school, in high school, it's treated as this kind of special artsy thing, right? You have language and then you have this special little thing that's called metaphor and you can sprinkle it onto your real language. But when linguists study metaphor what you start to find is that metaphor is very fundamental to language and that it's actually really hard to avoid. And so, the study of metaphor that I do is grounded in the assumption that metaphor is actually a cognitive process, not just a linguistic process. So, it's how we think not just how we talk.Saintsing: So, what do you mean by that?Laparle: So, for example a favorite thing to do in metaphor class is to ask people to point to here. If you ask people to point to here they'll point in front of them. They'll point down, right? Well, here's where I am. Yeah, exactly. And then, I ask them to point to now. And they'll do the same thing. But you can't actually point to now. Time is a very abstract thing you can't point to it in space. So, what we're doing is we're actually thinking about time in terms of space. And that's what metaphor is. It's reasoning about some concept in the terms and the structure of another.Saintsing: Would you say that other aspects of linguistics don't necessarily reflect what you're thinking? So, like you kind of made this distinction with metaphor that it that it's not just studying the language it's studying cognitive processes, but would you say that other areas of linguistic studies aren't necessarily reflecting cognitive processes? They're just language?Laparle: I think it varies. I think that among the questions that linguists ask are “how can we model language?” And in that case you're not necessarily asking about how language works in the mind. In metaphor research the question that metaphor analysts are asking is very explicitly “how does metaphor and language work in the mind?”Saintsing: We're starting to run out of time but before we go I'm interested to know how you became a linguist?Laparle: Yeah, so I think my story is more frequent than you might think. I took Latin in high school. Latin is interesting because English, though it's a Germanic language, there's a lot of influence from French on English. And so, we see, when you study Latin, you see a lot of cognates. You see words that seem to be traced back to Latin. And Latin is really cool because it's really complex. There's a lot of grammar. There's a lot of morphology. It's very hard to learn, and so, I think that just the process of trying to learn Latin, as complex of a system it is and as different from English as it is, really made me start to ask questions like “how does language work? How can languages be this different and still we can communicate with each other?”Saintsing: Yeah, that's interesting how linguists or linguistics is kind of so heavily focused on English but I would imagine that historically the idea to study linguistics… kind of a lot of people have had that experience, right? That it's only interesting to think about the study of linguistics when you realize there's all of these other languages.Laparle: Yeah, it's a little bit like seeing the water you're swimming in. You don't really appreciate how interesting your language is until you realize how interesting another language is.Saintsing: Okay unfortunately I think we've hit the end of our interview. Is there anything you'd like to leave the audience with?Laparle: Yeah, linguistics should be taught in high school. Everyone should know that language changes and that the primary reason why we have languages to communicate is not to speak correctly or learn the correct English. It's to communicate.Saintsing: Today I've been speaking with Schuyler Laparle from the Department of Linguistics. Thanks so much for being on the show, Schuyler.Laparle: Thank you.
2/16/2021

Karen Serrano

Andrew Saintsing: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Karen Serrano from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. Welcome to the show, Karen.Karen Serrano: Thanks, thanks for having me.Saintsing: Karen is actually about to be our newest host of The Graduates, so you can look forward to new interviews hosted by Karen. Are you excited to be hosting The Graduates, Karen?Serrano: Yeah, I'm super excited. It'll be nice to be on the other side of this soon.Saintsing: Have you ever done anything like interviewing before? What made you get interested in The Graduates?Serrano: I've been interviewed for a show like this, but I haven't been the interviewer, so I thought it would just be kind of interesting to be on the other side and then get to hear about all the cool research that's going on that I never really get to hear about, so yeah, that's kind of what made me decide.Saintsing: Nice. Oh, you have been interviewed before? When were you interviewed?Serrano: As an undergrad we had like a similar program at the University of Arizona, and it was called Thesis Thursday with the local radio show, so I was interviewed a couple of times about my research on that. It was pretty cool.Saintsing: So, you've been doing research, you were doing research all throughout undergrad to have enough to get a couple interviews?Serrano: I did have like basically the same interview. One year I was part of this research program called the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, and one of the requirements was to do a radio interview each summer. And so yeah, every summer I would get interviewed. I only did research for two years, but I got to be interviewed twice, so that was fun.Saintsing: Oh, that's cool. They had a requirement that you had to be interviewed?Serrano: They had to do a radio interview, yeah, and they also had a requirement that you had to write like a small like press release about your research, so that was also fun. Yeah, just like some activities to get you into communication.Saintsing: Oh, cool, so you're like well-versed in science communication now. Sounds like this...Serrano: I'm a beginner.Saintsing: But, well, you know, you have a good starting point relative to some other people. This is just like a thing at the University of Arizona where you went to undergrad?Serrano: It was kind of like a summer program that you had to apply for, but yeah, it was fun. I was happy to be a part of it.Saintsing: Well, let's put those science communication skills to the test. So, you are in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. So, you are studying, I guess, some kind of interaction between plants and microbes or something along those lines?Serrano: Yeah, so I'm a plant biology PhD student, but I do study an interaction between plant and microbes. I study the interaction between plants and a fungus called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.Saintsing: Can you repeat that one more time?Serrano: Yeah, it's a mouthful. It's