The Graduates


Ursula Kwong-Brown


Speaker 1: (singing).

Ashley Smiley: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. My name is Ashley Smiley, and you are listening to The Graduates, the interview talk show where we interact with graduate students here at UC Berkeley and around the world. Today, I am joined by Ursula Quan Brown, a PhD candidate in the Department of Music. Ursula is a multimedia artist and composer and is currently splitting her time between New York City and Berkeley, California. Ursula, welcome to the graduates. We are happy to have you here today.

Ursula: Thanks so much for having me.

Ashley Smiley: I want to start out with asking you a question about your background. So I understand you have a bachelor's in music and biology from Columbia University, a master's in music composition from Berkeley, and now you're finishing up your PhD in music composition with a designated emphasis in new media. How did you transition from studying both science and music to progressing towards the current career path?

Ursula: So my whole life, I've done music. It was never ... I never questioned whether I'd do music, it's just also whether I could squeeze science in as well. I really enjoyed my research at Columbia. I worked in Professor Darcy Kelly's laboratory and she permitted me to do my own independent research into the vocalizations of African Clawed frogs Xenopus Laevis. And I heard musical intervals in the frog song and I got to spend like two years researching how they produce those intervals, if they perceived them, and it was incredibly fun, but it was also incredibly energy consuming and I did not have time to write music.

Ashley Smiley: Okay.

Ursula: I just didn't have enough time for my music and that's why I went to just music.

Ashley Smiley: So why do you think you chose the African Clawed frog? What about them piqued your interest? You said it was the music. Did you know anything about them before you started this project?

Ursula: It was really just like a happy coincidence in that Darcy Kelly taught the neuroscience, intro to neuroscience class I was taking at a time, and I loved her so much that I went and switched my summer lab research to her lab and it just happened to be that I was listening to frog song in the, you know, in the lab tea room and I was like, uh, that's a perfect fourth. Like I know what that is. Yeah, it just happened.

Ashley Smiley: Okay. Yeah. That's so cool. I actually read a publication that you are an author on that was just released in 2015, pretty recently in the journal of Comparative Physiology. I remember reading about how some species within this Genus Xenopus can actually glean information about reproductive state, species identity, and sex based on hearing these vocalizations that come from their larynx, which is this organ that produces sound pulses.

Ursula: Yeah, that's accurate. So you know, these frogs call underwater in murky water at night. They don't have much vision. They use sound to find their mates and they have to differentiate their calls both temporally with different inter click into like tick, tick, tick or tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. And then also spectrally. So in terms of pitch, some frogs have dun dun, to pitches that are like a perfect fourth apart, and then some of them have like dah duh. But what's really cool is they actually produce those sounds harmonically. So they produce them at the same time, which I can't sing for you because I can't sing two pitches at the same time. But without those calls, I think that you would have more species trying to have sex with one another when they're not compatible. You know?

Ashley Smiley: Yeah. So it's like a ... It's a reproductive barrier.

Ursula: Or identifier. Yeah.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah. It's interesting that you say they can produce sounds at the same time or two different sounds at the same time. So, they must have musculature that can control that to like open and close parts of the larynx or do you think they have an additional structure sound producing organ like in ... For instance in birds, birds have a syrinx. Are frogs the same way, do you think?

Ursula: So, frogs are totally, totally different. We've actually talked with some birdsong people trying to figure out how they ... How the frogs make these two pitches and it's not at all clear. We're actually just submitted a paper about this in which we worked with a really wonderful researcher named [Coen Elemens 00:04:36] in Denmark with some high speed video in an isolated prep of the larynx in a dish to look at the sound excitation. But basically, it's not an air driven mechanism. It's more like percussion. It's more like striking a metal bowl that rings at a pitch, but it's two pitches.

Ashley Smiley: That is insane. So, I came across this ad in BAMPFA or you know, somewhere in campus and I was reading about your sound installation art and, if that's what I may call it.

Ursula: Sure, yeah.

Ashley Smiley: So my understanding is that you were participating in this collaboration where you took metal sheets and then connected transducers to them and kind of propagated some type of input into those so that it could transform the sound of instruments to reverberate through these metal sheets. I guess I can't quite wrap my mind around that and what that actually means. Could you clarify how that works?

Ursula: Yeah, so just imagine that the sheet, the metal sheet, or in some cases wooden sheet, is the speaker, right? So, A transducer is just a device that is converting variations in an electrical signal into physical pressure, right? So like sound waves. So your speaker does that very well, right? It just pretty accurately, for the most part, reproduces that. But if you take a metal sheet, there's all these resonant frequencies in the sheet that will come out more strongly. So, if you play Beethoven's seventh through a metal sheet, you will hear Beethoven seventh but you'll also hear the humming resonant frequencies of the sheet or the word or whatever you want. And in this project, I was working with a painter and cellist named Amy King in New York City. And we really wanted the sounds to emanate directly from her artwork. So, we wanted you to go up to the art and feel the vibrations, the music coming from her painting.

So she painted metal sheets and then I attached transducers to the back of them.

Ashley Smiley: So that's where the painting came in. That's something that I completely forgot about. Those were color coded, right?

Ursula: So this was a project that Amy King had already been doing that I had found just so beautiful. She took the Bach Cello suites, very famous, and she took each note and would assign them a different color. So like C would be blue and G would be green. I mean I'm just, or something like this. And she would paint the entire prelude, for instance, in rows of single brushstrokes. And because music does have a structure, you know, you would see these recurring blue notes that were the C's and you'd see them occurring green brushstrokes, which were the G's and it had this sort of gorgeous structure inherent in it. She was inspired actually by a treatise that Sir Isaac Newton and written about optics and light and the continuum between the light and the sound spectrum.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah. I see aspects of science and engineering and physics that are combined into your work.

Ursula: Yeah, I guess I hadn't even thought of that.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah, it's a strong theme. I really appreciate it. So, are you from Berkeley or are you from New York or where did you grow up?

Ursula: So I'm originally from New York. I lived there for most of my life. I also lived in Boston for high school, but I moved back to New York for college, except for a year in London when I studied at the Royal College of Music for one year. I've been in New York and then five or six years ago now I moved to Berkeley. But now the last year I've been back in New York because my fiance is there and I'm getting ready to graduate and move back to New York for good. Although I really will miss Berkeley.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah, I imagine you've done so much great stuff here. I would love to get into talking more about what is your dissertation about?

Ursula: So my dissertation, which I recently finished, is a work for soprano and orchestra that's going to be performed either next fall or the following spring by the UC Berkeley Orchestra, which is very, very good. Conducted by David [Mens] with Anne Moss, the singer soloist. You might be surprised to know that in music, you can have a dissertation without any words. It's just music, you know? It's a musical score. That's my dissertation. I am so excited to hear it.

Ashley Smiley: So you said that your PhD has an emphasis in new media?

Ursula: Well, my thesis piece is it doesn't actually have new media in it. It's just for soprano and orchestra. An orchestra is like a hundred person unit, which you don't want to waste rehearsal time. And so, working with electronics can actually be quite tricky with orchestra.

So what I decided to do is do a separate piece that integrated new media with piano. So I'm a pianist and I'm actually performing a piece for prepared piano. So I'm putting magnets in the piano and prerecorded sounds. And so that's my new media piece.

Ashley Smiley: What do you mean you're putting magnets in a piano? What does that do?

Ursula: I mean, I'm putting little magnets on the strings and they stick to the strings, right? Because the strings are metal. And they create these cool bell-like sound.

Ashley Smiley: Whoa. That's really cool. So, okay. My question is what is a composer?

Ursula: Wow. What is a composer?

Ashley Smiley: What are the roles of a composer?

Ursula: So I guess I consider a composer to be someone who organizes sounds in space. I think you can compose electronic music on your computer by rearranging prerecorded sounds. You can also be a composer by writing things down on paper, but your, you know, structuring time with sound and there's a performance element, right?

You're not just doing it for yourself, you're doing it for an audience. Yeah.

Ashley Smiley: So then, do you play some of the instruments in these composed works or you write it and then so then it's out of your hands?

