Andrew S.: 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 Adonis T. Rivie of the Integrative Biology Department. Welcome to the show, Adonis.
Adonis Rivie: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Andrew S.: Adonis, you study frogs. Is that right?
Adonis Rivie: For the most part.
Andrew S.: What do you do with them?
Adonis Rivie: My expected project is looking at the molecular processes that lead to sex determination in Xenopus laevis or Xenopus laevis frogs, also known as the African clawed frog.
Andrew S.: Interesting. Sex determination, that's just like the chromosome, right? XY versus X?
Adonis Rivie: Right. But in the case of Xenopus laevis they are ZW system. What that simply means is that instead of ... You know how in mammals XX or the same sex chromosome leads to females, it's the opposite in frogs. The same sex chromosome, in this case, it's ZZ leads to males and ZW leads to a female in Xenopus laevis specifically. Not all amphibians, or I don't even think all frogs or anurans, which are frogs and toads, uses ZW system. Amphibians are weird.
Andrew S.: Okay. So there are genetic determinants similarly to human beings and other mammals and amphibians that decide whether or not a frog will develop into a male or a female.
Adonis Rivie: Yeah.
Andrew S.: But your research isn't so much focused on the genetic determinants of sex, right?
Adonis Rivie: Yeah. So it's actually pretty well established in the literature that temperature as well as chemical stressors can actually not only change sex ratios, but it can also turn populations into like maybe 90 to 100% one way or the other.
Andrew S.: What kind of chemicals?
Adonis Rivie: Estrogenic ones or one similar to estrogen in nature.
Andrew S.: What does it mean that they're similar to estrogen in nature?
Adonis Rivie: In short, they have similar chemical structures and can bind to the estrogen receptors.
Andrew S.: Estrogen receptors are proteins that bond to estrogen and then produce an effect in a cell, right?
Adonis Rivie: Yup.
Andrew S.: What do they do?
Adonis Rivie: I guess your question is what are some of the things that estrogen typically does in the body? In frogs or just in a very, very general sense, I guess, for humans because people are going to be interested in that. It helps with calcium deposition, so strengthen bones. It does a lot and sometimes it's just really hard to remember everything, but definitely the one that everyone knows is kind of like helping with the menstrual cycle or playing a large part in the menstrual cycle. Also, provides a lot of negative feedback. Like, for example, sperm production.
A lot of times you hear that people using anabolic steroids, they have a really high concentration of testosterone and also shrinking of their testes. What that is due to is actually negative feedback and it's thought that that negative feedback is not actually done by testosterone, but testosterone that's converted into estrogen in the brain and it's actually estrogen that's causing that shrinking of their testes and actually, sperm development as well.
It's, again, not actually testosterone itself that is helping with sperm maturation, but it's actually testosterone being converted into estrogen as it's been found that sperm cells have high concentrations of aromatase, which are enzymes that convert testosterone to estrogen. It can also lead to increase in breast cancer.
Andrew S.: Estrogen can lead to an increase in breast cancer?
Adonis Rivie: Oh yes. In breast cancer likelihood or aggressiveness. Estrogen does a lot ...
Andrew S.: Wow. Yeah.
Adonis Rivie: ... of different things.
Andrew S.: Estrogen is really important in both male and female bodies.
Adonis Rivie: Yup, and in particular in reproduction.
Andrew S.: What you're saying is if an estrogen-like substance were to get into your body, it could really mess things up.
Adonis Rivie: Yeah. In high enough concentrations. Yeah.
Andrew S.: What are some of the things that mimic estrogen?
Adonis Rivie: What are some of the things, so a lot of you really call it BPAs. Those are the ones that I know of. I'm sure there's a lot more.
Andrew S.: Right.
Adonis Rivie: You don't actually just have those things, but there are also chemicals that may potentially be activating the enzyme I mentioned earlier, aromatase, which actually converts testosterone to estrogen. Sometimes it's not just that you're increasing the amount of exogenous estrogen being taken in by a body, but you may just be activating an enzyme that helps produce it.