called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.Saintsing: Okay, and what are those?Serrano: Yeah, so to kind of break down the name: mycorrhizae. They're called ‘fungus root’ because they're fungi that live in plant roots. And then, they're also called arbuscular because they form these little structures called arbuscules when they get into the plant root.Saintsing: What is an arbuscule?Serrano: It's kind of just like a little fungal structure that serves as kind of a hub for metabolite exchange. So, the fungi will like crawl into the plant root, and when they get there the plant will like entirely rearrange its whole cell to let the fungi grow this arbuscule.Saintsing: What do you mean by crawl?Serrano: They actually like seep into the plant cell walls.Saintsing: Okay, so the fungus, they're moving like an animal? Like they are controlling their movements? Or, I guess I'm wondering: is it kind of like how plants roots grow through the soil? Is that kind of how the fungi are moving?Serrano: Yeah, it's exactly like that. They just grow longer and longer in a certain direction.Saintsing: Okay, cool. Sorry, I interrupted, though. And you got to tell us more about how the plant rearranges itself to accommodate the fungus.Serrano: Yeah, so the fungus actually provides a lot of nutrients and water for the plant, and so the plant actually accommodates them like by rearranging its entire cell wall to let them fit in there. So, it's like a symbiotic relationship the plant gets more nutrients and water out of the soil because of the fungi, and the fungi gets a house and carbon from the plant.Saintsing: So, what kind of nutrients are the plants getting out of the relationship?Serrano: So, they've been shown to provide like, I don't know, so many nutrients. The main ones are phosphorous and some like small micronutrients that the plant usually has to scavenge for. Yeah, these fungi are really, really, really good at taking up phosphorus. Usually because phosphorus is present in like a non-available form in the soil that plants have to like work really hard to convert to an available form that they can use. And these fungi do it really easily, and so that's kind of a mechanism that yeah allows them to get more nutrients from these fungi.Saintsing: Do you know more about the like why is it unavailable to the plants or like what what's going on with the phosphorus? What, it's like energetically costly to convert it?Serrano: Yes and no, but the kind of hard part about phosphorus is that there's a lot of phosphorus in soil, but it gets tied up with metals just because it likes to interact with them more. So, it's not existing in like a free form that plants can just like suck up when they suck up water. It's tied up with other things, and so the work is trying to get it to untie from those other things.Saintsing: And the fungus just has like good metabolic pathways or something that let it break those interactions down?Serrano: Yeah, exactly. I don't study the fungus specifically, so I don't know more about it, but I’m assuming, yeah, they do. Plants also release like little, small like metabolites that convert the phosphorous, but it takes a lot more for them to do that than for the bacteria and fungi to do that.Saintsing: I see, so you don't study the fungus. You study the plant, I guess. Like the how the plant does this interaction.Serrano: Yeah, um so this fungus is actually like the worst behaved lab specimen ever. It's really hard to study the fungus specifically because it's multikaryotic. So, what that means is that each of the cells can have like hundreds of nuclei.Saintsing: Wait, so like the cell are like fusing together you mean? Or like what what's going on there?Serrano: So, the fungus is like eukaryotic. There are multiple cells that make up the organism. Those cells instead of just having one nucleus, it has like hundreds of them.Saintsing: So, it just like has a bunch of DNA that it can make its proteins with.Serrano: Exactly. So, it's really hard to actually genetically study them, and then there's like recent research has shown that like those nuclei will just like divide and multiply kind of at will. So, that makes it increasingly hard.Saintsing: Interesting, so wait, but I mean that seems like you have a bunch of DNA to study, right?Serrano: It’s hard to tell exactly like what DNA comes from what cells, which is pretty important.Saintsing: I see. Yeah, so like a cell could have slight deviations in DNA within the cell.Serrano: Exactly, yeah so just as like we have millions of cells but some of our cells are like eye cells and some of our cells are only expressing you know finger things (I don't know much about humans) but the fungi also like kind of separate these functions, and so, if we want to study them, we just get like hundreds of DNA we don't know actually where they're coming from.Saintsing: So, the fungus is poorly behaved. It's not something that's easy to study.Serrano: Right and they will die outside of the plant host, like they have to be studied within the plant, and so, it's really hard to separate like to get really clean fungal tissue first also. So, anyway they're just really hard to study, and so, we kind of have to get creative, and so, my research is trying to apply a transcriptomics technique that was developed for human biology and trying to use this technique and apply it to the symbiotic system.Saintsing: What is transcriptomicsSerrano: Transcriptomics… you've probably heard of genomics (the study of all the DNA within an organism). Transcriptomics takes a step further and only studies the genes that are actually being expressed.Saintsing: So, it's a transcript because it's like been transcribed.Serrano: Yeah, exactly right,Saintsing: Because you're not worried about genes or you're not worried about all the DNA that like doesn't get transcribed is basically the idea behind this, right?Serrano: Exactly, if you want to know like, for example, I only want to know about the genes that are related to the symbiosis, so I don't really care about everything else or the DNA that's not being transcribed at the moment. And it's kind of a new field, but it's developing really rapidly, and now we've gotten to the point where we can tell exactly what genes are being expressed and exactly what cells so it's pretty crazy.Saintsing: Oh, cool, so that's why the fungus is useless. Kind of like: what are you doing with that because you can't differentiate cells, so it doesn't really help you, right?Serrano: Exactly, and this company 10x Genomics has taken it a step further, so now they created this slide, which is what I'm going to be using, and it basically… like you can take a little slice of tissue and then like paste it on the slide that has DNA markers on it which will capture the DNA that's released, and so, you can take the plant tissue that's been infected with this