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Aaron Pomerantz

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Andrew Saintsin: 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 Aaron Pomerantz of the Department of integrated biology. Welcome to the show, Aaron.


Aaron Pomerantz: Thanks for having me, Andrew.


Andrew Saintsin: It's great to have you here. You study butterflies, is that correct?


Aaron Pomerantz: That's right.


Andrew Saintsin: And you actually brought some butterflies with you. They're really cool looking to all our listeners. Unfortunately, you can't see them, but maybe Aaron can describe them for us.


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, for sure. I mean, at least this is what attracted me initially to want to study butterflies because they're very beautiful and they come in all sorts of different colors. And as a scientist I really want to understand where does this color actually come from in the first place.


Andrew Saintsin: So where does the color actually come from?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah. So there's a couple of primary different ways, and this really gets into a fundamental question of where does color come from in any animal? And one primary way that animals can produce coloration is through pigmentation. So I think that's fairly intuitive. We produce pigments in our skin, in our hair. So for instance, Melanin is a common pigment that we produce. And if you get tan you're producing more melanin in your skin. But there's another way, which is really fascinating and it's called structural coloration.


Andrew Saintsin: Okay. What is structural coloration?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, so structural color is a really cool phenomenon where light interacts with a surface and then it can bend into a different wavelength. And so, if you ever think of seeing a rainbow in the sky, or maybe light hitting a prism and then bending into a rainbow of colors, this is that same type of property. So white light comes in and if it interacts with a certain surface, then it can bend into a different wavelength. So animals can take advantage of this property. They can produce what are called Nano structures and these are finely tuned, really, really, really tiny structures where light interacts with them and then can produce a certain type of wavelength.


Andrew Saintsin: Okay, so is there no intrinsic color? No intrinsic pigment colors on these butterfly wings? They're just completely producing it by physics?


Aaron Pomerantz: That's right. So they're using physics to produce a color. And there is at least a little bit of intrinsic properties in how the scale is built. So all these scales are made out of Chitin, and these scales cover butterfly and moth wings. So the order of butterflies and moths is called Lepidoptera. And the Latin roots for these means scale your wing. And all of these butterflies and moths have scales that cover them and then those scales act to either produce a pigment or to produce these nanostructures that can produce a different wavelength, and they can interact in combination too. So this to me is the foundation for why I really thought this was a cool system to work on because you can think of a scale as the unit of color.


Andrew Saintsin: So butterflies might have different colors depending on the light you shine on them?


Aaron Pomerantz: Exactly. One of the wings that I brought with me here is a shiny Blue Morpho butterfly wing. I think these are common butterflies that people might think of if you think of like a blue butterfly. So all I'm doing right now is I have one of these morPHO wings and I'm just rotating it. And based on the angle of light hitting it, the wavelength comes back as slightly different shades. I'd say, an iridescent blue to more of a purple-y. And then on the other side it's completely brown where they're only producing melanin pigmentation.


Andrew Saintsin: Wow, that's really cool. It looks really beautiful.


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, these are very flashy, charismatic butterflies. And it's funny because physicists and mechanical engineers, they've been really interested in these micro and nano structures for a long, long time. And you can take SCM images of these getting electron microscopy, you can look at them in fine detail and you can try and figure out the math that's associated with these physical properties. And then people have taken these nano-structures in nature and then try to apply them. So say things like producing this type of colors that don't fade, producing biophotonics structures. So say you want to make a more effective solar panel or maybe an optical implant in your eye. These are just to name a few of the examples where mechanical engineers have received bio inspiration from butterflies.


Andrew Saintsin: What kind of things can we paint with structural colors?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, I've heard that there are a few companies now, especially car paint that could produce an iridescent color. The cool thing is these structures don't fade. If you leave a pigment out in the sun for a while, it's going to fade over time. You and I have probably walked through the museums here at Berkeley and you see these old specimens that were stuffed decades if not hundreds of years ago. And some of them get quite faded. They look like they've saturated over time. But the next time you look at say a bird in the museum of vertebrate zoology, if it is shiny blue, it's probably not fading. Those little hummingbirds that are iridescent, they're not going to fade over time. And that's because those nano-structures don't fade. Where as if it's just melanin pigmentation or say like an Ommochrome, a different type of pigmentation, those will fade over time.


So those have really cool inherent properties that you can try and apply for different types of engineering purposes. So that's just a name one with color. The other really fascinating thing about these is they have really cool thermodynamic properties and hydrophobicity properties. If I were to take a drop of water on this, it would just fly right off. So there's lots of really inherent cool properties that these insects have made that we're just barely scratching the surface of trying to understand and then apply.


Andrew Saintsin: You have two samples here. Is the other butterfly the same?


Aaron Pomerantz: This is a different one. This is actually a moth. So the distinction between a moth and a butterfly is a little bit ambiguous. Moths as we know, tend to fly at night. They have fluffy antenna because they're using typically less visual systems and more Pheromones to find each other. But in this case, these are called [inaudible] moths. They're really large and beautiful moths. And I'm studying these because they actually have transparent windows in their wings. And this is a main focus of my PhD research, which is actually the evolution of transparency in butterflies and moths. So as much as we love them for their beautiful colors, some of them have actually gone on to evolve properties that make them transparent.


There's probably many different reasons why they're becoming transparent. But at least in one case there's an interesting property where they have what are called anti-reflective nanostructures. So in this case, light hits their nanostructures and then passes through more effectively. And this is a really cool application that some mechanical engineers want to apply to solar panels, for instance.


Andrew Saintsin: So why do they want the light to pass through?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah. That's one thing that a human would want to take this property and apply it to something else. But why do these animals want to be transparent? There's one really cool example of a group that I study in central and South America and they're called the Glass Wings. It's kind of an interesting group because they live in the Amazon rainforest or under dark canopies. And so the light level is very low in these type of jungle environments. And so to be transparent, it might actually be a form of camouflage because it actually very hard to see, especially when they're flying around and they'll all go into the shadows and they basically just vanish. So it seems like it's an interesting property where they've evolved transparency as a mechanism to go unseen, to be invisible.


Andrew Saintsin: Oh, that's really cool. Can they see each other or do they have other ways of interacting with each other?


Aaron Pomerantz: That's a really good question. And that's something that myself and collaborators are interested in studying. You Butterflies, they have the ability to see certain colors that we as humans can't see. So for instance, they can see ultraviolet light whereas we can't see ultraviolet. And there are certain groups of butterflies where they've evolved to have certain types of structural color patterns that are made in the UV spectrum. So they can see it and they'll use it as a way to communicate, but it might be sort of a secret channel that they're using to see one another that is hidden to other, maybe vertebrates like predators.


Andrew Saintsin: Are there any predators of butterflies and moths that have evolved the ability to see ultraviolet light?


Aaron Pomerantz: So it turns out a lot of birds are able to see UV. I don't know if all of them are, this is a good question. We could go ask someone over in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. But there are reptiles and birds that have evolved UV obstinance. Even birds can have ultraviolet patterns in their feathers. As humans, I feel like we're left out. We never got the UV obstinance. But many, many animals have evolved this ability to see UV.


Andrew Saintsin: Yeah, we are getting left out. It's a bummer.


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah.


Andrew Saintsin: [Crosstalk] infrared, ultraviolet, [Crosstalk 00:08:23].


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, we got stuck with the RGB color space, which is pretty lame.


Andrew Saintsin: Lame. Okay. So you study these questions from the perspective of the geneticists, right?


Aaron Pomerantz: That's right.


Andrew Saintsin: So what are you looking at? Are you looking at the genes that encode for these scale morphologies, scale colors, pigments?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, that's exactly right. And again, people like physicists and mechanical engineers, they've looked at these structures for a long time. And the problem with that is you're steadying the final form. It's an adult butterfly, it might be a pin specimen and you're looking at this final product of a structure, whether it's a nano-structure or a scale formation. So the perspective that we try to understand in the Patel lab is what is the development of the structure in the first place? What are the pieces of DNA that encode for it? And then how does the structure actually form in an animal? And so it's sort of from this genetics and a developmental perspective that we try and understand where transparency, scale development and these nanostructures come from.


Andrew Saintsin: Oh, that's really interesting, especially because caterpillars, they have to go through metamorphosis to become butterflies. So you have to look at development through this stage when they're in the cocoon [Crosstalk] really complicated.


Aaron Pomerantz: It's challenging, right? So, we probably all at some point, at least maybe in a classroom, or for fun, raised a caterpillar or at least seen the process of metamorphosis. It's really incredible, right? You've got a caterpillar and it looks nothing like a butterfly, but it goes through this amazing metamorphosis process and it's during that time when a caterpillar turns into a pupa that it's building its wings and it's building those colors and structures. So we've done a bit of work really just watching what this process is like. It's hidden inside of the pupa, so we can't actually just watch it. And we've developed techniques in our lab that allow us to actually peer in and just create timelapses of this developmental process.