Andrew S.: Just living our lives, we're really putting our bodies at a lot of risks, is what you're saying?
Adonis Rivie: More or less, yeah.
Andrew S.: It's kind of terrifying.
Adonis Rivie: I mean it can be, but I guess I don't worry too much about that. I think about these things and I take them into consideration. Like I stop microwaving plastics, for example, but I don't freak out about it. I just try it on a regular basis. If we learned something, you just don't ignore it. You try to put it into practice if you think it's better for your health.
Andrew S.: Why are you concerned about how estrogen is affecting frogs instead of like humans?
Adonis Rivie: That's an interesting question. The lab I've entered specifically works in amphibians and the interesting thing is simply that when I applied to UC Berkeley, I wasn't necessarily applying to a project as much as I was applying to work under my current PI. I really just wanted to, so I had learned with him while I was doing my master's degree and I felt that I wanted to specifically learn from him.
From reading his papers, for the most part, I recognize I like the way this guy does science. A lot of the things he took into account ... I mean from what I remember, it was actually in particular, his controls. I don't think I've ever ... I don't remember someone having so many negative or always taking into account having negative and positive controls in their papers and just the thoroughness from what I remember from reading all of his papers or as many as I had read while doing my master's degree.
It was really impressive and I just always thought I want to be able to think that way as well as the conclusions and just his ability to create like a big picture idea how linking the cellular and molecular level to like ecological impacts.
That's something I want to be able to do and I think, to be quite honest, all scientists should probably strive to try and do. But that's why I, in particular, am worrying about this stuff in frogs because that's what we have in the lab. But then also, I think working in amphibians is really interesting because they're really, really similar to babies in the womb.
Andrew S.: How so?
Adonis Rivie: I also, I guess the main way I think of it is how ... so frogs are amphibians and they can just take things up through their skin. They're much, much more sensitive to chemicals than we are because of this. I don't know, for my understanding of babies in utero, it's the same sort of deal. They're living in this weird aqueous, slushy environment and they can just take up things that their mom is exposed to. Essentially, anything a mother's exposed to, the fetus is as well.
Yeah, so I was thinking, yeah, it's not a mammal and it's not a direct correlation to humans in the traditional sense, I guess, people think of it. But definitely, if you're thinking about effects in utero, I think it's a good analogy.
Andrew S.: You as a scientist, you're more just interested in asking questions. You're interested in the scientific method. Do you ever wish that you didn't have to always worry about the application and you could just focus on doing science for science's sake?
Adonis Rivie: It's an excellent question. I think at one point I did. I actually applied to graduate school the first time in 2015 and didn't get in and I applied to actually a bunch of EEB programs or Ecology, Evolution and Behavior programs and I didn't get into any. I remember just thinking to myself after like I regrouped and tried to figure out how to get in. I applied again two years later and that's how I ended up at Berkeley. But I remember thinking to myself like, do I really want to apply to Ecology, Evolution and Behavior programs because I was learning that they weren't being funded as well as molecular programs. My university that I was at was really heavy into molecular sciences.
I would talk to them and they would tell me the same thing. I was a little worried about it, but I think I'm at a point now where I just am ... I've learned also being around Tyrone who's my PI. Again, I think, you'll probably make the most interesting discoveries or the most interesting observations of your data when you just let it be science for science. I would say probably I've been doing that for most of my life and I'm back to doing it again. I do take into account what's lucrative and what's not and I will in the future but I think for the most part I'm just going to worry about what I enjoy and what scientific questions are most interesting to me. Because as you said, I'll be honest with you, organism class doesn't matter. If it's an interesting question, it's an interesting question to me and I'm going to probably pursue it if I have the ability to.
Andrew S.: How did you become so interested in science? Were you always just like science, it's the best thing in the world?