fungus and then you stick it on the slide and you apply some chemicals that will let you see what like cells there are and what structures within the cells and if the structure is fungal or plant and then you release the DNA onto the slide and then you get information from a computer which I don't know actually much more about, but it will tell you exactly what DNA is coming from exactly what part on the slide. And so, you basically get like a picture and then all the DNA information next to it.Saintsing: Wait, wow, so you're saying that like essentially all you – I mean I'm not saying it's not work, but like all you have to do is take a slice of the plant, the root that you're looking at and just put it on slide and then you're just going to get all of this data about DNA?Serrano: Basically.Saintsing: Wow, yeah, that's really cool. Is this really new, the technology?Serrano: Yeah, it's really new. So, it was developed actually for like human cell biology, so like histologists that would take like – I don’t know, whatever histologists do. And they take like human tissue, and they try to study like what genes are being turned on which cells like for cancer or something. So, it was developed for that, and then a couple of scientists I think in 2016 applied it first to plant tissue, and they got some really good results. So, this will be the first time that's applied to both plant and fungal tissueSaintsing: Wow, yeah and the… So, it recognizes DNA. So, does that mean it, you have to program it in whatever way you program it? With the knowledge of the genes that you’re like… You already know what genes you're looking for essentially? So, you're trying to say like when are genes that you're interested in are activated? Or, are you actually going to find genes from this?Serrano: Yeah, so it'll actually just capture like everything that it's expressed. So, you don't need any prior knowledge about the genes and then from the data that'll give you that's when you kind of look at okay which genes were the most expressed in which areas and it'll give you kind of like a list of candidates that you can now go through each gene one by one and see okay does this gene actually do something.Saintsing: So you're going to maybe find a bunch of genes that people haven't ever seen before or like is this pretty well studied, and so, you'll find things that people have been talking about for a while now?Serrano: Hopefully a bit of both. So, there have been transcriptomic studies done on the system before, but it hasn't been… so, this kind of technique that I described to you, it's called “spatially resolved.” So, other techniques, they'll have single cell data, but they won't know exactly where the data came from, like which cells it came from because they have to pool them all together. So, this will be the first time that we get like both all the data and then where exactly it came from in the tissue. It can be used to validate other people's work, but we're hoping to actually find some new genes as well. It sounds very easy, but it'll take years. The slicesSaintsing: Yeah, have you started already?Serrano: Yeah, so COVID kind of threw a wrench in things, but this summer we mainly focused on getting the staining techniques down. So, there's a couple of different staining techniques that will allow us to see like exactly where the fungus is in the root tissue which is what we'll have to do for the slide to be visualized correctly. So, that's kind of what I've been focusing on, and then COVID also kind of delayed my training on the device that lets you actually slice the tissue so thinly. So, I hope to be doing that next week.Saintsing: Oh, cool. Nice. Are you looking at a particular plant?Serrano: Yeah, so I work with Medicago sativa, which is more commonly known as alfalfa.Saintsing: Is there a reason why?Serrano: It's kind of the model plant that's been used for this just because it's a legume and legumes tend to form these relationships more than other plants.Saintsing: Do you know why that is?Serrano: I think they were the – I don't know why exactly, but if I can remember I think it's because they were the first ones to evolve this interaction. This actually is the oldest like symbiotic interaction between plants and microbes.Saintsing: So, this interaction between this fungus and legumes is the oldest interaction because they were the first one to develop it?Serrano: I don't know about legumes specifically. This fungus and plants is the oldest known like interaction. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi are actually living fossils because identically similar fungi were found to be like associated with the oldest plant fossils we have. So there's a lot of research that basically points towards these fungi being the things that actually allowed plants to colonize land.Saintsing: How widespread is this? Is it like all plants are doing this?Serrano: It's about 80% of land plants, so it's pretty common.Saintsing: And what's up with the other 20?Serrano: Yeah, I don't know. That's probably something I should know, but they just have their own thing.Saintsing: Okay, so that's… so you're working towards like really getting into data collection at this point, and so you'll be hopefully like actually getting data maybe next semester even.Serrano: Yeah, hopefully.Saintsing: That's cool. So, you're in your second year. What brought you to Berkeley? How did you end up deciding Berkeley was the school for you, and this program, the Plant Microbial Biology program was the program for you?Serrano: Yeah, so in undergrad I did a lot of research in mining reclamation, so helping mines re-vegetate their land. Through that I got to kind of not only do like plant-related research but also like interact with like the mining companies themselves. And like getting to know like what the actual industry side of things was like, that's kind of what attracted me to Berkeley because we have so many partnerships with industry here, and that's what led me to my lab specifically. I work with Henrik Scheller at the Joint Bioenergy Institute, and so, it's like just a really collaborative environment, and that's exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be like working side by side with like industry scientists.Saintsing: And now, I guess the industry scientists that you're working with would be more like agricultural sciences or people that are involved in agriculture, right?Serrano: Yeah, and a lot of like bioenergy scientists.Saintsing: Oh, right. You said bioenergy. So, you're trying to help people improve like corn ethanol, things like that. Like the production of that.Serrano: Yeah, exactly. We have like another project that I work on which is studying the same interaction but in sorghum, which is a really important biofuel crop. So, hopefully the research I do with Medicago, like the model plant, will