Ursula: I do both. I mean in this case, this piano and electronics piece, I'm playing it myself, but I have to say it's really nice to be in the audience. It's definitely easier to hear the sound balance, especially if you have four channel sound with complex samples. Like the samples for this piece it's called I Should Have Taken the Train, and it uses text written by a brilliant writer friend of mine, Hannah Howard back from Columbia, who recently published a memoir. And I am triggering these sound samples while I'm playing and so I have to have someone very good in the audience to sit and tell me the levels are correct, you know?

So that's when it's really nice to have someone else play something so that you can sit in the audience and set the level.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah. That makes sense. I noticed that you have various titles for your different pieces. I was kind of curious where these titles come from and, I mean, my guess is that you're writing these from your own life. I wanted to talk a little bit more about where those inspirations come from, if you're comfortable with that.

Ursula: Of course. I mean, they each ... I would say every piece of mine has its own story, its own. So I have a range of titles. Recent pieces would be like Unwinding, very string quartet. I actually did an Unwinding Two as well. Those were inspired by I had a severe bike accident about five years ago and afterwards I was having a lot of memory problems and severe headaches and I saw a craniosacral therapist who helped.

They call it unwinding. It's this process in which they sort of released the pressure on the various nerves in your head that are creating so much pain by shifting very subtly the plates of your head. It's this amazing feeling of relief and release. And so, I have a couple of pieces written about that process. What's another one? Sometimes they're just pulled directly from the text, like if I'm working with a writer. So this piece, Where the Eye Comes From. That's my thesis piece that's going to be performed, and it uses texts by the poet Josh Bell who teaches at Harvard and he wrote this just lovely poem, which I guess I'll just read a couple of lines from. Doesn't really do it justice. The whole poem's amazing, but here it is. Josh Bell, Where the Eye Comes From.

"Our days often ended and began with the sound of voices raised in song, even after we murdered our friends and neighbors. Even after we brought the attention of our knives to the neighbors of our neighbors. Until at last, the neighborhoods fell silent and the city's quiet in the city's city, and the country then annexed the country until finally the moon, as if its own reflection looked upon an earth that we had emptied nearly back to Eden."

So it's a really dark and depressing and wonderful poem that I felt accurately reflected how I felt after the 2016 presidential elections. I just had a piece performed called Black and Blue, which is totally different. It's a piece for electric guitar and 15 instruments and dancers that was just performed at the Berkeley Art Museum and Black and Blue is actually a title from a visual artist. Her name, she's a Korean artist that was originally based in Berkeley, Theresa Hucking Cha, who sadly passed away when she was young. She has amazing archive at Berkeley Art Museum, and so I took this piece of hers called Black and Blue and made my own piece out of that.

Ashley Smiley: That's incredible. I love how some of your works seem like they're filtering other pieces of art. Reflections on Rothko, I'm guessing is you writing music in response to the painter's abstract expressionists art.

Ursula: Yeah, so that's a piece that I really have enjoyed performing with this violist, Ellen Ruth Rose, she teaches here at Berkeley. She's an amazing violist and in that piece, I have a live camera feed on Ellen and her image is chroma keyed and projected against Rothko paintings. So there's like seven paintings in the piece. Then, so the piece is structured around those seven paintings. It starts sort of bluish in the middle. It's like yellow and red and then ends bluish again. I'm not exactly synesthetic but I do have really strong color associations with musical motifs. So for me, that's a yellow idea and that's very definitely yellow, because I mean, he has ... Rothko, these amazing, you know, vibrant sheets, squares of color and I find them very inspiring musically.

Ashley Smiley: What do you want your audience to take away from the stuff that you share?

Ursula: I think each piece, again, has its own genesis and its own emotional story. For the 2016 election, I probably won't share that with the audience. It's enough that they can read the poetry that spoke to me so much. The poetry is about mutual destruction and sort of held that desire for destruction is inherent in all of us and I think the poem speaks for itself. I don't need to talk about the elections, especially since that's such a polarizing topic. I'd prefer not to. But in a different piece, this more recent one for piano and electronics. I Should've Taken the Train. That one I definitely want the audience to connect with the message behind it. It's about a friend of mine who was assaulted and it's about her self-recrimination afterwards. You know, instead of blaming the man who assaulted her, she says repeatedly like, I should have taken the train. Like it was all my fault, essentially. I should have taken the train. And I think it's important for audiences to understand the mentality of young women. And I think that art is a place that you can put people emotionally in the space that someone else has occupied.

I definitely want my works to be emotionally moving for other people. I suppose it's in part because when I was composing, when I was young, it always felt like writing diary entries. Literally I'd be like 13 angry at my mom and I just write really angry woodwind quintet, you know? And what's nice about music is that then my mom would hear it and be like, that's an amazing woodwind quintet. Like she ... You know, music often doesn't share the source, right? It's just, you know, it's angry, it's full of energy, but you don't know what it's about. And sometimes that's really nice not having to have the specificity of text.

Ashley Smiley: When did you start playing and composing?

Ursula: Probably when I was around seven when I started taking piano lessons. I had a really wonderful piano teacher in New York City. Her name was Kathy Eddy and she had all of her students write music. I think it's such a good idea. I recently taught piano to a little six year old and he's so creative. Kids when you're like "Write music." They're like, "Okay." It's like coloring. There's no mental barriers, you know?

Ashley Smiley: Yeah.

Ursula: It's only later that you're like, I couldn't write music. Like what's ... You know, kid's, they're like, "Fine, I'll play around on the piano and here's my song."

Ashley Smiley: I mean, and it also makes me think about like the question of access because you said that when people paint or when you assign colors to music, there are clear patterns that come out. And so, if, you know, a child can paint, you know, perhaps they can also be creative with music, but who has access to to a piano when they're young or who has access to like something more affordable, like a box of crayons, you know?

Ursula: Yeah. I mean, it's one of the tragedies of classical music right now that there's really not much diversity anywhere in the world of classical music. And I do think that that goes back to childhood. to be a orchestra violinist, most people started when they were five. I started composing when I was seven. I played a million instruments when I was young and those have all helped me. And those are all privileges. They're all advantages that most people don't have. And so when you're trying to diversify, college is too late, you know? We have to start a system to help kids, young kids, become more involved and give them instruments, give them lessons, give them materials.

Ashley Smiley: If you're just now tuning in, you're listening to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. And you're listening to The Graduates, the interview talk show where we interact with graduate students here at UC Berkeley. And today we are joined by Ursula Kwong Brown from the Department of Music. So you've performed not just here in the United States in the bay area, in New York, and Chicago, but also in Europe, like Germany, London. What's the biggest difference from traveling and performing your work in other countries versus here in the United States? What's it like traveling for work?

Ursula: Well, it's wonderful traveling to these foreign countries and immediately having this small group of friends with common interests. New music world is actually quite small. I was in Darmstadt Germany in 2014 in some tiny town and oh, I ran into a friend that I met three years ago in France. And I mean, that's just what happens. And then I ran into someone I knew from California and then, I mean, these gatherings just pull people from all over the world. So I think you feel at home wherever you are. In terms of differences between Europe and the United States, public funding is a huge one. When I was in London at the Royal College of music in London, I remember that people weren't nervous about going into music the same way my friends at Julliard were. There had recently been an article in the New York Times about Julliard students selling their instruments to pay their rent, and it's actually not uncommon for Julliard musicians to leave music because they can't afford to stay. Whereas in London, healthcare is guaranteed, so you have to pay rent. You can always cash someone's couch, right? It's not the same fear of losing healthcare that drives people towards other jobs.

Ashley Smiley: That's so interesting to hear coming from STEM. Music versus integrative biology where where I'm at. There's a lot of similar anxieties in terms of funding and access to resources that you may need and also just early science education makes a huge difference in getting a more representative population in science. There are issues with diversity and inclusion and they're systemic and, I mean, I see that in science.

I'm interested in figuring out a way to address these issues and make them more transparent and also more available to the public to consider.

Ursula: Yeah, I mean I wish I had the answer there. I do feel like, you know, taxing the rich slightly more and giving more money to the arts and also to, you know, STEM education and all these things would be a really wonderful first step. I guess I would encourage people to compose, and especially encourage parents to have their kids compose music. I feel like in our society, there's this like mental barrier everyone has like, "Oh I can't write music.". Everybody can write music. Seriously. Listen to some-

Ashley Smiley: I don't know about that. I mean ...