This is something that I was really interested in when I first came to the lab. You do a little bit of a surgical procedure on a caterpillar. So believe it or not, the wings of a butterfly are present even when it's in a caterpillar stage and it's called an imaginal disc. And so this ball of cells has all of the information to eventually become a wing. So what happens is we can basically take this little ball of cells out when it's a caterpillar then when it turns into a Pupa, it's missing a piece of its wing, but now it's developing properly and you can create a time lapse of the wing developing. So we've got these really cool videos that are online and I can share the link. You can watch the entire process unfold. Everything from the wing expands, scales develop, and then the colors come in like a flash, like a Polaroid picture developing just about 24 hours before it becomes a full butterfly.


Andrew Saintsin: Wow, that's really cool. I've heard that butterflies when, or in the process where the caterpillar is transforming in the cocoon that all the cells sort of dissociate. Why is there a region on the caterpillar that will eventually become the wing if all of the cells just associate anyway?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, I've heard that too. I think there's this idea that it turns kind of into soup and then reforms completely. And that's true to a certain extent. I mean there's a lot of change that has to happen in this body to get you from a caterpillar to butterfly, right? So it's undergoing a really, really amazing amount of developmental change. cells are breaking down, they're reforming, they're growing, but it doesn't completely turn into soup. There are some of these core cells that are tucked away even at the larval stage. And so there are imaginable discs, not only for wings, but for legs, antenae, many other parts of the body don't completely break down. And that's probably important. These are cells that are set aside, so it does undergo really, really amazing change, but not everything turns into soup.


Andrew Saintsin: I see. Okay. Do you change things in the genome of these butterflies? Do you actually make color changes happen? Change the transparency?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, we do. It's a really cool time I think to be involved in this work, in part because molecular biology is changing very rapidly. When it comes to actually decoding and sequencing DNA, that process is getting at least cheaper and more affordable, it's becoming easier to do. So for instance, if you want to sequence the genome of an organism that's becoming more achievable. And then there's been advancements in gene editing technologies. So being here at Berkeley, I think most everyone has sort of CRISPR developed by a Jennifer Doudna's lab here. And that really is a game changer because now you can basically hone in on a segment of DNA in basically any organism and then just cut it. And what that will do is it will shut that gene off.


So now you can start to infer the function of genes of interest just by cutting it up with CRISPR Cas9 and seeing what that effect will be. And that's exactly what scientists are doing in the space of butterfly coloration whether it's through pigments or patterning genes, or in our case genes that might be involved in scale development we can just start to CRISPR these out and see what happens.


Andrew Saintsin: Have you found anything really cool, really interesting?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah. So, it was probably last year where I started out with some of these CRISPR experiments and I figured a good place to start would be just to control gene for patterning. And there was a postdoc in our lab a couple of years ago and his name is Arno Martin, and he's been really interested. When he was a PhD student and when he came to our lab was to investigate pattern formation in butterfly wings. So before colors come in and before scales even grow, there are certain genes that are laid down and they create a specific type of pattern. And a gene he was particularly interested in is a gene called Wind A.


And that will set up a certain pattern in the middle region of the wings. And when you knock that out, you just completely delete this wing pattern. And so that's one that I've used and it works really well and basically you get a perfectly normal butterfly, but it's just missing sort of a pattern. It's like you've taken an eraser and just sort of erased out a piece of the pattern on a butterfly wing.


Andrew Saintsin: Interesting. But it still has color on the wing?


Aaron Pomerantz: It will still have color in other parts of the wing, but this one, it just kind of looks like you took a whiteout and just completely eliminated it. And so that's a really powerful way to investigate gene patterns and colors because another gene is involved in pigmentation, it's called Yellow. And another lab at Cornell and RISELab has been doing a lot of work doing CRISPR knockouts on pigmentation genes. So I would say this is sort of the trend where we're learning a bit more about how these pigmentations come in. But to be honest, we're really, really just scratching the surface of the structural coloration. We don't really know what genes are involved in creating a nanostructure or how a scale becomes a certain thickness to produce a certain wavelength. And that's the focus of our lab.


It's a bit more challenging because we know a lot about pigmentation genes, but we're really, really just starting to scratch the surface when it comes to scale development and nono-structure formation.


Andrew Saintsin: Yeah, that's, that's interesting to think about it that way. The genes have to be so tightly regulated because they have to be exactly the right size on the order of nanometers?


Aaron Pomerantz: Exactly.


Andrew Saintsin: Wow.


Aaron Pomerantz: So there's one butterfly that another graduate student in my lab, Rachel Thayer works on, and she works on a butterfly called a Buckeye. And that one can be either a brown in coloration or blue and coloration. And the difference between those two very distinct colors is just nanometers scale thickness in their scales. And so you can imagine just by finely tuning, you can be thicker or thinner and you can turn anywhere from like a gold color to a purple color just by finely tuning to a nano-scale level. So she's doing some cool experiments to try and pinpoint that. On my end, I'm trying to focus a little bit more on how scales form in the first place, because one might imagine if you can alter that pathway, you might eliminate a scale and then maybe you can become one of these transparent butterflies.


Andrew Saintsin: That's really cool.


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah.


Andrew Saintsin: This is your reminder that you're listening to The Graduates. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and I'm speaking today with Aaron Pomerantz. So you mentioned a little while ago about how it's become ways easier to study genetics, right? And actually you've been using the new technology in genetics to kind of go out into the field and study things outside of a lab, right?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, exactly. Before I started my PhD here, I was actually conducting fieldwork in Peru in a place called the Tambopata Research Center. And this is in the Amazon rain forest. It's a really, really beautiful forest. It was kind of in between Grad School for me. I had finished a masters degree at the University of Florida and I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I joined a friend on a trip to Peru and that actually turned into a job opportunity. They sort of invited me to come back and be a field biologist. So I did that. I made several trips to the Amazon rainforest and it was a blast. I mean, just walking around trying to find... I mean, to me it felt like playing Darwin, I was just wandering around rainforest, trying to take pictures, describe life histories of organisms that I had never seen before. And it was a really incredible experience.


And it was during my time working out there that I realized the challenges that are associated with doing this type of field work. So for instance, it's hard to take equipment out into the field with you. And the rainforest, as the name applies, rains a lot, so this can ruin electronic gear. All of these things make it challenging to actually conduct scientific research. So I sort of stumbled on a portable microscope, and this is what I was looking at because our facility out there had a microscope that had been eaten alive by fungi. But I was looking for some sort of alternatives to portable tech like this. So I found the Foldscope and this was developed by a researchers at Manu Prakasha's lab at Stanford University. And what it is, it's an origami paper microscope. You just sort of assemble it, you put a lens in there, and then you've got a $1 microscope.


Yeah, it was really cool. And so I took it out to the field and I used it and this got me really excited about what else can become cheaper and more portable in the realm of science. And then how could this impact field work as well as science education? Because I think if you have cheap portable tools, then it becomes more accessible to people outside of big universities like this. At the time I had also stumbled on this early access program from a company called Oxford Nanopore Technologies. And they had developed the first ever handheld DNA sequencer.


Andrew Saintsin: How does a handheld DNA sequencer work?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, it's really interesting. So this company developed this and it works with what's called Nanopore Technology, and a Nanopore, if you think about it, it's just a super, super, super tiny hole. And it's so tiny that one strand of DNA can slip through. And how it works is there's an electric current running through where these nanopores are embedded in a membrane. And then as DNA goes through, there's a change in the ionic current that's passing through. This is important because if you think about what DNA is, it's composed of four nucleotides, A, T, G and C. Each one of those chemical compounds gives off a slightly different electrical output when it passes through the nanopore. So just by measuring a change in current as it passes through, you can tell which base it is. An A passed through it, and then a C, and then a T and so on. And this is how you can rapidly sequence or decode DNA.


Andrew Saintsin: Wow. So a strand of DNA is passing through a hole and you're measuring as each individual base goes through the change in current?


Aaron Pomerantz: Exactly.


Andrew Saintsin: That's incredible.


Aaron Pomerantz: It's really cool. And this also allows it to be very portable for those not super familiar with DNA sequencing technologies. There are a few sequencers out there that primarily use like Sanger sequencing, Illumina sequencing, PacBio sequencing. These are all different types of platforms that different companies have developed, but they're all pretty massive, like the size of a refrigerator, let's say. But this portable sequencer, it's smaller than a cell phone these days. I mean our cell phones are getting pretty big. I'd say it's more like a Kit Kat bar almost.


Andrew Saintsin: Wow.


Aaron Pomerantz: So it's pretty tiny and it plugs into your laptop. And so really you can put your DNA sample, run it on your laptop and this allows it to be portable. And so I've even taken it out to the Amazon rainforest several times now where we've done real time DNA sequencing out in a jungle.


Andrew Saintsin: So, you see an animal that you're interested in, you maybe take a blood sample and just kind of stick a drop of blood in this device?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, more or less. So it sort of depends what kind of question, what type of DNA or even RNA you want to sequence. If let's say you just gave me a cheek swab right now or a blood sample, we could extract the DNA from that and then you could run that DNA on the sequencer. And since it's all of your DNA molecules, it would basically be coverage of your entire genome. But let's say we weren't trying to get your entire genome because it's really big, and it's expensive, and it's a difficult thing to do. We might just want to copy one of your genes and then use that to identify you, let's say, so this is what's called a DNA bar coding. You basically just look for a specific gene that you're interested in sequencing and that's what you can put on the sequencer.