be translatable into sorghum also, so we can start trying to use this fungus to help us grow biofuel crops.Saintsing: So, you said like 80% of plants have these interactions, and sorghum is one of these plants, so what are you trying to improve? The interaction between the fungus and the plant? What is the ultimate goal there that could actually be an improvement on the industry?Serrano: Yeah, so as I mentioned before, there's so many benefits that these fungi bring to plants. They're improving their nutrient status; they help them survive better in drought… And so, we're hoping that we could like strengthen the interaction between these plants, between like these important crop plants and the fungi so that in field conditions you know, as climate change happens and we get worse soil and hotter and hotter weather, the fungus will better help the plant to survive in those conditions. And we'll have to put less input into the system.Saintsing: Okay, and by input you mean like fertilizer?Serrano: Yeah, fertilizer, water.Saintsing: So, ideally the ultimate goal of this would be to have improvements that you could genetically engineer into the fungus, or into the plant, or both?Serrano: Yeah, probably easier to do the plant.Saintsing: And these would just help it be a better host or something for the fungi, or help it to get the most it can out of the fungus?Serrano: Yeah, one of the things that we're looking at is the first interaction between the fungus and the plant. So, when it you know first kind of crawls into the cell wall, there's a lot of cell wall engineering that we could do to help the fungus kind of penetrate that wall. So, that's an example of something that we could engineer.Saintsing: I see, and if the… well, I guess I'm just wondering… because the fungus does ultimately penetrate that wall, that cell wall, right? Like, these interactions are occurring, so having that improvement would maybe make that interaction happen faster and speed up the plant growth. Is that the idea?Serrano: I don't know if speed is a factor but definitely the extent of colonization.Saintsing: I got you. Like maybe some plants that aren't growing as well or don't look as healthy don't have as much colonization in their roots of these symbiote relationships?Serrano: Right, exactly, yeah, the extent of colonization differs a lot across even just like different varieties of sorghum. And so, if we could make that more consistent, or if we could find a way to make it… if we could find a way to increase that colonization, it would really help the plant.Saintsing: I got you. So, you're improving yield, and then you'll have more source for fuel.Serrano: Exactly. With less input, which is important.Saintsing: Right, yeah. Well, that sounds really interesting. I'm also really interested in the mining reclamation. So, what, kind of briefly, were you doing there?Serrano: Yeah, so I worked with, it's called the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining, which is also a mouthful. And I worked with three southern Arizona copper mines, and two of them were legacy sites. So, those are mining sites that have kind of been abandoned and need to be revegetated. And then, one was an active site, and I worked more closely with the active site. And they basically had these gigantic mountains of just waste soil/rock. More rock than soil. And it was on national forest land actually, and so, they had this really tight deadline to get that stuff revegetated. But, as I said earlier, it's like mostly rock, so it's really hard to revegetate that stuff, and so what our lab did was we basically did a lot of soil sampling, vegetation sampling. And we wandered patterns across the mountains and tried to come up with ways that they could like cost effectively revegetate that area.Saintsing: And were you doing similar things? Like thinking about the genetics of the plants you were interested in and ways you could improve how, you know, well they grew in different situations?Serrano: I was actually looking at phosphorus really specifically. Which is kind of why I started getting into arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi because they're so good at scavenging phosphorus. But we were really focused on kind of just sampling everything we could just to get a better sense of: okay what are these slopes made out of? Because this is just like material that the mine dumps there from all of their other activities. And so, we would just sample and then try to analyze trends. So, over years, like, is the pH going down? How is the phosphorus different? Is carbon different? What plants are associated with different carbon? Different phosphorus? Different soil nutrients? Stuff like that. And then we would try to piece together what was actually happening.Saintsing: And I guess the interest there is like figuring out what the best way to colonize this area with plants was? Like maybe you would figure out which plants to introduce first or something like that?Serrano: Exactly. For example, we had we had two different slopes that we looked at. One, they had previously tried to seed, so there was like a few plants that they planted themselves. And then one they left alone. And the pH on the slope that they seeded was a lot lower and a lot more optimal for plant growth than the other slope that they had left alone. And so, one of the questions we were asking was: was the pH of that slope brought down by the plants, or did that pH just happen to be lower to begin with? And so, those were the kind of questions that we asked there. Because if it had just been lower to begin with, they would just have to wait a few years for the other slope to go down before planting.Saintsing: That sounds super interesting. So, when you got to undergrad, did you start like doing research as an undergrad like right when you got to undergrad?Serrano: Oh, no. Definitely not. I was a very lost freshman. I mean I've always known that I was interested in science, and I really liked genetics. But I started out with like human stuff and quickly realized I didn't like human stuff. It wasn't until I kind of randomly volunteered to be like a mountain guide with really no experience (I'm from the suburbs of Dallas). So, I don't know. They kind of just accepted me. They paired me up with a graduate student who happened to be a graduate student studying plant biology, and he was just like absolutely infectious with like his love of plants. And I just really got into plants after that. And especially because in Tucson there are so many weird desert plants that it's kind of like impossible to miss them. And so, yeah that was that was kind of the story of how i got into plants. And I just started reaching out randomly to professors, and like: do you work on plants? Can I work with you?Saintsing: Wow, yeah that's really cool. So, this grad student was