Ursula: No, but listen to contemporary music. It often sounds like scribbling. You can do that. Like you don't have to write Beethoven music. You can write whatever sounds you want. It's just organizing sounds in space. So if it's something that interests you at all, do it. And I guess I say that in part because I just wish there were more women composers. I feel like there aren't enough.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah, I completely agree with that. And what I meant earlier about being skeptical about writing music, where do you get the tools that you need to know how to write music? You know what I mean?

Ursula: Yeah, I mean, one way that I've seen done in some public school outreach programs is using color maps, energy maps. You know, you ask a group of kids "How do you show something's loud?" And generally someone shouts out red and [inaudible 00:22:23], you know, if it's a jagged sound, do you want it to be a circle or triangle? Triangle, you know?

Ashley Smiley: Yeah.

Ursula: So you can just start assigning colors and shapes to different texture.

Ashley Smiley: That's really cool. Never thought about that before.

Ursula: I mean harmonically, it is a little more complex and I think that's where taking lessons when you're young is really helpful.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah. Okay. Yeah. You mentioned earlier you have a upcoming performance either sometime this fall or next spring, and that one is Where the Eye Comes From.

Ursula: Yes.

Ashley Smiley: And that's for soprano and orchestra with text by Josh Bell. So that one was going to be performed by the UC Berkeley symphony within Moss. So, listeners can stay tuned for the final date and time, and that one's going to be your ...

Ursula: That's my thesis piece. Yeah, that's my dissertation.

Ashley Smiley: So exciting. I wanted to ask the final question and I wanted to ask if you feel there are any issues that the general public should be thinking about? This is what we call the soapbox section.

Ursula: I feel like the bay area could really benefit from more racial diversity in the art scene, particularly the classical music scene. And even within that, the new music classical scene is just some of the least diverse concerts I've ever been to in my life. It makes me uncomfortable, you know? And I'm not sure why, because the people are all very nice. It's never a personal question. I feel like it's something structural that has to change. We have to make some tickets cheaper, free, and subsidize that with raising more money from donors, right? Or we just have to program slightly different music, like mix new music with some music that would be attracting a new audience, essentially.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah. I think that, you know, you're not alone in this mentality and you're not solely responsible for offering solutions to these issues. And I feel this sentiment coming not just from you and the music department, you know, across the board at Cal Berkeley and in the bay area, and part of this show is starting the conversation on how to have these discussions and introduce these topics of concern to the public. So, I appreciate you sharing that.

Ursula: And I guess even apart from the public performances, the university, we could do a much better job of pulling in diverse students into our ensembles. I mentioned we have a wonderful orchestra. It's not very diverse. We have a wonderful choir. It's also not diverse. There are ways to go out and find students that we want to be in those ensembles. Instead, we're just waiting for people to come to us and if people feel like they're not welcome in an environment because nobody looks like them there, they're never going to come. I think it's on us to go find diversity and bring it in.

Ashley Smiley: Yeah, I completely agree with you. On that note, it looks like we are out of time, unfortunately, but as a reminder to the listeners, be sure to look out for Ursula's upcoming performances in the bay area and the final performance composed by Ursula in the bay area. Well, I don't think it's going to be the final performance, but-

Ursula: Where the Eye Comes From.

Ashley Smiley: Where the Eye Comes From. So, be sure to look that up and it will be performed by the UC Berkeley symphony. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Ursula, and sharing both your stories and your work with the listeners.

Ursula: Thank you.

Speaker 1: (singing)