So this could allow you to do things like, if you're just interested in identifying species or maybe let's say a pathogen or this bacteria or a virus, you can use PCR polymerase chain reaction and this allows you to copy just one piece of DNA. And so this allows you to pull lots and lots of samples and then you can run all of that on one of the sequencer.


Andrew Saintsin: Are you doing PCRs out in the jungle too?


Aaron Pomerantz: Primarily, yeah, that's been one of the goals is to do this really rapid DNA bar coding. And so when I was working at the rainforest, I realized even as an entomologist, it's very hard to identify things. You can look at the morphology of an organism, but unless you're an expert in that specific group, it can be really hard to identify things. But you can use DNA to identify things. It's in a lot of ways more powerful and it gives you a more concrete answer. And if you want to identify new species, this is sort of common practice these days is to include genetic information. And especially if it's during an outbreak, let's say. So researchers have used the same type of technology to go out during outbreaks, whether it was the Ebola outbreak from 2014, 2015 or recently the Zika outbreak in Brazil. So if people are getting sick and you want to identify what pathogen it is, you can use this same technique.


Andrew Saintsin: That's really cool. So you mentioned at the start of this discussion about DNA bar coding, that this is great for science education. So actually you've already used this technology in a class?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, we had our first ever class this past summer where we tried to apply this. And I've used this in Ecuador. We had some funding through the National Geographic Society to test this out early on, two summers ago. And I've taken it back out to Peru to do a bit of testing, but we had never done it with students. And to me this seemed like a really cool application because I think, at least for me, when I was in school, I wasn't really that into genetics. I thought it was like pretty boring to be honest. And maybe that's because I had only sat in classes and listen to someone lecture about it. And it wasn't until I started to get my hands on these actual tools in a lab as an undergraduate and then into Grad school that I really got interested.


And to me, I think hands-on is the best way of learning, not just for myself but for a lot of people. So that's why I'm really interested in this because I think when students can get their hands on this stuff, they can realize it's not that complicated. Anyone can extract DNA, anyone can do these molecular experiments and now anyone can sequence DNA. And that was the whole goal, and do it out in the jungle. So that's exactly what we did. This was through an called Field Projects International. And they're a nonprofit. It was set up by a couple of graduate students and they just run field courses. And the only difference is we had sort of a classical field biology course and then we brought some of these tools down to run what we call the genomics in the jungle course.


Andrew Saintsin: So how did the course go?


Aaron Pomerantz: It was awesome. To be honest, I didn't really know what to expect. I didn't know who was going to register. It was open to anyone, it didn't have to be a student or a certain age group or anything, but we had all sorts of different students register for this course. Some were in their first year of Grad schools, some were postdocs, some were undergraduates, some weren't even students at all. To me that was cool to get a mixture of people together with different backgrounds. Some were local Peruvian students and that to me was a great experience because we could split them up into teams of people who are maybe a little bit more advanced in molecular techniques to people who had never picked up like a pipette before. In the end it was successful I would say, because we were able to go through all of the steps involved with these molecular experiments and we were able to sequence it and get our answers in real time.


Andrew Saintsin: So had you set up labs like, you wanted to answer this question that you had already come up with or did you say, "Hey, we're out in the jungle, you guys can go answer whatever question you want?"


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, that's a good question. It was a bit of both. So some of these specimens we had already collected like, butterflies in their host plants from a nearby researcher, some were from Heller monkeys and we wanted to look at their microbiome, their bacteria makeup from different populations. And then some of them they could just go out into the field and collect. And so it was a mixture of sort of open questions and to me that was really exciting because it's the Amazon rainforest. There's tons of things that are unknown. And so the first portion of the course was actually just hiking through the jungle, I'm doing fieldwork, collecting samples, and then learning how to process those. You have to extract the DNA. Maybe you're doing PCR and then you have to prepare it to run on that nanopore sequencer.


Andrew Saintsin: So did anyone find anything that no one had known before in this class or was it anyone make any new discoveries?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, I think so. One of the challenges when you are trying to know if you have, let's say a new species is it takes a lot of work. Sometimes it's hard to just sequence something and say, "Oh yes, this is for sure new." I think there are probably things that were sequenced, and I'll give you one example of something that I think was really interesting. One of the course instructors had been catching bats out in the rainforest and the bats are really hard to identify. So that was very helpful to use DNA to identify these bats. But even cooler, I think as we looked at the parasites living on the bats, so these are called ecto parasites. Anything from like ticks to fleas to a weird type of fly that lives on bats. It's in a family called [inaudible 00:26:28].


And they look super weird. If you get a chance to Google that. They're really, really weird looking flies that live on bats. But some of these could very well be undescribed. It's the Amazon rainforest and these are really odd arthropod critters that are very diverse. So those were some of the ones that sequenced and we got back data. So I think overall this will eventually go into potentially new descriptions.


Andrew Saintsin: So you think as you continue this class, you'll be able to like kind of merge your science education with your own research and maybe get papers for yourself out of it?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it's been a fun process. I started this passion before I started Grad School. So it's been kind of interesting to seeing if I can integrate things, make it part of a coherent thesis. But in any case, it's just been really rewarding for me as a graduate student to do these new courses, test out this new technology, work with the companies a bit. So to me that's a really rewarding experience paper or not. I think, in the future we we're already planning another course next year. Some of those course instructors are going to try and do one in India. I would love to do some of these more locally, like at UC Berkeley too. So I think there's a lot of potential and a lot of interest because the barrier to entry is not that high and I think it's a really rewarding experience.


Andrew Saintsin: Yeah, it's a great time to be in science, especially for a non-scientist or for people who haven't formally been trained as scientists. There's all these opportunities to get involved in data collection and all this stuff.


Aaron Pomerantz: Exactly. Yeah, citizens, scientists, ways to communicate, ways to gather data or work with scientists. There are definitely more opportunities than at least, maybe when when we were younger. I mean, when I was in high school I don't think there was anything quite like this. And this is in part due to developments in technology which have really just come about in the last few years. So I'm excited to see where it keeps going. I hope the price continues to drop and just become more accessible for learning opportunities.


Andrew Saintsin: Wow, that's really great. So are you interested in continuing on as a science educator researcher? Are you interested in being a professor at a university?


Aaron Pomerantz: I would love to do something that enables the ability to do scientific research and do science education. So I don't know exactly if that's going to be 100% academic path or appointment, those are hard to get no matter what. And that's a tough gig to get these days. I like museums. I like the Cal Academy of Sciences because I think that's a cool mixture between science outreach and doing research. But yeah, I'll just have to keep working and see what kind of opportunities open up. I mean, in part working with biotech companies is really interesting to me too because they're developing these new tools. A lot of them have an interest in this type of outreach work. So I'm trying to keep my options open and do the best I can as a scientist and keep up with science outreach as well.


Andrew Saintsin: Cool. So we're reaching the end of the program. Are there any thoughts you'd like to leave the audience with? Anything at all?


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, I mean, if you're listening and you found any of this school, whether it's structural coloration or portable sequencing technologies, feel free to get in touch. I'll be here at UC Berkeley for the next year and then move out to the marine biological laboratory, which is in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where my advisor has just become the new director, Nipam Patel. There are lots of cool opportunities, but feel free to get in touch. And especially if you're interested in these types of courses too I would love to hear. So you can follow me on Twitter, I'm @AaronPomerantz. On Instagram, it's @nextgenscientist. So I love doing social media outreach, and I'd love to be in touch.


Andrew Saintsin: Today I've been speaking with Aaron Pomerantz. We talked about how he has been studying structural color in butterflies and transparency and moths. And then we talked a little bit about his experience getting more involved in science outreach and science education. There's a lot of cool technology out there and it's a great time for everyone, not just formally trained scientists to get involved with science. Thank you so much for being on the show today Aaron.


Aaron Pomerantz: Yeah, thanks a bunch, Andrew.


Andrew Saintsin: Tune in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.