Adonis Rivie: Nah. Nah. Not at all. I would say it probably took, undergrad, my probably the fall semester or I'm sorry, the spring semester. The second semester of my sophomore year, I remember I had a pretty good GPA and I just wanted to keep it really high. I was undeclared also. It was time though for me to take a science. That's where the advisors were pushing me and I was like, "Dang, I really don't want to take these courses."
At the time they only offered two biology courses for that semester and it was field biology and human biology. I remember thinking to myself, I don't want to be outside so I'm not going to field biology. But I was thinking, I don't care anything about humans. Well, I'll just take this stupid course, anyway.
I took it and ended up loving it and I was like, well, I mean if I like human biology, I'm probably going to like regular biology or whatever it's called here at the university. I declared myself as a biology major and pretty much ever since then. I think I took biology courses first and then chemistry and then I was like, "Oh, chemistry makes biology make sense at least at the cellular and molecular level." Took physics and I was like, "Oh, I guess physics makes chemistry to make sense."
Then, from that point on, I realized the usefulness and how interesting science in general just really is, especially when it comes to asking questions because I've learned over the years that it's all about asking. Maybe I shouldn't say the right question but the most appropriate question for what you're trying to understand.
Andrew S.: Was learning to ask the right question hard for you?
Adonis Rivie: I think I just always had a childlike curiosity about stuff and then it was easy to apply it at the science. I think the harder part for me was figuring out if the experiments I was running in undergrad and in the master's degree were actually answering my questions. Sometimes it was, well, is that even the right experiment? Then other times it was, well do I also have their proper controls? But I think actually asking the questions has always been fairly easy. Just figuring out, is my method the best way to answer that question?
Andrew S.: Did it take time to learn how to actually use science to answer your questions?
Adonis Rivie: Still learning, still learning.
Andrew S.: When did you first get involved in research?
Adonis Rivie: I want to say it was the first semester of my junior year. I actually played collegiate football at my old university and I had actually stopped playing season ... Oh, I'm sorry, week three. Oops. Week three of the season and I remember being in cell biology and just ... I had like 40 hours a week now. Collegiate sports is like a full-time job, so I had like an extra 40 hours a week. I'm just like, "Ah, I guess I'll do something to fill in that gap." Because at first, it's like real cool to have all that free time but then when you're used to doing something, you just don't know what to do with yourself.
I ended up in cell biology mentioning to someone that I wanted to join a lab. Someone overheard me that was already in the lab I ultimately began working in and they were like, "Hey, we're looking for someone, you should just join." I joined from then on and that was the fall semester of my junior year.
Andrew S.: I have a couple of questions. You had devoted so much time to football.
Adonis Rivie: Yeah.
Andrew S.: Do you think you could have gotten involved in research if you had stayed with football?
Adonis Rivie: Yeah.
Andrew S.: Yeah?
Adonis Rivie: Yeah. As summer opportunities. My university did give NSF funding for the summer. We had like an LSAMP grant, the Lewis Stokes Association for Minority Participation. We had that NSF grant. I definitely would have probably tried to get involved at some point during the summers but because I stopped playing football, I was able to just do ... I did the research all year round. Even if I wasn't actively in the lab, I would end up presenting my research at conferences. Yeah, at some point I would have while playing football.
Andrew S.: Even if you weren't in the lab, you would have presented your research?
Adonis Rivie: The way it would've worked was I would have done the research over the summer, which is about 10 weeks. Then I would have probably been able to just present that at different because that's actually how it worked for a lot of folks. I was probably the only person in my lab that worked year-round. A lot of folks just came in during the summer and I would train/learn from them and then we'd present during the semester at different colleges [inaudible].
Andrew S.: When you first got involved in research, were you natural? Were you good at it?
Adonis Rivie: Hell no. Wait, can I say that?
Andrew S.: Yeah.