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Kwasi Wrensford

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Um, you know, if you've ever seen, like if you ever been out into the mountains of California, they're up there, or if you're back East, woodchucks are very similar, groundhogs.Wrensford: Just very large fat squirrels. But this project is really cool because it was like a, it's a long-term study. So they've been studying the same population of marmots for the past, uh, since the sixties. Um, yeah. So my old advisor, Dan, Dan, he was actually the second PI to head this project. And so yeah, I got to go out there, trap the marmots, observe them and sort of work on all aspects of the project. And that really is what got me thinking that, and, you know, behavioral research is a thing that I could actually do, you know, actually just kind of watch animals in their own environment and start with, from my science, from there, you know, that's a really cool feeling. There's immense value in, um, captive laboratory animal research. And, you know, we've learned so much from the models we have, but you know, you can't replace actually, I'm seeing an animal in its natural habitat when you're asking like evolutionary or ecological questions. Right. Because that's where, that's where they are. That's where the what's out there. Yeah.Alonge: Yeah. On the other hand, it seems that that could be somewhat challenging in a lot of ways. What particular things do you find challenging when studying animal behavior, animal ecology?Wrensford: Yeah. So you're definitely correct. It's a, it's very challenging. It's a very difficult way to do work. You know, like, you know, the, we talk about the benefits and that you can get these, uh, observations and insights into animals in their natural habitat. But the main benefit of doing lab work right, is you have ultimate control. You know, if you want to know one specific aspect of an animal's biology in a lab setting, you can manipulate any little piece that you need to, to isolate the effect that you're interested in, but in the field you can't do that, right. The animals are going about living their lives and you just kind of have to roll with it and you get, you get what you get basically. And you're at the mercy of nature, you're at the mercy of the animals. And, you know, sometimes, and sometimes that leads to really great moments. Like I know there's a lot of stories of people doing research in nature, just kind of handed them the perfect experiment, either like a storm shakes things up in just the right way. But a lot of times it just ends up being a lot of headaches and a lot of improvising once you're out there.Alonge: Do you have any specific stories of things that were particularly frustrating from your work either then in Colorado or as a graduate student here?Wrensford: Um, I have plenty. I guess, kind of the most immediate story. So my current work, uh, I work in the Sierra Nevada in California. I work with chipmunks, uh, right outside of Yosemite and kind of one of the biggest troubles in the last year is just the, uh, is the, with the heavy snows over the winter, the snow melted a lot later than the previous year. So, and with the, snow's not melted yet a lot of the roads that high up don't open. And so I'm in a lot of ways, I'm just at the mercy of, of precipitation and, uh, to, I can actually get out and see my animals. And so remember last, uh, last year I was just kind of had the, um, weather service kind of snow pack measure and was refreshing it over and over again. Um, in like late June, early July, just waiting for the roads I needed to open up. And that's just like the tip of the iceberg, you know, I haven't even gotten out there yet and it's already, I'm already at the winds of nature.Alonge: Right. So you're studying chipmunks. 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And then once the glaciers receded, they came back into contact, but by then they had already diversified and reproductively isolated themselves. So that's kind of the prevailing theory, you know, there's a lot of caveats to that. Um, but yeah, that's kind of the driving story that we think is why these Western chipmunk species are so diverse.Alonge: Got it. Yeah.Wrensford: So the species that I study are the alpine chipmunk and the lodgepole chipmunk, and kind of what makes them interesting is that they both kind of live at the sort of the top elevational range that you will find chipmunks in the mountains there. So you can find both of these species between about nine to 11,000 feet high, so they they're really high up there. So, and that's pretty high for humans too. That's about, that's about the range where humans start suffering really severe altitude sickness. So you can, so we can imagine these animals are pretty well well adapted to their environments to be able to survive and thrive up there. But what's curious about them is that I work in a Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and at UC Berkeley, one of the benefits of working in a museum is that you have a really rich datasets going back in history. And one of the datasets that we have is actually that we took some of the old field notes from the curators of the museum back in the early 20th century when the museum first started, um, when they were doing surveys of, uh, mammals throughout California. And we're able to take these really detailed field notes and redo the same surveys along the same areas and same locations that they did that gives us a really good idea how those communities have changed over the past hundred years.Wrensford: And with that data, we've seen that through combination of climate change and human intervention and land use change that animals are responding very, very, um, acutely to these changes, but not consistently. So there's differences in variation in how these animals are responding. So some animals seem to be their range of seem to be shrinking, especially a lot of high elevation specialists as temperatures get warmer, they're moving further up the mountain to track temperatures, but then you have some species that live in similar habitats that don't seem to be showing much change at all in their range. And that brings us to our chipmunks, that these two species that live in the similar habitat, my lodgepole chipmunks, their range hasn't changed at all, almost in the past 100 years, while the alpine chipmunk, it's been moving further up slope in elevation to track those changes in temperatures. And so that's kind of sets up in really neat little natural comparison. What's different about these two species or one seems to be more acutely reacting to these changes in habitat than the other.Alonge: Yeah and is there a particular way that humans are cultural influences shifting their habitat or pressuring them to shift their habitat?Wrensford: No, that's a really good point. So I think the main culprit for what's really shifting their habitat and kind of with the resurvey project and a lot of people working on it, we think it's broad climate change. So we think mostly this broad increase in temperature over the past century postindustrial, um, is what's really driving these changes. And we can see that in, in the actual kind of weather and temperature measurements that we're seeing localities average mean temperature is going up, but it's a broader story than temperature too. There's all sorts of interacting and synergistic effects, not just, um, it's getting warmer, right? So the warmer temperatures make are making the snow melts earlier. They're decreasing snowpack in the winter and all sorts of other effects that are interacting with each other to change really the environment that these animals are dealing with.Alonge: Yeah. Totally environment. Yeah. There's not one variable. There's a lot of different things on the one hand. It seems, you know, it's a cool system. Your question is awesome. But because this impact is so large scale, is that the type of work that you feel doesn't have necessarily like this immediate applied conservation goal, and there's something bigger that you're really striving towards?Wrensford: Yeah, no, that's an excellent question. Um, I think with the chipmunk specifically, it's difficult to think of immediate applied conservation goals. So neither of these chipmunks are listed under IUCN is vulnerable or near threatened or anything like that. Although you can talk a lot about how you feel about the actual criteria for listing species. Um, that's another, that's another conversation, but I think in terms of applied conservation effects, I think understanding sort of how animals are reacting to these, these changing climatic conditions in their habitats over short scales, I think may, may not necessarily translate into like, okay, here's our, here's our management plan for endangered species of interest. But I think it really will inform how we think about how animals are reacting to climate change. You know, a lot of, a lot of, uh, how we talk about animal reactions to the climate change is a lot of doom and gloom.Wrensford: You know, it's a lot of, you know, we're going to lose X amount of species by 2050 or, or things like that. And while it is a very dire scenario for animals, like we're going, we are going to lose a lot of diversity. And that's true. I think the scenario is a bit more complicated than that animals are dynamic entities, right? They're responding and adjusting and adapting as they always have. The question is, are those responses and are those adjustments, are they quick enough to track with the kind of pressure that we're placing on them? And that's an open question for a lot of animals.Alonge: I like your optimism in the face of everything going on. You know, I think there's a, a realism, but also an underlying optimism. And that is very refreshing and probably good for all of us to hear.Wrensford: I'm happy to provide that. You know, like I sometimes I feel really down about the state of the world too, and, and, you know, and I think it's, and it's going to be hard, but I think also animals are amazing and that's kind of one of the things I've always, I've always felt. And I continue to feel the more I study them, the more I learn, you know, and learn how dire the situation is. But I also learn how amazing the animals we share the world with are, and kind of what they, they have at their disposal to really adapt.Alonge: So do you have a sort of dream species that you could study?Wrensford: I have a few, yeah. There was a, there was a time I really wanted to work with snow leopards. Like I've always loved snow leopards. I always thought there's kind of, you know, there's kind of this mysterious romantic animal.Alonge: Yeah. Mysterious, but glam.Wrensford: Exactly, you know, you ever seen like a picture with one biting its tail. It looks like a little feather bow. They're super cute. I love them. Um, but I've always had this sort of, sort of pipe dream that I would go out to like the Hindu Kush mountains in Pakistan and like go chasing snow leopards or something don't think that'll ever happen mostly just because they're just so rare and so hard to find, you know, people, even with people who were using camera traps. So they're not even going out looking for them in person. We'll see maybe a couple in a year. Yeah. Because they're pretty rare, pretty loosely populated and they have huge home ranges. So that's, that's the animal that got away, I would say.Alonge: Yeah. Unexpected. Yeah. From yellow-bellied marmots to snow leopards, maybe in the future, don’t rule it out.Wrensford: Maybe you never know, you never know fingers crossed.Alonge: Okay. So were you, you mentioned earlier that you were sort of always interested in animals. Were you also always interested in nature more generally or the outdoors?Wrensford: Yeah, I would say so. Um, so I was born in the Caribbean, spent a couple of years there and then moved to Southern Georgia. And so one of the great things about Georgia is it's, especially in the Southern part of the state. It's one of the, one of the coolest ecosystems in the world. I think it's a lot of, a lot of reptile and amphibian diversity. You're so far South that you're starting to get a lot of warm weather stuff. You don't really get in the rest of the country and sort of growing up around that really kind of really solidified my love for nature. Um, just kind of being out there, flipping logs, looking for lizards and stuff. It was a really good time. Um, I was a Boy Scout for a while too. And so that's kind of what, like, so I was always in animals, but then kind of Boy Scouts is what it got me into, the more outdoorsman side of things.Wrensford: So camping and hiking and backpacking and things like that. Um, and so that was a really valuable, um, experience for me, I think was just being able to get out there in a way that I probably wouldn't have had to otherwise. Right. My family wasn't super outdoorsy. You know, we didn't do like family trips to park national parks or state parks or things like that. So it was often through sort of my, the Boy Scouts and also I volunteered at our local zoo and it was sort of through those two outlets is what really kind of got me hooked on nature