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Kelly Ziemer

Keywords: self-transcendence, self-love, positive emotions, therapy, intervention, depressionAndrew Saintsing: Hi, you’re tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm AndrewSaintsing, 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 KellyZiemerfrom the School of Social Welfare. Welcome to the show, Kelly.Kelly Ziemer: Oh, thanks for having me, Andrew.Saintsing: It's so great to have you here.Ziemer: Thank you. Fun to geek out about research always.Saintsing: Nice, that's what we're all about on this show.Ziemer: Yes.Saintsing: So, you study positive emotions, right?Ziemer: Yes, I think specifically positive emotions that really intrigued me – there are subsets of positive emotions, and they are called self-transcendent emotions, and it's this idea that when you - I'll give you an example in a second – but the idea that when you experience a particular emotion it actually like takes you out of yourself with the ability to connect you to other people.Saintsing: Okay, yeah.Ziemer: So, you transcend yourself essentially, right? With the purpose of connecting you with others, so like creating social connections.Saintsing: So, like what kind of emotion would that be?Ziemer: Yeah, so ones that are talked about frequently are emotion of like gratitude for example. Awe is one of my favorite emotions and actually what really started my interest in positive emotions. So, Dacher Keltner here in Psychology studies awe. The research has been I think maybe 10 years now, 10 to 15 years on, and so, rather in its infancy still. But, awe is really this experience of when you are presented with this like mind-blowing stimulus that you can’t really even comprehend, and a lot of people, they realize they're in awe when they're like, wow. Like wow is like this vocal reaction, right? So, a lot of our research comes out of nature, so like the Grand Canyon for example, or like beauty, music, and so, it's this idea that you then feel relatively small in this like greater vastness, but there's something kind of bigger than you out there, right?Saintsing: Yes.Ziemer: And, awe could be negative, too, right? It could be, it could be like a tornado. It could be a person, that you're like, how did that happen? How did they get into power? I’m in Berkeley, so I think I'm safe to say that here.Saintsing: Yeah, I think you’re safe to say that anywhere. Well, maybe not. So, so there's this like speechlessness about awe that's like really yeah. Is that kind of fundamental to the self-transcendence, or…Ziemer: No, not specifically more self-transcendence is like you are really kind of taken out of yourself so you're focusing on yourself less. It's kind of like this – sometime, I mean oftentimes self-transcendence is spoken around like a spiritual religious context, but it really is this idea that we're connecting with someone else so in like in cooperation or caretaking. Like compassion for example is a self-transcendent emotion. Some emotion researchers would say that these are.Saintsing: So, it's self-transcendent because you're –Ziemer: Go aheadSaintsing: With awe, you're connecting with someone else because you both have this like awestruck reaction with something, and you can relate more because it seems like you're reacting to some – I mean aside from maybe when you're in awe of a person in particular – but it seems like you're in awe of some spectacular vision, or…Ziemer: Yes, and you could be by yourself, right?Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: You could be by yourself in the Grand Canyon, but because you kind of recognize that you're the smaller sense of self, that you, that there's something greater than then you out there, that it then leads you – and I think perhaps and maybe I'm even overstating here, but I don't know if they fully understand the mechanisms of why it leads to social connection, but just they call it in research literature they call it pro-social, so the ability to like be in awe allows you to be more altruistic, more generous, to want to help out other people because you realize that you're not alone essentially. But, there is a bigger thing out there than you, this like collective value.Saintsing: Oh, yeah. That's really interesting is that that kind of, you know, thinking about religion, right? Where you have – I think all religions but I guess I'm not sure – it would have this belief in God would generally inspire awe in someone believed in that. And so, is that kind of the basis of religion having this community like tapping into this community building sense of awe?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, definitely. The origins of awe – I couldn't – when scholars write about awe they oftentimes reference, like, reverence to God. It's kind of mind-blowing concept, and you feel like there's something greater than you out there, so to speak. But, then you're coming together as a community, yeah, but around this belief,Saintsing: Right. So, there's more emotions than just awe that would through self-transcendence allow this community-building?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, so oftentimes folks also speak about gratitude that way. They speak about self-compassion. Now mind you there's a lot of disagreement amongst the emotional world, so I don't even want to get into like the semantics. What I think is important to share, though, most specifically to my interests is, I think, some would say that love is also this self-transcendent trait. So, my own research interests over the past few years have really evolved into this idea of self-love and it's been an interesting journey for sure. As I started talking about self-love with folks over the past, I don't know, eight months or so from a research perspective because there's such a gradient, a spectrum so to speak of how people see self-love. So, if I go back to the self-transcendent nature, how I see self-love is self-love really has this ability to take us out of ourselves to then connect to others so we're focusing on ourselves like filling up our own love tank so to speak with the ability to then show up for others more and to connect more because if I'm feeling really good in myself and I'm taking care of myself that means I have more bandwidth to show up for other people as opposed to if my love tank is empty if my self-love is low then I'm doing things perhaps with expectations of receiving in return. When that's not happening, I'm feeling resentful and all that is very like negative low vibration feeling within ourselves, and ultimately, it's not the type of connection that we're searching for, right? To me self-love – and I'll say that if I can to give you a definition of self-love – one of the folks I've seen written about it the most, who wrote about the most is a psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, and he wrote a book called The Art of Loving, I believe. It was like in the five different types of love, I believe. It's like it's a hundred-page book, and it's really easy to read, and it talks about like five different types of love, like a love for God, a love from your parents. It talks about like a brotherly love – and that’s more like a friendship kind of feeling – but he also talks about this love for self, and it's this idea of caring for, respecting of yourself and your actions in the way that you're going about your life, and it's this stagnant – for me, I think it really is a stagnant way of being, so when there are adversities and when we have to be resilient, right, self-love is so important, but even when things are going great, right, like self-love is still a constant thing, and it's, I think, it's actually tied to other emotions that when we are in a state of self-love we actually experience calm and joy, and we're able to be more aware for these other opportunities to opt in to connection, right?Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: But I think – if I can just say – I think there's a myth I'd really like to bust actually about self-love, which is I think oftentimes there is this, there's this idea that emerged I think in the 80s maybe, or the 90s – I'm blanking on my timeframe right now – came out of the self-help movement which is, which was to say that like before, before you can love anyone else or anyone can really love you that you have to love yourself first, right? So, which for me I find problematic in a lot of ways. I feel like it doesn't really encapsulate the full story. I think that when we are really loving ourselves, sure I think perhaps we're choosing better partners or choosing better relationships that are healing and wonderful for us, right? But, I think – and I see this in this self-love movement right now – that kind of happens in pop culture that puts such an onus or a burden on people to really like, there's almost a perfectionism tendency of, like, I need to get to self-love. Otherwise I'm not good enough, and yeah, and this idea of like not being good enough, that's truly not self-love anyway, right? It really is a self-accepting piece, and so, I think the second part of this, also this myth I want to bust, is that, you know, we are wired for social connection, right? There are researchers, and Brené Brown has talked about this. Matthew Lieberman talks about this, and like an actual brain part of our brain literally is like wired to connect, and so, if I go back to this idea of self-love that, when we are opting into relationships and connection with people, that it can the reciprocal nature can be so healing within ourselves that we don't have to first achieve this like unachievable self-love before we can get into relationships with other people, okay? So, did I explain myself okay there?Saintsing: Yeah, you, so you're saying that self-love has this requirement that you accept yourself as you are, right? Which I guess is true of any sort of love, right?Ziemer: Yeah.Saintsing: Whether it’s directed inward or outward, right, there's this acceptance to it.Ziemer: Lovely, yeah.Saintsing: And so, you're saying that people tend to view self-love as something that they earn from themselves.Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, I think that's a great. Right. There's this like earning quality, and I think that's really well said. That it's like, to earn implies I have to do, to do, to obtain, obtain, obtain as opposed to like self-love just is because I exist, because you exist right here right now, right? And, that's my like mindfulness piece kind of tapping in there a little bit, but it just is.Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: It's, it's been interesting when I talk to – so my own research interest about like what am I actually studying for my PhD, because I'm a social worker, I'm also very much interested in like interventions like what can we do alongside our clients, alongside our community. What can we do in tandem with them to kind of get them this outcome that they're looking for. So, perhaps it's like feeling better about themselves if they're experiencing depression for example, right?Saintsing: Right.Ziemer: And, with self-love I started thinking about, is there a self-love intervention that would be really interesting to try out and study in some way from this like scientifically rigorous procedure for a scientific research method, right? And, when I started talking to people about, there's a common one that is spoken about in self-help, and I've also found it prevalent in addiction communities in like rehab, for example, where you look at yourself in the mirror you make, you literally make eye contact with yourself in the mirror, and you say something positive about yourself. So, I prefer that it's not statements related to like your physical appearance because I do think that it could take like a narcissistic trend, but we're really thinking about like a self-affirming statement, like I'm a good friend or even – I think and really I'm such a fan of this is – really just telling yourself that you love yourself. So, saying like I love you in the mirror while you're making eye contact with yourself. To me, to love, to love somebody else is to say like, I see you, and so self-love, you're really like, okay I see you, you know? Like, you're not that bad. Like, you're actually pretty great, and I will tell you that when I've talked to so many people about this, adolescents, I've spoken to clients of mine who are coming to see me wanting to feel better from depression, I've spoken to scholars about this, and so many people, I get two reactions. One is like absolute repulsion about absolutely not. I will not look at myself in the mirror. Like, this is, why would I ever do that, and two, I think going back to this idea that you were talking about. It's almost like confusion about well like why would I even think about myself. Why would I love myself as like this other entity, but I'm so focused on, you know, loving everybody else. That really to love is to love others, right? Like in scholarly research, we talk about one of the definitions of love is like being a trusted caregiver to others. I mean that's a very amended definition, but love is always this other-oriented emotion, and so, self-love, it's like, like why would I, why would I even do that.Saintsing: It's kind of like awe in some senses. In awe you sort of see something spectacular that makes you see how small you are or how much more there is.Ziemer: Yeah.Saintsing: And, in this self-love you have to see yourself as just another person instead of like where love is flowing from, right? But, self-love kind of like makes you realize you're not like the center of the universe or something. That you're, that you're just another person, and that like, that, that makes you more able, as you said in the self-transcendence, to connect with other people, I guess.Ziemer: I think this is actually why I feel so strongly about self-love is because I think this exact idea that you're talking about is folks who are experiencing depression or addiction, for example right? So, I'm actually, I'm funded. My dissertation is funded through the NIAAA, which is alcohol abuse and I work specifically with the funder here in the Bay Area that alcohol research group. So, oftentimes when we're experiencing addiction or depression we become so tunnel vision in our own mind about what's wrong with ourselves, how things aren't working for me and when we're in depression and addiction, often social isolation is happening it's very difficult to connect to others. And so, I'm such a believer that self-love could have the potential, and this is where I'm curious, right? Like, so from, you know, I'm hearing like my mentors and my advisors’ thoughts in my head right now about, you know, sometimes in the scientific world it can almost be a negative to be a believer, right? That, I think like self-love is a super power. But, I really need to employ my like scientifically rigorous, you know, unbiased