really like when you figured out what… or talking to him was really when you figured out you like really were interested in plants?Serrano: Yeah, exactly. He had this ability to just like look at a field and be like: this is that plant. That's that plant. This is how they interact. This is why they're cool. And I was like: yeah, I totally see that now.Saintsing: Are you at that level now?Serrano: You know my friends always try to get me to identify plants, and I'm like, that's not really what plant biologists do. I work with one plant, who I forget the common name of.Saintsing: So, you're going to be… you're always on trips with your friends, and then that one time, you're going to be like: that is alfalfa.Serrano: Yes, exactly. That's Arabidopsis.Saintsing: So, what turned you off of working with people? Were you going to be a doctor?Serrano: That was my initial thought. Or like a genetic counselor. I was also thinking about doing that. And then I was trying to be proactive, and so, I signed up for this health skills clinic that the university was offering, and you could do like a suture lab, and they had like this fake human tissue that you could practice like sewing on. And I just got like, just so very creeped out by that. And I remember I was like walking home from the place, and I called my mom, and I was like: yeah, I don't know about this. I got that creeped out by like fake tissue. I don't think I could handle it if it was actually bleeding.Saintsing: Yeah, that makes sense.Serrano: Yeah, and plants don't bleed, so you can't really – I mean, you can hurt plants, but they won't sue you.Saintsing: Yeah, that's true. So, okay you figured out you wanted to do plant biology, and then you went to your undergrad research experience, and you found these cool opportunities where you could work with industry partners, and you had all these collaborations. So, do you think after graduate school that you're kind of interested in more like the industrial side, actually working at these companies and doing the reclamation project yourself? Or do you want to pursue academic research, do you think? Or maybe something else entirely?Serrano: Yeah, I'm more leaning on the industry side just because I've always kind of just thrived in that environment. But I am interested in teaching, so I'm kind of torn right now because I love both.Saintsing: Why do you think you thrive in the industrial side of things?Serrano: I kind of like application-based problems. There's like an immediate kind of solution to a problem right in front of you, which is a little different than like doing science for science’s sake.Saintsing: So, you really enjoy teaching. What are you teaching?Serrano: I'm teaching intro bio right now. Bio1B.Saintsing: Is this the first time you've taught?Serrano: Yes.Saintsing: Did you know beforehand that you would be interested in teaching? Or you just found out you like teaching now, this semester?Serrano: I was interested in teaching prior to this, but I didn't expect liking it so much. So, as an undergrad, I served as like an undergraduate TA. It's kind of like the TA's helper. And I always found that really fun and like a good way to practice like learning concepts on my own. Like keeping refreshed with the material. I guess I had really been missing that personal component of things, like interacting with the students every day and like learning more about their lives. Because as an undergraduate you kind of just like go over concepts and like hold reviews and stuff. You don't really get to like make those connections. So, I've really enjoyed that and like learning about what makes them excited and like telling them probably way too much about my research. So, yeah, I think that's kind of why I like it.Saintsing: All right, well it looks like we're actually running out of time now. Usually at the end of the interview we have a moment where guests can take an opportunity to directly address the audience. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with?Serrano: I’d just like to say if you are interested in these fungi, you can actually buy these products yourself now. There's a lot of companies that sell like little inoculants for your own garden that you can try out and see if they help your own vegetables or anything like that. So, if you're interested just Google them: arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. And you can buy them for yourself and try them out.Saintsing: Oh, cool. A way to minimize the amount of fertilizer you have to use in your own gardening.Serrano: Exactly.Saintsing: Today's guest was Karen Serrano, and she will also soon be a host. Thank you, again, Karen.Serrano: Thanks for having me. I'm so excited.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
2/16/2021

Vetri Velan

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Vetri Velan from the Department of Physics. Welcome to the show, Vetri.Vetri Velan: Hey, Andrew. Thanks for having me on.Saintsing: Yeah, it's so great to have you here. I'm really interested to learn more about your research because you study dark matter and, to be honest, I have kind of a limited, maybe not even a limited, understanding of what dark matter actually is. So, can you tell me more about it?Velan: Of course. So, the simplest answer is actually maybe the one you'll like the least, which is we don't know either. But I can go a little bit more into detail than that. The idea is that we have a lot of evidence that in the universe there is all this missing matter which we call dark matter.Saintsing: What do you mean by missing? Sorry if you're about to say.Velan: I was, but that's okay. So, what we can do is we can look at galaxies and galaxy clusters, and we can look at the speed at which they rotate, and we know that the way in which galaxies rotate is going to be governed just by Newtonian gravity.Saintsing: So, galaxies are rotating as in, like, we're talking about there's a center like the sun is the center of our solar system and everything's rotating around that? Or are you talking about like they're moving relative… the galaxy is moving relative to the rest of the universe in some way?Velan: Oh, good question. Yeah, no it's like the movement of the planets around the sun.Saintsing: Okay, right so we're talking about the stars in the galaxy rotating about the center of the galaxy. So, we're rotating around our sun, and then our sun is rotating around, I guess, the black hole in the middle of the Milky Way.Velan: Yeah, exactly, and so what you do is you can look at a lot of galaxies, you know, not just the Milky Way. You can look at a whole bunch of galaxies, and you can look at how fast they're rotating. And the speed at which they're rotating is going to be given or is going to be related to the amount of mass in the galaxy because the more mass of the galaxy the higher the gravitational force. And