and, and working with animals.Alonge: Yeah. The work you do has this big natural field work component. So some people do field work because they have to, but some people have field work as a part of what they do because they love the whole experience of it. So I'm guessing that you're on the ladder part of it,Wrensford: I would say so. Yeah. I think nature, I think nature brought me into science, although I was always surrounded by science too. Like I think I've always liked science large too. So those kinds of work parallel with each other, but I don't know if I, if I didn't love nature the way I do, if I would be doing science or at least doing research science, you know, so yeah. I definitely think, uh, nature is what pulled me into, uh, pursuing, pursuing a graduate degree, doing research.Alonge: So if you're just joining us, this is The Graduates on 90.7 K A L X Berkeley. And we're here with Kwasi, Wrensford, a behavioral ecologist in the Department of Integrative Biology. How do you continually find inspiration in the science that you do? Because it is often challenging.Wrensford: Yeah. Yeah. It is. It can be very challenging to, you know, keep the inspiration going. I think in academia and research, we ask a lot of, of ourselves, you know, that we're this project idea driven mode of life, you know, where we're constantly being asked to come up with novel perspectives and takes on things. And yeah, you know, you can just do that all the time. Um, but I think one of the main ways that I do that I stay inspired. It's just talking to people. I think one of the great things about integrative biology that my home department is, is that folks in that department do such a wide range of things with a wide range of approaches and questions and systems and, you know, just interacting with people in the department. I can, you know, get perspectives that I never would have gotten otherwise. Like, you know, I'm this summer collaborating with, uh, with a fellow person in the department who works on biomechanics. If you'd asked me like three or four years ago, would I ever have even remotely thought of doing biomechanics work in my life? I would have been like, you're crazy. But you know, that's just comes with talking to people and identifying those mutual, these mutual interests. And that's really, what's been pushing me in my time in grad school is just being surrounded by all these awesome people.Alonge: Please tell me you're building a robotic chipmunk?Wrensford: I don't, I don't know if we're going to do a robotic chipmunk. Robotic squirrel in general is in the works. So I'm collaborating with Lawrence Wang who's in Bob Full’s lab. And they been really interested in this, the jumping biomechanics of squirrels and using that to inform building an arboreal robot. Yeah. And so Lawrence and I are gonna go out, he's gonna come out with me over the summer. We're gonna film the chipmunks and sort of compare how good they are at jumping compared to like the tree squirrels on campus. Yeah. But yeah, it's just stuff like that, you know, that, um, that we, I have access to people like that so easily here that's really been making the job easier.Alonge: Yeah. Yeah. Um, how about the questions that you come up with for your research? How do you shape those or yeah. Is that also coming from dialogue and conversation or do you, is your strategy more, you know, gather all your thoughts, do tons of reading, what's your process?Wrensford: Um, so definitely both to be short. Um, I do a lot of reading. Um, my first year of my PhD was just mostly reading, but I think the questions I've chosen have made it, so that like kind of the range of kind of been everything from the nature of animal cognition to like broad climate modeling to thermal physiology. And so I've cast a very wide net and sort of the things I've read, but it's all been very useful in solving very helpful, but then sort of also taking those readings and bring and assimilating that knowledge and integrating it, but also sort of regularly sort of presenting that to people around me. You know, I think one of the things that's a temptation when you're in grad school is to kind of turn inwards, you know, that you're this lone scientific entity in your, you know, you're supposed to take all of what's around and assimilate and come up with these perfectly formulated ideas and be this sort of intellectual juggernaut.Wrensford: And, you know, that's not really, that's not the case. I, I don't want to make assumptions for people, but I don't think that's the case for most of us, if any of us that, you know, we come up with perfectly formed ideas in a bubble. Right. And so I think it's really important to have that time to sit with your thoughts and assimilate them, but also to make sure you're sharing those thoughts with the community around you and getting feedback and getting input. And again, using that, that diverse community to sort of workshop your ideas and give you alternative perspectives,Alonge: Community aspect of science research is probably something that a lot of people don't quite realize unless you're inside of it. And yeah, I would agree with you that I think it's extremely valuable and we certainly can't speak for everybody. Some people might prefer to work in a more independent way, but I think that you can really reap a lot of benefits from sharing your ideas and getting feedback and all that. So in terms of sort of digging into understanding science and trying to understand more about questions that might be interesting to our listeners or to other people, do you have any advice for how best to sort of seek out information if people are interested in science and a topic where, where are the places that they can look or who can they talk to?Wrensford: Right. Right. So I think so we live in a really great time for just finding information. Right. I think information is available in a way it's never been available before. I think the easiest or the best places I've found for just really kind of accessible, easy to digest science is YouTube. Like, I love science YouTube. Like there's so many science, YouTube channels, things like, like things that Hank Green's doing, like Scishow and, um, and MinuteEarth. And there's so many cool science channels on YouTube. Now like at your fingertips, they give you in like two to five minute videos, you can learn so much about a topic.Alonge: Yeah. And the visual is probably so much more interesting and like captivating then sitting down to read like a textbook or something that you could get from a library.Wrensford: No, exactly. And so I think if you're just wanting to get your, get your toes wet, I think that's the best place to go. Um, I'm also a big advocate of, I love museums and zoos and other kind of, sort of in person, academic science outlets like that. Um, I worked at a zoo, so I'm a little biased, but I think a good zoos are some of the best places to learn about animals you could ever find anywhere, um, museums as well. And then also being in the Bay Area, we've got so many cool, uh, museums.Alonge: Yeah, we're very lucky. What did you do when you were volunteering at the zoo previously?Wrensford: So I worked in the, I worked as a volunteer with the education department, so I wasn't as directly involved with sort of the broader zookeeping animal care, but I helped with animal care for a lot of our outreach animals. So the education department had a lot of, um, uh, sort of smaller animals that we brought out to programs. Most of them were rescues or, um, re rehabbed animals that, um, weren't fit for being released in the wild anymore. So we would hold on to them and take care of them and use them as ambassadors for the zoo. And so I did a lot of work taking care of those animals, but also doing presentations as well. So, um, I remember one of my favorite things ever is there. I could go out and talk to group people with a hawk on my arm. Um, and just, and there's something about, you know, just talking about this animal while you're holding an animal right there for people to see and be in proximity to, there's nothing else like it reallyAlonge: A memorable experience for you, but also them. Right? Yeah. That's really cool. And do you teach at all as a graduate student here?Wrensford: I do. I do. So, um, I, I haven't taught every semester I've been here, but I've been able to, I've been lucky enough to teach, uh, animal behavior. Uh, it's our kind of upper level, um, undergraduate animal behavior course. And so we do everything. We'll talk about the evolution of behavior to sort of the mechanisms underlying behavior, whether it be the brain or hormones. And we also talk a little bit about the more ecological society of behavior and how animals interact with themselves, each other in their environment. And so I had, I was lucky to teach that course, and that was a ton of fun.Alonge: Sounds right up your alley.Wrensford: Yeah. It's quite there. Yeah. Um, and then the other class I got to teach was, uh, a, another sort of behavioral course. This is a course called behavioral ecology, but this was more of a lab and field oriented course, a lot more hands on. So we had a lab section that met every week and we also did field trips about once or twice a month. Um, and so that was sort of similar material to the animal behavior course, but putting it in the context of a more inquiry based approachAlonge: Yeah. And where students can maybe develop some of their own ideas and questions. Yeah. It's so valuable. I think as an undergrad myself, I never actually got involved in research, but I really can see how that can be a really impactful experience. And maybe like, maybe those are the types of things that give someone their first exposure to scientific questioning and might shape their whole trajectory. So totally. Yeah. Have you been able to sort of integrate and include your area of expertise when you're teaching and share some of your experiences in the field or some like preliminary sneak peaks about the findings you're having with students and have conversations about your work?Wrensford: I try to, um, it, it depends on the subject depends on the day, but I think, especially in sort of in the aspects of both courses where we're, we're asking more of the students to sort of formulate their own ideas and, and bring some more of themselves to the process. I think hearing my experience sort of hearing how I sort of struggle through my own work or, or that perspective I think is really valuable and really helpful. So I know in the, in the behavioral ecology course, we have, each of them sort of do, we do experiments with the local campus squirrels. And we have each of the groups sort of devise their own experiments and data collection protocols to work with the squirrels. And so, so there's a whole process and the students and how they develop their methodology, develop their questions and everything like that.Wrensford: And as a, as a GSI, as, as their instructor, it's kinda my job to sort of guide that process and check in with them pretty regularly. And I often can make analogies to my own work, especially like when they're developing the methodologies, I can, they don't have to make the same mistakes I did when I was formulating my own experiments. So my experiments that I've been doing recently, even a lot of behavioral experiments, I'm doing a lot of filming and observations and in these sort of apparatuses that I can build out in the field. And so most of that time was spent with a lot of trial and error. Like how do I get this apparatus to work? How do I keep the chipmunk inside? How do I keep it from escaping? Like, how do I get my camera angles just right. It's all that kind of minutia that you don't ever really think about, especially if you're kind of new to the more active side of science. Right. And so bringing that to bear, bring that experience to bear for the students when they're developing their own ideas, I think is invaluable. I hope they really appreciate it.Alonge: So do you have any sort of final thoughts for how we can all act a little like behavioral ecologists in our daily lives? What kinds of things can we look for?Wrensford: Yeah. So I think to be a bit more like a behavioral ecologist in your daily life, I think whenever you see an animal, any animal, even your pet, when you see it, uh, doing its thing, you know, living its life, um, I just kind of wonder, just wonder why. And I think that's, um, that seems kind of simple in, but I think, you know, when you see an animal out there, you just think that that animal is, is an individual with its own needs and motivations and, and roles. And it's an ecosystem environment and those are, and those roles are dynamic and complex and those roles aren't in a vacuum either. And I think that's really important is that when we see things, when we observe things, always observe things in the larger context.Alonge: That why question is yeah. Much bigger than alpine chipmunks in the Eastern Sierras. Yeah.Wrensford: I agree with that.Alonge: That's it for this week. Thank you Kwasi for being here. It was awesome to chat with you.Speaker 3: Thanks for having me, Mattina. I had a blast.Alonge: Cool tune in next week. Again, this is 90.7 KALX Berkeley.