view so to speak. Let's be curious about this. Could self-love actually be a superpower? As opposed to like approaching this self-love as a superpower, right? So, I should – let me reel it back for a second to say that, however, yes I do feel like, coming back to this point of awe, that, that self-love definitely, I would hypothesize, leads to feelings of awe because of this ability to connect us to other people, and that it gets us out of our own head. I think my greater vision for my research is to think like how can we employ self-love. It's free. It’s accessible, which I like, right, because a lot of these other therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy. Although I'm a believer, you see there's an access issue. If you go to a private practitioner in New York City, it's $200. I think San Francisco, it's 150, 200. So, my greater vision really would be for people to be able to really continue to cultivate this self-love within themselves.Saintsing: More specifically, what, what would you say your research for your PhD actually entails?Ziemer: Yeah, so yeah, thanks to that questions. I think self-love first. I was just kind of thinking of self-love, I think of, is this like umbrella term, this idea that if self-love is an umbrella and the prongs. There are many different prongs. So, to me it's this idea of like self-compassion, which is like when we're judging ourselves, criticizing ourselves, we’re able to accept ourselves, you know, amidst that. Self-care, which is like the respecting, doing things, really acting caring towards ourselves. This self-esteem idea, right, that we feel competent about ourselves. So, so the reason that I say this kind of umbrella term is because there's little research out there right now that that actually includes self-love, certainly how I know it to be true in these in therapeutic communities, for example. So, I'm so fascinated by, I'll say, phenomena of self-love in popular science in like the Psychology Today blogs, on social media. Like, if you go to Instagram and you type in #selflove, you get 32 million posts on Instagram. Google, you Google self-love, you get three billion returns. So, something is happening out there. What is it? So, I think what the, to me, the intriguing pieces. So, before I can go ahead and develop an intervention, right, even though I really want to jump to that phase, we know that a PhD that you have to take little bits by bits, right? That is actually talking about a career-long pursuit. So, it really, my own research really is conceptualizing this idea of self-love in these lay theory views. So, when I say lay theory I don't mean like scholars who have already written about self-love. I mean people who are on Instagram, and they're posting about self-love, so right now I'm in the process of thinking about perhaps analyzing Instagram posts to see how people, what sort of images people are posting when they're doing #selflove, and specifically within the context of like addiction and sobriety and recovery and that, so where these two worlds of like self-love and addiction intersects and how are people and these lay communities, you know, these therapists, everyday people, how are they talking about self-love? I'm really curious to kind of dig through that because I see, I do see some posts that could be it seen as narcissism, right? Right? I see posts that are very much moving away from this like self-care realm. So, so self-care really is rooted in this like black feminist queer theory, Audrey Lorde. This idea that like you're taking care of yourself so that you can show up for the collective, and this really activist mentality to now this transition of like #selfcareday Starbucks ad with your Frappuccino, whatever. On the beach, #selfcare, right? This is like commoditization, right, of self-care, and people there's you know, so there's, there's like #selfcare, #selflove, but what are we really talking about here? And, I'm so curious to kind of capture some of that, to also include therapists’ voices, people in recovery to kind of see like, what, what is this idea of, of self-love to them?Saintsing: Okay, so you draw on psychology, sociology, lots of different research techniques.Ziemer: Yeah, behavioral health.Saintsing: Yeah, so would you say that's generally true? People who are getting PhDs in the School of Social Welfare, that this is really interdisciplinary?Ziemer: Yeah, what a lovely question. Yes, thank you for saying that. This is why I love social work so much by the way. I really love the social work profession because I do feel like you know in this applied profession we really are always working in these interdisciplinary environments, right? If you're like a clinician working in a hospital you're working with doctors and nurses and psychiatrists for example, right?Saintsing: Right.Ziemer: And so, I think the beauty of this PhD at Berkeley in the Social Welfare Department has so much been about the freedom to connect with other professors and other departments. It's, so in public health for example I've connected with some professors there or some psychology whether it's emotions research or like adolescent development psychopathology for example. So, and I have, yeah, I have you know lovely people in my cohort who are bridging the gap with like anthropology, criminology, for example, so yeah, education. It's really, it's cool.Saintsing: And, you knew that you wanted to be a social worker right out of college?Ziemer: I took a very interesting path. I think I always knew, like in high school, I always was intrigued by the psychology profession, and yeah, I was, I was thought, you know, I'm so drawn to like authenticity and people's lives. Like, what's really happening, you know? I always was drawn to that, but when I was in college, I went to the University of Wisconsin, and they had a great business school, and so, I got a business degree, and I actually, my family, I come from, you know, a long line of people who are in the business world. My dad had been in sales for so long. My brother’s in sales now. My mom was, you know, this is like badass. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. Badass in the corporate world. So, it was always kind of an influence for me, and I did, I was a consultant, an IT consultant, but I realized, like, yeah, I need to, I felt like there was something, my soul was dying. I really wanted to pursue something that I was so excited and curious about, so yeah, about eight years ago I got my Masters in Social Work. I started my MSW program in New York City. That coincided too with some things that were happening in my family, and it just felt like the right time to like leave the corporate world and dive into the Social Work arena.Saintsing: And then, you, you got your masters, and then you worked a little while as a social worker, right?Ziemer: Yeah, so I I did my MSW. It’s a two-year program, and then I was working in New York City for three years at an after school, like a high school Support Program. It was an after-school program, and it was, I mean, I learned so much. It was incredible. I have such love. It's, the program is to reach youth and it's a working at a public high school in Brooklyn, and I think there, maybe, I don't know, our team was maybe ten people or something, and I have such love to this day for these people that I worked with. I mean the environment was so fun. Like, you – we were, we were working with teenagers, teenagers who didn't have a lot of resources at their disposal. I mean this is like a New York City public-funded high school. It's what, the school's we were working with were like C grades, so the way that New York City rates their schools like ABC, so we were a C school, and that means people that I worked with, the strategies they were using were so creative to get these young people what they needed while also providing such a safe space for these young people to learn about themselves. And so, I was actually, I was doing therapy with kids who are high-risk, so who were at risk for suicide, who were just really having a hard time academically or at home and whatnot, but it was such a fun environment. I mean people were so authentic, and I mean, I don't know your experience with young people, but young people, they can sense when you BS. And so, you really have no other choice but to show up authentically, right? And it was such a gift really to work there.Saintsing: So, that was a great experience, and what I guess drove you… I – most people in social work, or if you're a professional, I guess, you mostly just need the masters, and then, you could do the work. What drove you onward to the doctorate?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, so, so I think there were two things. So, one was I would run, every Monday afternoon, I'd run a girl's group. So, like 16-, 17-year-olds. They would come, and we would talk about all the things. Whatever they wanted to talk about, and I was finding a lot of the girls were expressing such anger, and this anger of just like what was just happening in life but then you know the microcosm of like the school environment and Facebook and people calling each other out and you know subliminal subs that were being thrown on Facebook for example, that would then transfer to the school day the next day. And, there would be fights, and girls would get suspended, and so, when I started talking to them about anger and what anger did for them and getting to fight, it really, getting into a fight is a release, right? Like, your adrenaline’s so high and you punch someone out or you do something like, you feel better but it's instantaneous because any of these long-term consequences of getting suspended, your parents finding out, what not, right? Right, so I'd say to them like, yeah what are strategies? How can I – literally I was like what are some strategies that we can use in order to kind of sort through all the different feelings that anger brings? Because ultimately anger is powerlessness, like we get angry when we feel powerless, and so, I started investigating mindfulness. Mindfulness was really just becoming a thing. This was like 2014. At least that was when I first started hearing about it, and so, I would try to understand like, what is this mindfulness? How do I use it? So, mindfulness really is, a definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn in the simplest form that I like, is this idea of non-judgmentally noticing, so like noticing that I got really pissed when someone posted something on Facebook about me that may not be true and like then taking the breath in the pause before I respond, before I respond something nasty to someone on Facebook or want to punch them out the next day for example, right? When you're talking to adolescents, this pause is very difficult because you're also talking about like an age in development where you have impulsivity, and like they're trying to figure out who they are? So, I started diving into this mindfulness. I thought like this could really work, but I was so, mindfulness research was so new at the time. I think it really hit its peak around like 2016 in terms of like the amount of journals are published on it like exponentially increased. So, I knew that, how mindfulness is being talked about in terms of the population, I was working with, so people who were coming from primarily like black and brown communities, lower socioeconomic having toxic stress, mindfulness felt very like white, waspy, affluent. Part one. Part two was I couldn't figure out what are these mindfulness techniques and how can we actually apply them to adolescence. So, I am getting interested in that and started reading all that I could and figured I really wanted to work on interventions for adolescents that were geared around mindfulness to these specific populations I talked about where I felt like there was such a lack of evidence at that point for these groups, so that was part one. Part two: around the same time, I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times written by Dr. Keltner here in psychology, and it was, what is – something like, What is the Emotion of Awe, and I thought that sounds like, what is awe? And, how should I get to know this person? Who is this person? Which then started, for me, like a flurry of googling UC Berkeley, and I knew I wasn't going to be do PhD in Psych, but I found a professor here, Valerie Shapiro, who's my advisor and has been so lovely navigating this PhD world with me. She's a prevention and implementation science researcher here in School of Social Welfare, and she had a study examining social emotional learning programs here in elementary schools in California, so like teaching little kids about empathy for example. So, I thought, oh that's like emotion, and it has to do with like kids and in schools. Like, even though my interests aren't completely aligned, let me reach out to her and see if I could work with her. So, that's kind of how I came to study. My two main areas really have been mindfulness and then positive emotions, specifically now self-love but in this greater context of you know these social problems, like social isolation, depression, addiction and yeah.Saintsing: So, unfortunately, it's been a lot of fun, but we're coming up towards our time limit. Usually at the end of the interview we'll take a minute to offer guests a chance to address the audience about anything that they'd like to talk about. Oftentimes, people talk about like social issues or some things specific to their research.Ziemer: I think, well one thing I want to say for sure is that I think I just want to do a shout out of gratitude as I've been really developing this idea of self-love, I have been working with an undergrad in the Social Welfare Department, Joyce, who's really has helped me kind of start thinking about all this like self-care and self-compassion and where all these terms kind of intersect and cataloging these different Instagram posts to figure out like, yeah, what, what really is self-love and how people are talking about it. So, I wanted to do a shout out to her, and then, I think, you know, lastly, I guess I would say that I think for me I think it's such an important point to hit home is that for me self-love really isn't a selfishness, but it really is, and it's not this like me-focused thing, but it really is in this idea of continuing to like connect and show up as our authentic selves with others, so I think it has some serious healing power behind it. So, we'll see. Yeah, more will be revealed.Saintsing: We all look forward to the results of your research. Thank you so much. Today I've been speaking with KellyZiemerfrom the School of Social Welfare. We've been speaking about her research on positive emotions and the potential therapeutic benefits of self-love. Thank you so much for being on the show, Kelly.Ziemer: Oh, thank you for having me. This is lovely.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
9/10/2019