as a result, the stars are going to be moving faster around the center of the galaxy. So, what we can do is we can just work backwards, and we can take the speed of the stars, and we can convert that to the mass of the galaxy, and we can calculate how much mass is at different distances from the center basically. But there's another thing we can do which is we can say, “okay, let's just look at all the stars in the galaxy.” Not just in the visible, but in all types of electromagnetic radiation. So, you look at radio waves, look at X-rays. I think actually people mostly look at X-rays. And you can, from that, calculate what is the mass of the galaxy, just saying, you know, how much stuff is there in the galaxy? And, therefore, what's the mass of the galaxy? And you got the mass from the rotation speeds of the stars, and then you just say well those numbers should match. They should equal each other. And they don't. And so, it turns out that the galaxies are rotating much too fast. And in fact, you would, when you do the calculation and you try to figure out how much mass there must be in the galaxy for them to be moving that fast, there has to be at least like (it depends on the galaxy of course) but there has to be at least like five or six times as much mass as we can actually see using light. This missing component of the galactic mass is what we call dark matter.Saintsing: Yeah, so this is just stuff that's contributing mass but that we can't see, we can't detect.Velan: Exactly. And in fact, I'm actually giving you like a very, very old story of the puzzle. I'm giving you roughly the story that was first theorized in the 1930s by Fritz Zwicky, really understood much more carefully in the 1970s by Vera Rubin. But you know this is the story kind of as we knew it let's say in the 70s and 80s or so. More recently we have a lot more measurements that also point to dark matter. That, for example, includes measurements of how fast the universe is expanding as a whole. So, not just looking at individual galaxies. We're looking at the expansion of the entire universe. You can also calculate from that how much dark matter is in the universe as a whole, and you find again that it's somewhere around five or six times as much as the amount of normal matter (which is just like atoms)Saintsing: So, that's cool that the multiplying factor (like five to six) it's like the same then based on…Velan: It's similar. Not necessarily… I was just… I'm giving averages. So, like the five to six is for the universe as a whole, and then, so then it must be true for the average galaxy. But the ratio for any given galaxy varies quite wildly. So, my conclusion, or the point you should take away from that is that there is this puzzle that exists where there are tons of astrophysical and cosmological measurements that all say there must be dark matter. And so, my question as a particle physicist (I'm not an astrophysicist. I'm not a cosmologist. I'm a particle physicist.) My question is: what is the nature of the dark matter? What is the fundamental dark matter particle?Saintsing: Okay, so like what's a fundamental particle?Velan: Yeah, good question. So, many of your listeners probably know that the way in which we tend to think of the world around us is that the fundamental unit of matter is the atom. And so, everything, from you, me, the air, the rocks, the trees, is made up of atoms. And you probably also learned in your physics and chemistry class that atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. So, electrons are a fundamental particle, and by fundamental particle I just mean that it's not composed of anything else. The electron is the electron, and there's nothing inside an electron.Saintsing: We know that for sure?Velan: 99% of physicists would agree with me on that. There are certainly some people who try to look for electron substructure. And in fact there are other people who try to look for just substructure to the standard model of elementary particles in general. But in general most people would agree with me.Saintsing: How would… what does it mean to look for substructure in a… can you… you can't see an electron, right?Velan: Yeah, you absolutely can. Yeah, it's, in fact, it's not even that hard actually. So, like what's a good way to see an electron? So, you know a good way to see an electron is to build a really dense block of material. This is something we call a calorimeter, and you have a big block of material, and as the electron passes through the block of material if it has high enough energy then the electron will ionize the atoms around it. Those atoms will also give off their own electrons. But now you have a whole bunch of electrons that are produced, and if you put them in an electric field then they will be very energetic and produce even more electrons. So, you can get this kind of shower of particles from one individual electron that you can then see.Saintsing: What do you mean by see?Velan: You can hook it up to charge sensors, where the electrons are drifted away from the original track of the original electron, and the secondary electrons are all collected on charge sensors. And then, you measure the voltage of the charge sensors. Okay which doesn't sound like seeing. But it really is because you can, you know, by doing a strategy like this you can see a track of an electron. You can actually see it like in fact. And (I'm thinking of something more modern like because it's what I'm used to) where you're doing some type of computer programming to, you know, do some type of 3D visualization but honestly there are experiments you know decades ago called bubble chambers and cloud chambers where… let's look at a l bubble chamber, I guess. In a bubble chamber, you have a whole bunch of super-heated water (which means water above its boiling point). So, it's water in the liquid phase but you treat it very carefully and you can bring it above the boiling point. But as you have a high energy particle like an electron pass through the water, then it's in this very unstable equilibrium because it's liquid but it's above its boiling point. So, when the electron ionizes these atoms around it. It creates a disturbance and then the water actually will evaporate and will form little bubbles. And you can see the tracks of these bubbles in like a photograph for example.Saintsing: Okay, so essentially, you're looking for its effect on the world around it and that is seeing it?Velan: Yeah, yeah.Saintsing: I see. And okay, so we can see the electron, but how do we know that it can't be broken down?Velan: That's a great question. So, the best way in which we're able to do something like that is just smashing things together with a lot of energy. In the same way that, you know this is going to be a little silly right, but like if you have a box with some um stuff inside (some chocolates, some