Eli Mehlferber

Andrew Saintsing: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX, Berkeley I'm Andrew Saintsing and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world today, I'm joined by Eli Mehlferber from the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Eli.Eli Mehlferber: Hey Andrew. Thanks for having me.Saintsing: Great to have you here. How are you doing?Mehlferber: Pretty good. You know, all things considering right now.Saintsing: So, Eli, I hear you study tomatoes?Mehlferber: Sort of, um, I studied the bacteria that live on tomatoes, specifically the bacteria that live on the, uh, leaf surfaces.Saintsing: Okay. So you study bacteria on the leaves of tomatoes.Mehlferber: Mhmm.Saintsing: Why?Mehlferber: Yeah, I'm looking at the, uh, host microbiome interactions. So trying to understand how the bacteria living on an organism can provide different functions for it. So in this case, it's how bacteria that live on the leaves of tomatoes to protect them from disease. But you could also apply it to like the bacterial living in the guts of you or I.Saintsing: Oh, cool. Yeah. I hear about microbiomes all the time. You've got to eat yogurt, right?Mehlferber: Yeah. Get the active cultures.Saintsing: Right, right, right. So wait, like plants need bacteria to get rid of diseases. So plants are like, like what kind of diseases are plants fighting?Mehlferber: Well, plants can get all sorts of diseases. Uh, viruses, bacteria, uh, fundal pathogens, all of that stuff. Uh, I focused mostly on bacterial. Uh, so I study a lot of different bacteria, but the, uh, model pathogen we use is the bacteria Pseudomonas syringae. So that causes bacterial spec.Saintsing: What's bacterial spec?Mehlferber: So if you've ever seen a tomato or a tomato leaf that has a bunch of tiny little black dots on it, that's bacterial spec.Saintsing: What does it do? Is it, does it kill the plant? Yeah.Mehlferber: So it's a, uh, yeah, it'll infect the plant and eventually kill it. Uh, most tomatoes that we grow for, like food production are resistant to it, which is good, but it is a breaking out in some new agricultural cultivars. So, kiwis, for example, right now are super, super sensitive to a certain strain of Pseudomonas syringae that's like wiping them out.Saintsing: Okay. Wait, so people have engineered or like bred tomatoes to be resistant to those bacteria?Mehlferber: Yeah. So most cultivars that you would have out of in a field are resistant to it, but we studied the more sensitive ones in the lab.Saintsing: I got you. And the, and so kiwis are having a breakout, so they're not resistant to it, but they generally don't encounter it.Mehlferber: Uh, so previously they hadn't. It usually infects leaf tissue, but in kiwis it's, uh, the bacteria is actually mutated. And so now it affects the wooden tissue. So it causes, uh cankers. I can't remember the exact name of the disease. I think it was like a bleeding canker disease. Yeah. So it causes this gross red sap to like leak out of the trunk of the kiwi. So it looks kind of like it's bleeding and it'll kill the whole tree.Saintsing: Yeah. Gross. Wait, does this bacteria, I guess, like, can you even get a fruit from it if it has, if it's infected?Mehlferber: Uh, I think it sort of depends on when it was infected and how extensive it is, but it definitely does impact yield.Saintsing: I see. So you study how these plants are using microbiomes that would prevent these bacteria from infecting them basically.Mehlferber: Yeah. Sort of, um, I focus a little bit more on the microbiome side. So there are two ways that a plant can be protected from a pathogen, a bacterial pathogen. Um, one of them is through the plant immune system and that can also be triggered by the bacteria living on them. So you can have a good bacteria. Let's just call them that, uh, kind of get the plant immune system ready to go. Sort of like the, uh, theory of immune priming, like humans. So you want to be exposed to a lot of stuff. Your immune system develops correctly. Um, it's not exactly the same implants, but sort of like that. So if you have bacteria that are say closely related to a pathogen, um, that could make the plant more able to fight off the pathogen when it eventually needs it. So that's one. Yeah.Saintsing: You're saying that plants have an immune system.Mehlferber: Yeah. Very advanced immune systems actuallySaintsing: Wait. So like, so we have what the like white blood cells that roam around and target things that are foreign right. In our, in our bodies. That's something similar.Mehlferber: Uh, it's actually a really cool how different it is. So humans have what's called acquired immunity. So you have to encounter something first and then your body will mount a defense to it. Plants have innate immunity. So they're basically born with all the immunity that they'll ever have. And it's a regulated, it can be regulated plant-wide through hormone signaling, but fundamentally it happens on a cell by cell response. So single cell has everything it needs to fight any pathogen that it might encounter that it's prepared for.Saintsing: So, okay. But you, so you're saying that it's born with it basically that it's innate, but that different cells might be prepared for different foreign invaders.Mehlferber: Um, sort of, so it's innate and all of the cells are prepared for all of the foreign invaders or at least capable of responding to all of the foreign invaders that the plant was born with, the ability to deal with. It gets pretty complicated.Saintsing: I see. Um, okay. But, so you were saying that the, that if a plant has bacteria that are similar to the potential bad bacteria, that it needs to fight off than it is more prepared to fight back.Mehlferber: Yeah. Because it will basically see that bacteria and recognize it. Um, and a lot of the immune system in plants uses conserved recognition sequences. So we told them, uh, MAMPs, uh, Microbe Associated Molecular Proteins. Um, and so those are shared across a wide, wide swaths of bacteria. So if you see a MAMP, for example, uh, that's similar to that of a pathogen, then the plant will recognize it and start responding. And because it started responding in that case too early, because there wasn't actually a pathogen there it'll still be ready if a pathogen comes later.Saintsing: Oh, okay. So a plant. So like in the seed, the embryo has all of these recognition has all the abilities to recognize these pathogens, but once it grows up, then it's actually starting to see these pathogens. If it's been exposed, then it ramps up the defense to those pathogens earlier. Or later, depending on when it encounters. Cool. Okay. So,Mehlferber: So yeah, so that's one, that's one way that the, uh, plant can be protected from pathogens by the microbiome. Um, and that, that's not really what I study all day. That is super interesting. So then I looked at that other way, which is more of an ecological framework. So if you have the bacteria living on the plant, uh, they perform certain roles and they have different things, et cetera. So they take out all of the niche space on the plant. And if you have bacteria already on the plant that aren't pathogens that use all of the same chemicals that are pathogen would need, uh, it can't establish at all to start with.Saintsing: So how does, how does a plant build a good community or like yeah. How, how would it select for that?Mehlferber: That's the question. Um, so we know a little bit about how that works in the rhizosphere, so that's the root structures of the plant underground. Um, and so the plant can release different chemicals that attract certain bacteria, and then those bacteria will drive away other bacteria basically by out competing them. So thatSaintsing: So those chemicals are also innate, like the plants it's primed to release those chemicals to attract those bacteria when it's in its seed and starts growing.Mehlferber: Yeah. All genetic. Um, so we know that happens on the roots. We don't know if that happens in the leaf tissue yet. So that's one of the things that's super interesting is seeing if different genotypes, um, specifically select for different types of bacteria.Saintsing: So, the plants and the roots they have, it's they also have like a bunch of fungi that are down there. Right. And so like, those fungi are also interacting with the bacteria and everything. And like, it's like, it's kind of,Mehlferber: Yeah. It gets pretty complicated pretty quickly.Saintsing: Okay. But you don't, you don't really focus on the roots or,Mehlferber: Uh, I don't really focus on the roots and I don't really focus on fungi either. So,Saintsing: So, but there aren't really those fungi, like on the leaves, like you would,Mehlferber: There are fungi on the leaves, they're actually a ton of fungi on the leaves. So I'm sure that they do play some role. Uh, we don't really know exactly what yet. And so, so fungi are a little bit harder to study in the community since then bacteria, because so bacteria all have, um, uh, 16 S rRNA. Um, so the ribosome has a certain conserved region on it. Uh, and all bacteria have a certain segment that's conserved. So you can design a primer and perform PCR and amplify, basically any type of bacteria.Saintsing: So, we should say like, so what is the ribosome?Mehlferber: A ribosome is the, uh, part of the cell that produces proteins. Um, it's where they read the RNA and then construct protein basically.Saintsing: And so those are like really important to the cell. And so those kind of stay consistent in,Mehlferber: So there's some parts, the parts that bind to the different segments of our RNA, for example, it kind of has to be a certain way or else it won't fit. So there's basically never change in bacteria, or if they do very slowly. Um, so you can kind of design a primer, that'll match that sequence and it'll fit to like 99% of bacteria or something. You can amplify that. So, uh, PCR, Polymerase Chain Reaction, where you use some template to amplify a certain targeted region, uh, you can use that and amplify all of the 16 S RNA sequences in a sample, for example. And, uh, once you have all of those RNA sequences, you have the conserve bit, so you can design a primer, that'll amplify all of them, but you also have some highly