Adonis Rivie: Oh my God, I was terrible. I was like really good in lecture in all my science courses, but pretty terrible in a lab up to that point. I remember, you know like cover slips, there's probably about seven different times in one day I had glass shards or plexiglass or whatever that stuff is in my hands. I'm just like cracking the cover slips while trying to put them on slides. It took me probably a good four, four months to be any good at anything. It was only because I had too much pride to not be good at it.
I just sucked and I wanted to get better and that's what really kept me in lab because I hated it initially, but I felt like it was ... In my mind, I just worked it up in my mind that this is going to be a good life experience for whatever I want to do, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just know I was a biology major and I was like, whatever I want to do, it'll look good on a resume, but also probably help me in some way. I just didn't know how at the time but I was terrible.
Andrew S.: How did you develop your drive to just not stop? Where does that come from?
Adonis Rivie: Probably just my upbringing. I don't know. I can't, I can't tell you any stories that I remember off the top of my head. I just feel like my parents didn't want me to be a quitter. I do remember them saying that, but it wasn't like some time, some moment I remember of some speech they gave me. It was just a thing they just always said and I would just remember when I did finally tell them I stopped playing football, I was ... I shouldn't say I was surprised because my parents had a lot of faith in me, but a part of me was surprised about how much they understood.
I think they had recognized how unhappy I was over the course of probably like two point something years I was playing in college and it wasn't inherently playing college football, specifically at a team I was on. I think they just, when I articulated to them specifically what my reasons were specifically, they really understood and they supported me. I would say it probably comes from them to just ... Yeah, I think there's just like this idea of just having pride in what you do, in finishing, in doing your job well that they just instilled in me at some point. I don't remember when but yeah.
Andrew S.: You had really supportive parents. That's ...
Adonis Rivie: Yeah. Yeah. Honestly, I don't, yeah. Another way to put it. It's weird though because their support is a, I just know it's there. I don't like it either. Maybe I shouldn't say I don't like support. It's just I guess I, again, I ... I mean I shouldn't complain about this, but I was one of those kids. I was an only child for a lot of years. Even though I have brothers and sisters, I was raised alone so I got a lot of attention. There's just plenty of times where I'm like, "Yo, back off."
Yeah, I love my parents. Yeah, they were very ... Even to this day, they're very supportive of what ... I think they have always been supportive and just wanted the best for me. I mean, I guess that's all parents but yeah.
Andrew S.: Just a reminder that you're tuned into 90.7 FM, listening to The Graduates. I'm Andrew Saintsing and I'm speaking with Adonis Rivie of the Department of Integrative Biology.
Okay, so we've covered why you're in science.
Adonis Rivie: Yeah, or actually how. I don't know if you asked me why I'm in science.
Andrew S.: Do you have an answer for that?
Adonis Rivie: I like it. In all honesty, I really don't know what else to tell you. I think if I wasn't doing science I'd probably be like a personal trainer or I'd be like following that route because that's the other thing I like to do. Personal training and probably like personal development. I really like helping people become the best them.
Andrew S.: You like helping people become the best them.
Adonis Rivie: Yeah, in a very literal sense.
Andrew S.: Do you think you want to teach?
Adonis Rivie: Yeah.
Andrew S.: Yeah?
Adonis Rivie: I do, and initially when I first got here, I had some as a ... At my old university I was an adjunct professor because they didn't have a way to actually pay graduate students. Like there weren't any stipends and stuff so they allowed us to become adjunct professors with the university and we taught and that's how we were paid. Where here, we're back to being or I'm back to being a regular TA and it's a different role and it's nice because it's not as much stress. I did have really weird interactions with the students when I first got here, which initially changed how I felt about potentially teaching but I let it go. I'm pretty sure I want to teach at some point.
Andrew S.: You want to be a professor or you want to stay in academics because you like doing research and you like teaching?
Adonis Rivie: Yeah. I think I definitely want to do it at a university, not like at a community college. I think I'd like to do it at a university. Just maybe a smaller one where undergraduates are the focus like at my old university. We don't have many grad students at my old university.