toys, whatever), another box with some chocolates and toys, and you want to know what's inside them, one really you know kind of fun way to do it is to smash the boxes together. The outside of the boxes will break, and then you can see what's inside. This is not totally different than how we find new particles. Moving back to the electron, one way that we can look for electron substructure is by smashing electrons together and seeing what comes out. And we've never observed anything coming out.Saintsing: Okay, so electrons: they're fundamental particles. There's nothing that comes out when we smash them. But I think you're going to say other parts of the atom aren't.Velan: That's exactly correct. So, the proton and the neutron are not fundamental particles. The proton and the neutron are made up of what are called quarks.Saintsing: Okay, so there are quarks in that, and we know that because we smashed together protons?Velan: Yeah, exactly. And we do this all the time. I think we're doing it right now. I can't actually remember at the moment, but the Large Hadron Collider, which is the big particle collider in Geneva, Switzerland, they are smashing protons together.Saintsing: Okay, so we smash things together, and stuff comes out. And so, then we get to the level of fundamental particles, and I guess the… like we use some effect of these fundamental particles on the world around them to see them. And quarks would have a different effect on the world than an electron, and so, we would know that this is a quark and this is an electron.Velan: Absolutely, yeah. And so, we build what's called the Standard Model of particle physics. And in the Standard Model, there are a fixed amount of fundamental particles. There's a finite number of pieces of the puzzle that you can put together to build the universe. The number of fundamental particles is actually higher than you might think. It depends on how you define it, but if you define it in the most generous way possible, then the number that you get is 61.Saintsing: So, we have a bunch of fundamental particles, and we have a bunch of fundamental particles that we have observed, but you're interested in finding that 62nd or however many, and that is the fundamental particle that would be the fundamental to dark matter.Velan: Right, in fact, one of the first things that people thought about when they realized there was this dark matter is (you know the first question you ask is) “well. is it just a particle that we already know exists? Is it one of those 61?” But unfortunately, it's not. We have, you know, tried all of them, and none of them work.Saintsing: What do you mean you've tried them? Like, do you have dark matter?Velan: No, no. By try, it's very easy. You just take the particle, and you understand how it affects the world around it, and you understand how dark matter affects the world around it, and you just say they're not the same. So, I'll give you a great example. So, could dark matter just be comprised of electrons? That's, you know, one of the fundamental particles. Could it just be comprised of electrons? And it can't because the dark matter, one of the really key features of dark matter, is that it doesn't interact with light or else we would have seen it through light. And any particle with an electric charge will interact with light. So, it can't be an electron because those have electric charge, and it can't be a quark because those have electric charge. So, you're able to get rid of a lot of those options that way. Then what you can also say is that, well, the dark matter needs to be long lived. It needs to be relatively stable, meaning if I have the particle, it can't just decay spontaneously. And a lot of the fundamental particles in the Standard Model do decay spontaneously. So, most of the fundamental particles are thrown out because they don't interact. Or they do interact with light which dark matter doesn't. And because they decay rapidly or because they decay rapidly which dark matter doesn't. There is one other category of fundamental particle that we know exists that does not fit in any of these categories, so it's not electrically charged, and it doesn't decay, and it's called the neutrino. Just about every nuclear fusion or fission process will produce neutrinos. So, every nuclear reactor on earth, every nuclear radioactive source, the banana you might have had for breakfast this morning is a little radioactive. If you fly, you're getting exposed to a little bit of radioactivity in the upper atmosphere. All of those are producing neutrinos. It's a very light particle to the point where determining what its mass is is one of the biggest puzzles in physics today. Because it's so light that no one actually knows how heavy it is. Even though we don't know what the mass of the neutrino is we know what's the maximum mass of the neutrino. We know that it is less than a certain number. And that number is far too small to be dark matter. Okay, so we've ruled out based on electrical charge, decay time, and mass. And now, we've eliminated every single one of the fundamental particles we know exists.Saintsing: All right, so now we got to go looking for this fundamental particle.Velan: Exactly. So, there's a whole bunch of types of dark matter particles that people theorize, and I'm going to be… my experiment is looking for just one type of dark matter particle, and that is called the weakly interacting massive particle or WIMP. We've got a lot of fun names in physics. So, the WIMP is a particle with about the mass, somewhere between one and a thousand times the mass of a proton. It's also weakly interacting, meaning that when a WIMP passes by a normal let's say nucleus… let's say a WIMP passes by a proton or a neutron or just the nucleus as a whole, the probability that it interacts with that nucleus is very, very low. But non-zero. So, we say that… okay, let's say the dark matter particle… let's say I'm a dark matter particle, I'm somewhere in space, and I'm making my way towards the Earth. So, I make my way through the atmosphere. I pass by a whole bunch of oxygen and nitrogen and stuff, doesn't matter. I pass through human civilization, there's all these trees and buildings and people, it doesn't matter. I don't notice any of it. I pass through the Earth, and I say, you know, it doesn't matter. I don't notice any of it. I pass through a mile of the Earth's crust, and then I finally get to the LUX-ZEPLIN experiment, or LZ for short. The LZ experiment is located a mile underground in the Black Hills of South Dakota in what used to be the old the largest gold mine in North America. LZ, when built (it was supposed to be completed this year, and then we had a global pandemic, and so as a result things are a bit delayed), but when it is built, the experiment will contain seven tons, that's 7000 kilograms of liquid