Sara ElShafie

Keywords: climate change, global change biology, reptiles, science communication, narrativeAndrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm AndrewSaintsing, 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 SaraElShafiefrom the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Sara.Sara ElShafie: Thanks for having me.Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. So, Sarah, you're a paleontologist. Is that correct?ElShafie: Yes, I'm a paleontologist. I always introduce myself as a global change biologist, which just means that I study how climate change and environmental change impact life over time, and paleontology is part of it.Saintsing: Right. So, would you say you're first and foremost a global change biologist?ElShafie: Yeah, just because I don't only work on fossils. I also look at stuff that's around today in order to understand how climate change and stuff impacted life in the past and also what that tells us about where we're headed now and in the future.Saintsing: Okay, cool. So, you're looking at like our current climate change?ElShafie: Yes.Saintsing: Yeah, but also, so the climate has changed a lot in the past, you'd say.ElShafie: Yes, and, and there have been really dramatic events of climate change before, some of which kind of mirror what's going on today, so I look at how those past climate change events impacted life that lived millions of years ago in order to try to better understand what we might expect from climate change today and how it will impact animals that are currently around and also people.Saintsing: What were kind of the outcomes of past climate changes? Is it looking bad for us?ElShafie: Well, in terms of like how climate change now is going to affect society, yeah there are a lot of concerning ramifications that we're already seeing. In terms of how it's affected life in the past, it has all kinds of effects. It can affect where things can live. It can affect what they eat or what's available for them to eat. It can affect how big they get. So, I kind of look at all of those factors in a big picture.Saintsing: You look at all animals, all plants, all organisms? Or, are you looking at specific things?ElShafie: Specifically, I focus on reptiles because reptiles are especially susceptible to changes in climate and changes in their environment because they can't generate their own body heat metabolically the way you and I canSaintsing: Right.ElShafie: Most of them can't and I look at lizards and, and crocodiles and their relatives specifically because they're really abundant in the fossil record, and they have a lot in common with lizards and crocodiles that are around today, so I can use the lizards and crocodiles that are around today to understand the ones that are in the fossil record.Saintsing: Okay, and so, you are looking at how their bodies change over time basically? You're looking at how big the fossils are at certain periods compared to other periods, before and after climate change and how big they are compared to today?ElShafie: Yeah, pretty much body size is the main metric that I use, the main kind of factor that is influenced by climate change because I can use the partial skeletons that I find of lizards and crocodiles in the fossil record to figure out how big they were in the past at any given point before, during, or after a major climate change event. And, I can use lizards and crocodiles that are around today to try to estimate how big they were in the past using only a piece of a skull or a piece of a limb, for example, because it's actually very rare to find whole skeletons in the fossil record of these things.Saintsing: Right. That must be really frustrating.ElShafie: Yeah, well, it also means that I get to I have an excuse to study lots of stuff that's around today in order to understand the fossils, so it gives me a more holistic research experience which I enjoy.Saintsing: So, do you actually get to study living animals? Or, do you mostly look at the bones of the living animals?ElShafie: I do. I study living animals, the living lizards and crocodilians, to understand their body proportions and how I can estimate like the whole length of the animal from just one element, like one piece of the skull or the jaw or the arm bone or something and also to understand how the animals live today and is there any relationship between their morphology, how they look, how their bones look, and what part of a habitat they might live in or what they might be eating or what their physiology might be like.Saintsing: Okay.ElShafie: So yeah studying the living animals is really important for understanding the fossil animals.Saintsing: Right, and so you study specifically reptiles and crocodiles? So you say you studying global change across time, but is there specific period you're interested in, or are you just comparing all the different periods?ElShafie: Yeah, so specifically I look at a period of time, geologic time called the Paleogene which was from about 66 million years ago to about 23-ish million years ago. So, this is right after dinosaurs went extinct up until about 23 million years ago, at which point we had ice at the poles again. We actually didn't have ice at the poles earlier right after the dinosaurs went extinct, and so, during that whole timespan, climate change was happening. The world started off pretty warm, and then it got super-hot relatively quickly right around fifty-six million years ago when there is this incident called the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum. So, within a relatively short span of time, a few hundred thousand years or so, the world got really, really hot really fast. Like it increased five degrees Celsius or so, and that's actually even hotter than the warming that we've experienced just in the last century or two, but the rate was actually not even quite as fast as what we're experiencing now, so it is a really powerful analogous event to look at and to better understand what we can expect with the rapid climate change that we're experiencing today. So, it got super, super-hot and around that time the world looked very, very different. Like, there was no ice at the poles at all and the interior of North America actually looked like a jungle if you can picture Utah which is now a desert looking like the Amazon. That's how different it was, which is really crazy to think about. So, to find fossils of crocodiles and these huge lizards and like the first primates and crazy horses and all kinds of stuff in the deserts of Utah and Wyoming and Colorado, and, and it seems it's all from a jungle that looked more like what South America looks like today, which is really awesome, and then over time it kind of dried out and got more arid and more grassy after that.Saintsing: Thinking about what I've grown up thinking about, you know, the extinction of dinosaurs, right? You get this picture in your head that the asteroid hits and then things get really cold.ElShafie: Mm-hmm.Saintsing: There was this drop in temperature that led to the dinosaur extinction still?ElShafie: Yeah, I think it got cold for a while. Right after the asteroid hit event it like, you know, blocked out a lot of sunlight and stuff, but then after that, you know, about 10 million years or so or not even that long. Then the world had largely recovered, but it also looked very different.Saintsing: So, it was an overall pretty warm climate?ElShafie: Yeah, it's – the earth has gone through a lot of changes over millions of years, and it's cool to look at those changes on a timescale of millions of years rather than just, you know, a few hundred years or even thousand years because, since climate is changing so rapidly today, and it's, it's different than anything that humans have experienced in human history. We really have no analog for it in our own history, so looking at much older events in the past and the rate that that happened and the changes that happened and at what pace they happened helps us try to anticipate what we can expect in the future.Saintsing: Right, so what brought about – why did the ice appear again at the poles?ElShafie: At that point Antarctica became isolated, and it was isolated by a current that still flows now around Antarctica. I think it's called the circumpolar current or something, but it keeps, it basically keeps Antarctica refrigerated and that's part of what contributed to it.Saintsing: Just having Antarctica in the place that it's in was enough to give us the climate we have today?ElShafie: Well, yeah. Cuz it's almost like having two giant freezers at each pole of the globe so to speak, and, that you know, they don't exist in isolation either. The ocean currents travel all over the world. They pass by the Arctic or the Antarctic and they bring cold water and that affects the like nutrients and upwelling in other parts of the world including the California coast, and it, you know, it affects how climate and temperature play out over the entire Earth. So, yeah, it's all connected.Saintsing: Yeah, I guess we're dealing with how connected we are right now, right?ElShafie: Mm-hmm. Exactly.Saintsing: So as a climate change scientist – or a global change scientist but you, you know, you're really interested in climate change, I guess. A lot of your work is focused on informing the public on climate change and about science in general. I know you've done a lot of work on improving science communication as a student here, right? Or, at least studying it to understand how it can be improved. So, yeah, can you tell us a little bit more about the work you're doing on that front?ElShafie: Absolutely, yeah, science communication and outreach has always been a big passion of mine and that really started in college, and by the time I got into my master's degree, I realized that I not only wanted that to be a big focus of my career, I actually wanted it to be my primary career direction, in fact. So, I actually came to Berkeley with the intention of pursuing a career in science outreach leadership and science communication, and I knew that I wanted that to be a big part of my activity while pursuing my dissertation here in integrative biology because I also wanted to get the highest scientific training. So, while I've been here working on my dissertation I've also been doing a lot of work in science communication which started as just an attempt to improve my own skills because I realized a couple years into my program here that I myself was really struggling to explain my research to my own family members…Saintsing: Right.ElShafie: In a way that was at all meaningful to them. It really bothered me that I was struggling with that, so I decided to work on it, and I realized that I wasn't the only one that seemed to be having that challenge, and probably a lot of my peers could benefit from it as well, so I got really interested in storytelling, in story development because I figured, well everybody likes stories, so if I can talk about my science in that context, you know, and using