Andrew S.: Why do you think science is so cool?
Adonis Rivie: I think, inherently ... I think it's really cool to be in for two reasons. I guess the first is an inherent reasoning which is, again, I guess we'll never truly be able to ask to ... How do I put this? Science or rather what we learn about the natural and physical world is really a product of how we question it, right? We'll probably never actually get ultimate truth from anything but the fact that we can find some truth and understanding in our natural and physical phenomenon that occur is really dope. A better understanding of the universe essentially, right?
I just think understanding how things work is cool but also, which a lot of folks I think is probably most important. Again, this is just a personal opinion, is learning how to do science and how to think about questioning and following up your questions with experiments is really useful just in everyday life. I think it's a tool that probably if were taught to more people, there'd be a lot less problems in the world. Especially if you're talking ... I think a lot of problems in this world are due to individuals having their own problems and those problems be taken out on others. It just being this thing that perpetuates.
If you can sit back and take these observations on yourself, try to figure out how to work through them, you don't have as much of these things happening in the world.
Andrew S.: Interesting.
Adonis Rivie: I don't think everything's eliminated but I just think most everyday problems can probably be solved by sitting back and thinking about it and figuring out what's the best mode of action for you.
Andrew S.: I mean, even if you adopt this scientific approach, you're still a human being. I mean, I don't know if you're going to eliminate ...
Adonis Rivie: All of it. No, I agree.
Andrew S.: All of human problems.
Adonis Rivie: I mean I try and it's weird because I think that's what's helped me become ... I think it was actually the other way around, where attempting to be objective has helped me in my science. I always at least try to be objective about things because as you already know, and a few people out there may know already, my life model is to not be a hypocrite. I don't know. That helps with doing your best to not be a hypocrite allows you to be more objective about things than you would be if your primary goal wasn't to be a hypocrite.
That's helped in science with whether it's like me doing my best to not be emotionally invested in an experiment or reading a paper where I'm just trying to look for what the figures are presenting or telling me and if the story coincides with their figures and does what everything they're showing me coincide with my prior knowledge.
Yeah, well, we're humans though. It's hard.
Andrew S.: Yeah. That's really cool.
Adonis Rivie: It ain't that for me though.
Andrew S.: You would say you had this scientific mindset before you even started with science or science kind of ...
Adonis Rivie: Yes. I would just say it's been more refined.
Andrew S.: Right.
Adonis Rivie: I think working in science has ... first, what it did was probably help me pay even more attention to detail. But then lately, what it's been doing is reminding me to not lose the forest or the trees as people say, right? To recognize the bigger picture that these details ultimately just help tell a story about.
Andrew S.: You're interesting because your worldview is ...
Adonis Rivie: Oh, thanks.
Andrew S.: ... almost already set up for science is what you're saying.
Adonis Rivie: Oh, I think, yeah. I think.
Andrew S.: But science colors everything in your life, the way you look at everything.
Adonis Rivie: Yes, I would probably agree with that. However, I would also agree with your initial statement, which was I was just always raised to be very observant of my environment probably because I did not live in the safest of places growing up. My parents just made a really big deal about being aware of your surroundings and having a plan of action if something did happen, right? I think I've just carried that everywhere I've gone and used it in my schooling also.
It was like I had a real basic level understanding of how to think about different situations or think about what I'm reading. Again, like you mentioned, science helped cultivate that ability and then now, I still view the world in that manner, but just in a much better way.
Andrew S.: Science, so you think that lots of people in different fields would benefit from thinking scientifically?
Adonis Rivie: Yes. I think everyone who does everything will. However, there's a caveat to that. I've been told that my pragmatism can be thought of as pessimistic or what's the word? Not having emotion or compassion, but I don't know. I don't think it's that big of a deal.
Andrew S.: Big of a deal.