xenon. So, okay, so I'm a WIMP, and I make it through the Earth and don't notice any of it. I pass into our facility, and I pass into the xenon volume, and then, just by chance, I happen to see a xenon atom, and I happen to collide with its nucleus, a very rare occurrence, but maybe it happens. And then what will occur is that the WIMP will transfer its kinetic energy to the xenon nucleus and produce what's called a nuclear recoil where the nucleus of the atom is kicked. And a lot of kinetic energy has just been transferred to the nucleus of the atom.Saintsing: So, you're going to get like a ripple or something in your xenon tank?Velan: You're going to get quite a ripple indeed. So, what's going to happen is this nuclear recoil is going to be visible in the form of two main signals. So, first off, this nucleus you have one atom to start with, but this nucleus has a lot of kinetic energy so it's going to transfer its energy to the atoms around it. So, you have this one xenon nucleus but it's going to transfer its energy to the stuff around it because it's just a ton of kinetic energy. And so, what you're going to have happen is a lot of the atoms are going to have… are going to be so excited that their electrons are ionized. So, the electrons are just ejected from the atom because there's just so much energy and the electrons are like, “I gotta get out of here.” The second thing that'll happen is some of the atoms will get excited not to the point where the electrons are ionized, but just to the point where they're excited to a higher energy level in the atom. And when they de-excite and when the atom comes back to its what's called its ground state, then that energy will be emitted in the form of light. In the form of light. And so, what you have is these two signals. You have a bunch of electrons that are produced, and you also have a bunch of light that's produced. And we can detect both of those signals using these really sensitive light sensors basically. So you have the light that's detected by these incredibly sensitive detectors called photomultiplier tubes. These are sensors that can detect as low as just one individual photon of light. And then, you also have the charge which is actually converted to light through some process. And then, that light is also measured by the photomultiplier tubes. So, basically in the end what you're seeing is that this nuclear recoil produced this charge and this light and both of them are being detected in our detector by these sensors.Saintsing: I got you. Okay, and so, I assume that it's underground and it's xenon because these are things that will be specific to the WIMP and won't get reactions from other stuff.Velan: So, that's a fantastic question. So, you actually asked two questions. So, let me do both of them. So, the first one is: why are we underground? And the second one is: why do we use xenon? So, to answer both of those actually I need to tell you a bit of a secret, (which is not a secret at all in my field) which is that the story that I just told you while correct also happens for plenty of things that are not dark matter. So, you can have tons of other particles that interact in the xenon and give you nuclear recoils. Or they could interact with the electrons of the atom, and they can give you electron recoils and you just have all these sources of energy being injected into your detector. So, that's not good. So, there's two ways to deal with that, and we do both of them. So, the first way is to just understand all your sources of other activity. So, you just very, very, very carefully understand all your sources of background that exists in your like other stuff that could be interacting in the detector that might mimic your dark matter signal, that might look like dark matter. So, we do that. But then the other thing we do is we just try to build the detector in a way that there are fewer of these background events, that you know there's just as few as possible of these extra events that would occur. Xenon helps because xenon is very, very dense. It's about three times the density of water. Xenon that's close to the walls of the vessel will have a lot of background activity, but what you can do is you can just reject all that stuff, and you can just look in the center of the detector. And in center of detector, it's quiet. There's not much background.Saintsing: I see. I got you. Okay, so you're underground, you're using xenon. You're basically trying as hard as possible to limit whatever you see to these very specific molecules that you're theoretically proving exist.Velan: They're not molecules.Saintsing: Right, right. Particles.Velan: Right, that's exactly right. And I will just say that these interactions are very, very rare. I will give you an example. We expect that in 7 tons of xenon, if we're lucky maybe, we will see a few interactions per year from dark matter particles, from WIMPs, unfortunately.Saintsing: We have run out of time for the interview, so I will have to wrap things up here. Usually at the end of interviews we give a chance for our guests to address the audience on anything that might have come up that they want to go back to, or anything that didn't come up that they'd like to mention. So, is there anything you'd like to address the audience on before the interview wraps up?Velan: Sure, I'll just conclude by saying that the universe is a really fascinating place and filled with a lot of unexpected phenomenon. It turns out that between dark matter and something we didn't talk about at all called dark energy, between those two things, the amount of stuff in the universe that's made up of the same matter as you and me (atoms, protons, neutrons, and electrons) that only makes up less than five percent of the total stuff in the universe. The universe is dominated by dark matter and dark energy. These are two questions. These are two things that we don't understand, and so there is still so much that we don't understand about the universe that allows people who are interested in it to really tackle these questions head on and try to understand what the universe is made of.Saintsing: Nice. Yeah, too bad we… now I need to know more about dark energy.Velan: I can give you an explanation next time, or I can, you know, give you a reference to someone who knows more than I do.Saintsing: Cool, I'll take that reference outside the interview.Velan: Sounds good.Saintsing: Yeah, thanks so much for being on the show, Vetri. It's been a lot of fun learning more about particle physics. Today I've been joined by Vetri Velan from the Department of Physics. We've talked about dark matter and just about regular matter in the universe and how we deal with it in our daily lives and how we can detect it. Again, thanks so much for being on the show.Velan: Thank you so much, Andrew.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.