storytelling, good storytelling then maybe I would get somewhere. And, I've always been a huge film buff and especially a huge fan of Pixar movies, and I knew that Pixar Animation Studios was actually only a couple miles from our campus. Pixar is in Emeryville, which was just south of Berkley, and so, I just decided to email them one day and actually got a response from a couple story artists who were really interested, and I invited them to come chat with grad students at our UC Museum of Paleontology. We’re based in integrative biology. And, it was going to be just a kind of pilot seminar conversation, let's just see where this goes with some grads, and it's turned into everyone from undergrads to emeritus faculty crammed into our little seminar room to hear from this story artist who was just talking about bread-and-butter stuff of the kind of strategies that they use to develop stories for their films at Pixar. And then, we had a conversation about how some of those strategies might apply to how we can talk to the public about science in a more effective and engaging way, and that was about three and a half years ago now, and since then, you know, that one seminar totally changed how I was thinking about science communication, and everybody else who was in the room responded really positively to it and remarked how useful it was, so that sparked an ongoing conversation and more and more artists at Pixar got involved volunteering their time, and now it's become this whole workshop series called Science through Story that I've been running for about three and a half years now. It started here at Berkeley on campus and has since, we've gone to other campuses, conferences, museums, organizations. So, yeah it's been a really, really fun experience and very helpful.Saintsing: Yeah, that sounds really incredible. So, you, you've taken this on the road. Is it still mostly Pixar is the main partner involved, or do you have like other studios, other artists involved?ElShafie: I've worked with other artists at this point, and the workshops, it's not a formal program of Pixar. Pixar doesn't sponsor it or anything financially. They've just been very generous in allowing their, some of the artists that work at the studio, anybody who wants to be involved to volunteer their time. So, several artists have come and run workshops with me here at Berkeley and at a few other campuses and conferences, and I meet with artists there periodically to learn from them about the creative process they use and how they approach story development, and then I adapt that into strategies that scientists and science educators can use to talk about science and an engaging way, using storytelling techniques, so Pixar people from Pixar have been involved. I've also worked with an artist who works at Industrial Light and Magic and a couple artists from DreamWorks Animation as well as an artist who was working at Double Fine productions and a guy who's a gentleman who started his own graphic design firm. Improv people, all kinds of artists through these workshops, and also we ran actually a full-day symposium called Science through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences, and that took place at a major biology conference, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology last year in 2018, when the meeting was here in San Francisco. We had a full day symposium on this topic, on science storytelling with speakers from both the scientific community and from different artistic disciplines all weighing in from their different perspectives and experiences on how to engage the audiences with science through storytelling and in different avenues, different media, different disciplines. It was really, really awesome because, to my knowledge, I think that's the first time that scientists and artists have spoken together on the same platform at a major biology conference, and we also had a lot of early career presenters involved as part of that, and out of that symposium we not only had the event itself but we also ended up publishing a whole volume of papers in a peer-reviewed biology journal, Integrative and Comparative Biology, which are now available online, and these are all peer-reviewed papers in a biology journal, but they are all written to be accessible to any reader even a high school student. Actually, we had some high school students in the past read it for some workshops that I've done at high schools in the area. We use papers from that symposium with REU, research experiences for undergraduates, program just this past summer. So, anybody can read them and get something out of it, and I, my own paper that I contributed to that volume is just called Making Science Engaging for Broad Audiences through Stories, something like that, and I wrote that paper for myself three years ago for any grad student or any student who wants to start doing more science communication or wants to get involved with science outreach and doesn't know where to start. If you're looking for a place to start, if that, if that sounds like you, then I encourage you to check out these papers because it's not just, you know, it's grad students, its scientists, its animators, it's video game developers, it's people who work in Hollywood, it’s people who work with data visualization. All kinds of voices weighing in on this, and, and they're really a fun read.Saintsing: That sounds like a really great resource.ElShafie: Yeah.Saintsing: I hope everyone takes the time to check that out. You started by talking to people at Pixar, and that was like obviously, Pixar's really close to Berkeley, and so that's sort of a matter of like convenience, right? But also, I just noticed that a lot of the people that you mentioned kind of are involved in special effects or animation or things like that? Is there a reason why that's more relatable to science, or is that just a matter of, like, you went down this avenue of talking to animators or people who are involved in animation and then that snowballed into more and more people who were involved in that side of the story developing process?ElShafie: It's a good question. Honestly, I think that scientists can learn something valuable from any type of artist, no matter what discipline because artists and scientists actually have a lot in common in terms of how we approach problems and, and what we're all trying to produce might seem very different, but ultimately the approach that we take is very similar. Both scientists and artists have to use their observation skills. That's very, very important for both conducting science and for doing art. It's all about observation. Both of us are trying to distill complexity out of a whole bunch of material that we could use, and we're trying to distill the most cogent, most cohesive, most compelling version of that story, of that study as we're presenting it, of that thing that we're trying to capture in some, some visual form or a musical form. So, it's distilling complexity. It's using the power of observation, and in terms of the artists that I ended up working with, that was just, it kind of was a combination of who I happen to meet through my networking, people that were introduced to me by colleagues that expressed interest, and we were really wonderfully fortunate that we got such a great variety of people involved. And, that was also part of it that we, you know, if we already had someone who is an animator, then we tried to get other disciplines that we didn't yet have represented for that symposium in particular. So, that was kind of how we went about it, but I would encourage scientists to talk to any and all kinds of artists because you can learn something valuable from anybody and any and all kinds of scientists.Saintsing: This is just a reminder that you’re tuned into The Graduates. Today I'm speaking with SaraElShafiefrom the Department of Integrative Biology. So, you mentioned that you came to Berkeley with the intent of being a science communicator?ElShafie: Yeah.Saintsing: Of pursuing some kind of leadership position in science outreach?ElShafie: When I came to Berkeley my, my long-term goal was to become like the director of a major science museum or science outreach nonprofit, something along those lines, and I knew that to do that I would, it would be really helpful if I had a PhD in science. People in those positions tend to be either previous professors or curators at museums or past CEOs or university presidents and I wasn't interested in the latter two so much, but I really wanted I wanted to learn more science. I wanted to get the highest scientific training, so that's why I came here to do my PhD because I was very upfront about my career aspirations in my interviews for PhD programs and when I came to Berkeley, they were just totally supportive of that. My advisor was very supportive, the people at the UC Museum of Paleontology that I spoke with were very supportive. So, I, that's why I came here and also because being in the Department of Integrative Biology, which has this wonderful resource, the Berkeley Natural History Museums. We have a paleontology museum; a zoology museum, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; plus an herbarium, the Jepson Herbarium; and the Essig Museum of Entomology with all the insects. We have all of those in-house, right in our own department, and, and all those museums, especially UCMP, is very, very active with science outreach. So, I realized that by coming to Integrative Biology at Berkeley, I could not only be doing my dissertation, which, Integrative Biology was perfect because I wanted to do research that integrated several different fields together, but also, I could be learning from these museum educators and people who do a lot of science outreach and community outreach. So, it was kind of like getting training in both areas at the same time.Saintsing: Right, so you graduated from undergrad knowing that you wanted to do science communication then, or was that more of a kind of developing process?ElShafie: I would say it was an ongoing process. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Chicago. I'm from Chicago originally, and, and I had a great experience at U Chicago. I was working in, at the UC, a new Chicago fossil lab there for years as an undergrad, and I did some research for a thesis and everything, but through that fossil lab, I also had the opportunity to participate in a lot of science outreach with Chicago Public Schools after school and summer science programs, and I really enjoyed that and I loved seeing the transformation that the students would go through just coming in not really sure if science is for them and then leaving much more empowered in general. Not just in seeing themselves as scientists. So, I knew that I wanted that type of work to be a big part of my career as I was graduating undergrad, and then when I went into my master's program which was at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, coming in I knew that I wanted to pursue more scientific research and get my graduate degree, but one semester in I realized I think I actually want the outreach to be my main focus. I was really jazzed about the research I was doing. I was really enjoying it, but I was starting to realize that my primary passion was not just doing the science but actually sharing the science with other people who might not have access to it yet or might not be familiar with it or see themselves as, as scientists or understand the role that science plays in their lives. That was really my, my main focus that I wanted to take, but I also know I wanted the scientific training so I finished my masters in Nebraska, and fortunately my, my master's advisor in Nebraska was very supportive of that realization in that aspiration, and he basically said, hey if you want to be the bridge between science and the public, awesome. We need more people like that. Get your masters in science first because that'll open more doors to you down the road, but while you're here start exploring and figure out what that career path might look like for you. And, I was doing a lot of my data collection for my master's thesis in collections at natural history museums around the country, and through that, I was kind of reminded how much I love working with museums and loved being in museums and because that was a big part of my childhood growing up in Chicago which has great museums and zoos and aquaria and such. So, I knew that I wanted to work with museums and an informal education in some capacity and kind of by the time I finished my Master's, I had realized, yeah, I think I want to pursue a leadership position with a museum or some science outreach program because there seems to be a really big demand for people who can fill those positions, people who can wear the science hat but also have a lot of outreach, education, communication experience and also who understand how to manage a team and manage a budget.Saintsing: So, you would say that as a child it was probably your experiences going to museums that sparked this whole career interest in science and in science communication?ElShafie: Definitely, I would always be begging my parents to take me to the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium or the Brookfield Zoo or the Museum of Science and Industry. Growing up in Chicago those were like my favorite places to hang out, and, and in addition, I would visit my parents or my grandparents down in the Florida Keys every winter. They would spend the winters down there, and my grandfather was a fisherman, and he used to take me out on his fishing boat, and I would snorkel off of his boat and we would see dolphins jumping around, and I just, I think that's, that's the earliest memory that I have as a child, when I was like six and he took us out on Christmas Day and all these, this whole pod of dolphins came and jumped all around us and it was just the most magical thing I've ever had in my six-year-old memory. That's when I really fell in love with nature and animals, and I've been hooked ever since, and, and the specific focus has kind of changed over the course of my life from marine biology for a long time to paleontology to herpetology now, working with reptiles and, and kind of global change more broadly. And then, science communication and science outreach I think has always been part of my interest because I love to share my passion for nature with other people, and so, now it's kind of it's all come together now, working on my PhD and even tying in my interest in film, working with film artists and different kinds of artists as part of the science communication work. So, it's been a lot of fun.Saintsing: All right, I was gonna ask, so as a kid you really liked talking about science?ElShafie: Yeah.Saintsing: So, you're probably just telling everybody non-stop about all the cool scientific things you were learning?ElShafie: Oh, sure. Anybody who wanted or didn't want to know about dolphins and sharks and lizards and whatever I was reading about at the time. Yeah, I love that stuff.Saintsing: But then, you mentioned earlier, part of the reason why you started getting more interested in, at least the, what you wrote the article that you published with the symposium, that was partially to help you understand how to communicate science in some ways.ElShafie: Yeah, absolutely.Saintsing: So, would you say that maybe it's harder to communicate the science that you're actually doing than just to share scientific facts you're learning?ElShafie: Definitely. You've hit the nail on the head. I think it's, it's really fun and easy to just like share cool facts about animals because animals are very cool and there's lots of cool facts that you can share about them just you know in, in conversation, but when you're doing scientific research, especially, you know, long term in-depth scientific research, the specific questions of which might be a little bit more removed from people's everyday experience, it is a lot harder to figure out how to share that in an engaging way with other people you know. When I started my program here, if you asked me what's your research about, I would have jumped immediately into a detailed, jargon-laden explanation of how I study these lizards that lived 45 million years ago, and, and their body size got much bigger as the mean annual paleo temperature got a lot hotter in the Eocene and, and etc. And, you know, when I used to give that explanation to my family members, who are like farmers in rural Maryland, or my family members in Egypt on my dad's side, they would nod politely and, and be excited for me because I was clearly excited about it, but they couldn't relate to it at all because I wasn't connecting it to anything that they could relate to. So, now when people ask me what do you study I just start with, I study how climate change impacts animals over time. That's it.Saintsing: Right.ElShafie: And then, if they're really that interested, then maybe I would get into that I also use fossils, and if they're more interested, then maybe we get to the point of: I study reptiles and some of the details that we discussed earlier. But, it's, you know, it's, you almost have to unlearn a little bit of how you're trained to talk about your science as a graduate student. I think that's why it's really important for science communication training to be part of any graduate training program, no matter what your field is, especially if you're, if you're in a STEM field, if you're training to be some kind of scientist because it's when we write our, you know, technical papers we have to talk about science in a particular way, but even there having some story structure can really help the paper flow, but when you're talking about science with broader audiences, especially non-specialist audiences or even scientists outside of your own field, it really helps if you can start at a more general level where everybody can, can clue in and, and relate to what you're saying and then you get into more detail from there as, as needed. But, you don't even need to go to that level of detail in most cases. People just want the general sense of what you're doing. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is who is your audience, who are you talking to, and what is your goal for that audience, what do you want them to take away from your interaction with them, and that might be something specific like, I want them to understand what's really cool about this method I'm using. It might be more general like I simply want this person to understand that I'm a human being who cares about the same things that they do.Saintsing: Right, we're coming up at the end of our interview. Typically at the end of the interview we just offer our guests a moment to speak on any issue they'd like to speak about, about social issues or about their topic, their research area in science, or really anything you'd like to address to the listeners.ElShafie: Sure. Appreciate it. I would love to say to anybody listening who is not currently in a science graduate degree program but if you're interested in science in any capacity then I hope that you pursue that interest in some form, whether it's pursuing a degree in science or even just learning about whatever scientific field you're interested in, and, and I encourage you to bring your other interests into that as well. I think the, the best scientists I know who are the most creative about how they approach their science are those who are interested in lots of different things, and, and, and vice versa. So, I think combining interests in lots of different fields is actually a really, it's, it's a great way to enrich your work no matter what you do, and, and scientists want to meet you, and scientists want to talk to you no matter what it is you do. We love, we love talking about science, but we also love learning about other things other than science because that just enriches our perspective about how we approach science. So, if you're an artist, if you're an educator, if you're a farmer, if you are whoever you are no matter what you do, please come chat with us because we'd love to meet you, and if you're a scientist listening, I really encourage you to step outside of academia as often as you can, especially if you're a graduate student or postdoc, you know. Don't wait until you finish your degree or until you get your career up and running. It already is running, and I think the more you meet and interact with people outside of science, the better scientist you will be because it will, you learn how other people think and that's really important for science communication, but it also just enriches your perspective and enhances your appreciation for what you do, and it's also a lot of fun, and especially if you have interests outside of science whether it's a hobby or another field or whatever it is, don't wait to dabble in that. Get involved with it. Take a class. Read a book. Join a group. Whatever it is, get involved with that now because being involved in lots of different things and expanding your horizons while you're in grad school is really great for your mental and emotional health, and, and it also just gives you a broader sense of how you can use your scientific training in the world, whether you want to pursue academia or potentially something else.Saintsing: Right, open dialogue with people who don't study the same thing as you, who are coming from different backgrounds, that would be good not just for scientists but for everyone, right?ElShafie: Mm-hmm.Saintsing: Yeah, but yeah especially for scientists. That's a great message, Sara. Thank you so much for being on the show. It was really great.ElShafie: It was a lot of fun talking to you today. Thank you so much for having me.Saintsing: I've been speaking with SaraElShafiefrom the Department of Integrative Biology. We were speaking about her interest in global climate change and how she communicates her science to the public. Tune in and two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.