variable parts later on. And then you can use those to distinguish between the different bacteria that are in the same sample. Cool.Saintsing: So this is how you're studying, um, how you're finding out what bacteria you're looking at, basically. Yeah. You just kind of like take some leaves, you grind them up and you just look at what's going on using these, uh, you just kinda are able to select for the specific bacteria ribosomes. That's why we're focused on ribosomes. Cause you have like specific tags or, um, something that you can target those particular strands of DNA.Mehlferber: Yeah. So that's why it works very well for bacteria. Um, and then fungi have some analogs to that, but they're not as universal as the 16 S RNA one is in bacteria. So it's a lot harder to study the whole fundal community.Saintsing: I see. Right. So, we got distracted, sorry. I distracted us from the study of bacteria. So, but you're focused in, on the bacterial community in leaves. Um, so you were saying that the rhizomes, the roots of the plants, uh, release proteins or chemicals signals that like get, get the bacteria to come to them. I guess these bacteria are just like living in the soil that the plant is going to grow in. Right. Exactly. And then, but it's less clear how the leaves recruit these bacteria.Mehlferber: Mhm. So it's, so it's pretty easy to figure out where the bacteria in the soil come from, because there's a lot of soil around the plant and it can kind of filter out which bacteria it wants to associate with or not. Whereas the leaves being above ground, there's no clear reservoir. So we know that bacteria come from the air and from rain and from other plants and stuff.Saintsing: Wait they come from rain?Mehlferber: Yeah. So a lot of bacteria come a lot of, uh, colonization events on the leaf surface come from raindrops.Saintsing: Cool. Yeah, because they actual are, are up in the, up in the air, like what happens? Do they like to go up on water droplets and then come back down? Like, is that-Mehlferber: Yeah exactly, So Pseudomonas syringae specifically is really cool in that, uh, being a pathogen that's very well adapted to spreading to different plants. So it has, uh, an ice nucleation protein that it produces. So they'll actually get set up in the clouds and then cause snow. So it drops out of the clouds and then it lands on a plant and then it causes the plant leaf to freeze, which breaks the leaf and then it crawls inside and does all the damage.Saintsing: Dang. That's crazy. That's really cool.Mehlferber: Yeah. It's super cool. If you, uh, if you've ever actually gone skiing, you've seen the effects of this because most fake snow is produced using that ice nucleation protein.Saintsing: Oh, cool. Wait. So like, even when, even at like, you know, room temperature, it could freeze things using things like ice nucleation protein or,Mehlferber: Um, not necessarily room temperature, but well above freezing.Speaker 3: Right. Okay. So a bunch of different ways that the plants can get these bacteria, rain, other plants. And then, so it, you're kind of studying like how it filters out, how it selects for the good ones basically?Mehlferber: Sort of, I'm a little bit more focused on how the bacteria that are already there, um, select for what comes later. So how does the community that you have, um, influence what new members can join basically?Saintsing: Is it by chance though? Like what initial community forums? Cause it's like rains down whatever's in the air, around them and other plants.Mehlferber: A lot of it definitely is due to chance, so random. Um, but we do think that either the plant has some ability to choose which bacteria it wants to promote, um, or different bacteria do better or worse on the plant. So they're more likely to be there just as there's more of them sort of floating around. Um, so we see pretty, pretty replicable patterns on like leaves over time. And so communities are definitely changing and a lot of it is random, but there do seem to be some rules and I'm sort of looking at what the rules are that decide who gets to be there and how well they're going to doSaintsing: What, what are these kinds of rules?Mehlferber: Uh, so it's a lot of ecological stuff. So you've got everything from like dispersal. So how well the bacteria is able to travel between leaves basically or travel through the rain, et cetera. And then you've got a lot of competition based stuff. So if different members in the community don't get along or say they share the same resource that they use, they're going to compete for that resource. And so some bacteria are significantly better or worse at doing that and they have different strategies for competition. So that's sort of what I focus on the most is looking at how bacteria compete with each other and how that shapes the final community that you'll see when you eventually sequence a leafSaintsing: What's bacterial competition? Like what are the, what do they do to each other?Mehlferber: Uh, all sorts of things. So you have a direct and indirect competition, so they can either produce antibiotics to poison each other basically. Um, or they can just try and grab up all of the shared resource more quickly than the other one.Saintsing: Wait, so, uh, a bacteria, a bacterium, I guess that can produce an antibiotic would necessarily have to be, uh, resistant to that antibiotic, right?Mehlferber: Yeah.Saintsing: So the other, how does, how does it get that capacity?Mehlferber: Short answer: evolution. Longer answer: horizontal gene transfer. So bacteria have plasmids, um, and so they can try to share genetic elements between each other. So I think that's how some antibiotics spread throughout communities and then other stuff just, uh, evolving to produce toxins or producing, um, secondary metabolites. So secondary metabolites are basically anything that bacteria puts out. So it takes in something and produces sugar, other things as a byproduct. So they can evolve to produce secondary metabolites that, uh, make the environment less, uh, less ideal for other bacteria. So they could like increase the pH for example of the leaf, um, and made it so other bacteria can't grow as efficiently or something like that.Saintsing: Okay. So fierce competition on a plant leaf.Mehlferber: Yeah. There's a lot going on.Saintsing: So are you studying specific interactions? So you said you were looking at that specific bacteria that causes the spec on tomato. And so you're looking at, are you looking at specific other bacteria that, uh, try to, I don't know, dissuade it from populating the leaves that it's trying to get on?Mehlferber: Yeah, exactly. So I have, um, a bunch of bacteria in the lab that I've collected from, uh, field samples. So just going out to a bunch of tomato fields and grabbing leaves, uh, pulling off the bacteria and seeing what grows, and then I'm looking at a bunch of different, uh, characteristics that those bacteria have and trying to see how important different things are in deciding how well they'll compete, uh, with the pathogen and with each other.Saintsing: What kind of characteristics?Mehlferber: Uh, so everything from just sequencing them and looking at their genome suit and look at what potential they have metabolically by sequencing them. SoSaintsing: Metabolically to like produce those secondary metabolites that you were talking about, or?Mehlferber: To produce that in their metabolites and to consume different types of sugars. So sugar is the limiting resource on the leaf surface. So you have to be very good at getting sugar, if you want to be a successful leaf bacteria. Um, so looking at how those genomes predict, uh, how well they'll do, um, eating sugar basically, and then actually testing how well they do at eating different types of sugars and how many of those sugars do they share and how much better are each of them than each other and the pathogen.Saintsing: Right. So is it just like a plant can't avoid releasing sugar onto its plant or onto its leaf surface or like, is it actually, is that part of the recruitment process to put those sugars out?Mehlferber: That's a really good question. Um, so we do know that bacteria can actually change what sugars are being produced, uh, by releasing different compounds that mimic plant hormones. So that's super cool. So the bacteria definitely can kind of shape that environment a little bit. Uh, and we don't know how much the plant is actively releasing these sugars, uh, to promote good bacteria living there or it's, I mean, some of it's just doing the wheat out of the plant surface regardless. Um, but the plant probably has some ability to modulate it. We just sort of don't know how much.Saintsing: Right. But I mean, ideally it wouldn't want to release sugar, right. It would want to keep that for itself.Mehlferber: Well, you could think that, so the bacterial pathogens, they live on the leaf surface for a little while and they eat sugar and then they eventually moved into this, uh, into the plant. So they'll move to the inside of the leaf and then sort of start writing habit there. Um, so potentially the plant does produce sugar because then other bacteria will live there and they'll prevent the pathogen that could do more damage from dating there. So the pathogen would probably do some amount of damage whether or not there was sugar on the leaf surface. Depending on exactly how it enters the plant and what its life cycle is like.Saintsing: Do you have like any, I dunno, things you've already found or like results you've already gotten to in your research?Mehlferber: Um, so something that I've seen the most is that, so a lot of this is definitely still in progress. Um, but I definitely have seen a lot of, um, difference in the bacteria and their ability to consume these triggers. So some bacteria just seemed to be very well adapted to living on the leaf surface. Um, and that sort of makes sense because you see certain bacteria that are much more dominant, uh, whereas other bacteria, or just really bad at consuming sugar and also pretty bad at living on the leaf. So it's really interesting to think about, um, some of these bacteria probably love being on the leaf. So the pathogen definitely does, um, some of the other good bacteria. So, uh, they, they