Adonis Rivie: I mean, it depends. I get it. It depends. I think it's, again, contextual. I've learned to do a better job balancing as I think a lot of folks probably have to do at some point with something. Yeah, no, no, no. It does matter. I'm being silly. I think my ability to, again, analyze myself has allowed me to have the sort of empathy I have for everyone is just that I think I've also given myself a limit to which empathy is actually useful versus where some other idea may be more useful because yeah, I mean compassion and empathy, they're very important and they're going to help the world be a better place.
However, I think there's also a point where ... See, it's hard because we don't have a very specific situation in mind but there's a point where empathy just isn't enough and there's something else you can do that'll be much more useful for something to be better, as vague as that sounds. I just think there's an upper limit max to how useful empathy and compassion are. Like if you meet someone, they tell you their problem but then they keep making the same mistake over and over and over and over and over and over again. At that point, it's useless to have empathy for a person because they know what they're doing. They probably have some decent idea of a way to get out of it because you know most people things are not serious problems anyway. Most things people tell you about anyway.
There's a max because like we were mentioning before. If someone just keep on making the same mistake over and over. If you care about this person, aren't you going to tell them, "Hey, obviously, what you're doing does not work. Stop messing around, get your stuff together and let's move on another path"? I get it. It's not easy for everyone to change and to make changes. I mean, from my observations, not many people actually attempt to make change, especially when they know they should.
I mean, I don't know if empathy helps with that. I mean, yeah, I have it still. It's just I don't know if expressing it to those individuals actually helps them do better. Urging them to change does though with I guess an empathetic undertone. I mean, ultimately, I think just urging someone to do better for themselves is probably your better bet.
I guess you're right. See, look, I'm doing it now. I'm like thinking about, I guess, ultimately, you have to do it from a place of empathy and they know that you're concerned and how ... Yeah, no, I get it. I'm just, like I said, I want everybody to be the best they can be. It's just, I guess, I have a coarse way of going about it at times.
Andrew S.: Do you ever feel like academia forces you to focus so much on one area of study that you don't get to explore other areas as much as you would like?
Adonis Rivie: I know that may be a feeling folks have but for me, no, because I think one, in undergrad, I think ... What I hear from Berkeley students here and what I had at my old university, I think the schools do a good job. At least these two schools do of making sure you get a nice breath of different things, of different subject material. But even in graduate school, I feel like, I don't know, you have an option. You have the option to work all day, at least here at Berkeley, right? Or at least in our department or maybe I should speak very specifically, at least in my lab, I have the option to work all day and I have the option to work and do things that I find fulfilling or that I want to learn about every day. Like I can do both every day as long as I manage my time right.
I have a very good suspicion that's most of the people in our department and probably most people in Berkeley but maybe, I don't know. I don't know. I think graduate school is a good time to ... You're going to have to, you can't just ... I don't know too many people that will actually be able to work all day every day and truly be productive.
Andrew S.: Right.
Adonis Rivie: At some point you're probably going to have to learn about other things to keep, I don't know, just keep life interesting.
Andrew S.: Yeah. Well, Adonis, I've had a lot of fun. Thanks so much for being on the show. Do you have any thoughts you'd like to leave the audience with about anything at all?
Adonis Rivie: One thing I could think of is, honestly, science isn't as hard as you think it is. If you think you have some small interest in it, I think at the very least, if you have some interest in it, maybe just even learn the vague idea that is the scientific process. I guess I say it's vague because different people will ask what it is exactly. But in just short, how to think scientifically and how to think about things in a manner that is going to be most productive in solving whatever problem you have, right?
Andrew S.: Yeah. Great. You're saying anybody can get involved.
Adonis Rivie: Anybody.
Andrew S.: Yeah, that's a great message.
Adonis Rivie: Nice.
Andrew S.: Well, thanks again.
Adonis Rivie: It was my pleasure.
Andrew S.: I've been speaking today with Adonis T. Rivie of the Integrative Biology Department. If you'd like to learn more about Adonis, he is pursuing his PhD in Tyrone Hayes's lab.