probably do, but some bacteria probably just, it stuck there, like they just happen to float by and land on leaf. And that's not really where they wanted to be. Um, so I think it's really interesting. Um, just trying to figure out what bacteria actually wanted to be on the leaf, you know, uh, to kind of anthropomorphize them and which bacteria didn't and see how that changes what we know about leaf communities.Saintsing: Right. Yeah. There's so many bacteria and individual bacteria. It was just kinda like randomly, like, you know, maybe life will work out for you. Maybe it won't.Mehlferber: Yeah. And I think that sort of applies to like the human diet too. I mean, we eat a lot of stuff that has a lot of bacteria on it and some of it wants to be there. Some of it doesn't some of it does really well and some of it does fine, but kind of just ended up there by accident.Saintsing: Yeah. We're eating a lot of a plant leaves actually. So do we, um, I don't know. Do you ever see similarities between plant microbiomes and even microbiomes based on diets that people have?Mehlferber: You know, that's a really good question and that would be a cool thing to look into.Saintsing: Have you always been interested in studying, um, bacteria?Mehlferber: Uh, yeah. Um, so it's kind of funny. I actually ended up here sort of by accident.Saintsing: Here as in Berkeley or as in this field?Mehlferber: In this field. Um, so I ended, I started out in undergrad studying fruit fly genetics and, uh, beetle genetics. So it's sort of more of a, uh, yeah, more of a geneticist. And then I actually had an issue with one of my big studies in fruit flies where, uh, I was looking at the effect of bacteria on their ability to consume, um, lower high protein sources. And I kept running this one bacteria that I just couldn't get rid of and it sort of messed up the whole study. Um, but it got me thinking about how important bacteria are for their hosts. And then I, uh, did some reading and realized that that sort of what I wanted to do for grad school. So I switched gears completely, um, and then moved into looking at bacteria. And I was looking at bacteria for a little while and it actually took me awhile to realize that I wasn't really a microbiologist. I say, cause I would say, I would say that microbiologists look more specifically like what bacteria do on like a bacteria by bacteria and basis. And I'm actually more of an ecologist where bacteria are cool and what they do is super cool, but what I'm most interested in is how they interact with each other and how communities form and develop and more importantly why.Saintsing: I see. So you didn't want to be just limited to a single bacteria, bacterium. Yeah. Right. That's cool. So you just, all of a sudden were struck by bacteria and like, because they were messing up your science. Yeah. I guess that's kind of like, um, that's what they say. Right? Like science, there's a lot of accidents and luck. Right. And everything that happens.Mehlferber: So this is definitely a lucky accident, very annoying at the time. But in retrospect, glad I ended up here.Saintsing: Yeah. How did you, uh, how did you get into research and undergrad?Mehlferber: Uh, so I always knew that I wanted to work in science in some way. So even as a little kid, I always loved science classes. I thought they were super cool. Um, and at that time, everyone was like, Oh, so if you're into science, you'll be a doctor. And I was kind of like, Oh, I guess maybe I'll be a doctor. And then turns out I really hate blood. Um, and you sort of need to be able to work with blood, to be a doctor and make it through med school. Um, so I was like, okay,Saintsing: The bleeding cankers on the one, uh, one plant freak you out?Mehlferber: That's actually fine. As long as it's not human, I guess. Um, so I was like, okay, I'm definitely not going to be a scientist. So I was like, okay, I'll try that. Um, so I knew that I wanted to do science when I was coming into undergrad and I honestly just came to campus and wandered around, passing out my CV, which at the time I had worked at Burger King, no qualifications whatsoever, but just wandered around from lab to lab, handing out my CV and said, Hey, I'd love to work in your lab if you have a space for an undergrad. Um, and I just happened to wander into the office of the woman that became my future boss. Uh, and she had just moved her lab, uh, into the building. And this was, I think her first day actually in lab, I walked in and handed her my CV and she's like, yeah, I'd love to have an undergrad you're hired. And I spent five years there.Saintsing: That's pretty cool. Yeah. Another case of like a lucky accident, right. You just like stumbled in, there you go.Mehlferber: Yeah. Just sort of stumbling through science, one happy accident at a time.Saintsing: Yeah. I mean, you know, don't knock it, it all works. I guess people don't know what they don't know. Right. You just kinda got stumble through most of the time.Mehlferber: I mean, I figure if you end up doing, I think a lot of like success is sort of luck. Not necessarily, not necessarily like blind luck, but if you know that you liked something and you're interested in it and you're good at it enough that you can just kind of wander somewhere and end up doing okay, then maybe that's where you're supposed to be.Saintsing: Yeah. Yeah. The secret is just like starting to wander in the right place. Right?Mehlferber: Yeah. Yeah. I think what is it? Luck is what happens when a serendipity meets preparation.Saintsing: Nice. True. What kinds of things did you, uh, what did you like about science growing up?Mehlferber: Uh, that's a good question. Honestly, I guess it was that it seemed to like it that the field was not complete. There was some life to it. Like science is still happening all the time and we don't really know any, I mean, in the grand scheme of things, we don't really know anything yet. Um, so people are always figuring things out and everything else always just seems sort of like, I don't know, a little bit more static or that move more slowly. So I just thought it was cool to be able to work at something where it's your, the person putting stuff in textbooks. I always thought that would be interesting.Saintsing: Yeah. You wanted to work at the frontiers of things. Nice. What do you, uh, what do you think you'll do after grad school? Do you think you'll, uh, be an academic?Mehlferber: Uh, that's a great question. I hope so. Um, so I've definitely, I definitely would like to be in that to them, but I know that the job market isn't necessarily that great in this field. So I've definitely been doing a lot of work with, um, more private sector stuff. So I worked with a startup right now. Um, and I'm trying to get more experience in the yeah. In the private sector. So I can hopefully at least get a job.Saintsing: I mean, I, you know, you study like how you can maximize yields of crops. So I feel like you'll be fine. Right. People gotta eat.Mehlferber: That's true. Tomatoes are important.Saintsing: Yeah. And your, your bacteria affects kiwis too. You know, everyone loves kiwis. So it looks like we're running out of time on the interview, but usually at the end of the interview, we have a moment where guests can address the audience on, you know, issues related to their research or anything they'd like to talk about are, um, I don't know, science in general or whatever in general. Do you have anything you, any thoughts you'd like to leave, uh, the audience with?Mehlferber: Yeah. I would just end it by saying that something that I definitely believe is that everyone's sort of a scientist in that everyone has curiosity about something or another. Uh, and it's really cool and I feel really lucky that I happened to get paid for it, but I think that everyone should sort of just follow their curiosity and always try and learn. Um, yeah. And just go through life with that mindset because there is a lot that everyone can learn and there's a lot out there that people don't know, so everyone can contribute something. Um, and it makes life pretty interesting when you're trying to push at the forefront of that.Saintsing: Yeah. Cool. Hopefully everyone will go out and study something today. I've been speaking with Eli Mehlferber from the Department of Integrative Biology. And we've been talking about his research on, uh, tomato plants and their bacterial communities. Again, thank you so much for being on the show.Mehlferber: Yeah. Thank you for inviting meSaintsing: Tune in, in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.

Greg Meyer

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I am 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 Elisa Visher from the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show Elisa. It's great to have you here. So Elisa, you study viruses, is that correct?Elisa Visher: Yes, I do. And I kind of always backed back from that statement because while I study viruses, I think a lot of times what people hear when I say that I study viruses is that I study kind of the really important human pathogens that you hear about in the news today. So things like Ebola or the flu or HIV, and I did actually study flu for a while, but right now, what I'm really focusing on is kind of generalizable theories about how infectious diseases and viruses evolve, and also how they shape broader ecological and evolutionary patterns that we see across the globe today.Saintsing: Okay, interesting. So how do viruses actually shape ecological and environmental patterns that we see?Visher: So there's a couple of key kind of important observations that viruses and infectious diseases more broadly are implicated in. So a lot of the things that infectious diseases seem to explain, actually have to do with diversity. And so some things that we think that infectious diseases affect are how much genetic diversity is maintained within populations. Um, so there's one theory called the red queen hypothesis. That explains why plants and animals were selected to have sexual reproduction and then infectious diseases and parasites and pests more generally have also been implicated in species diversity patterns. So one of the big patterns that we see across the globe is that tropical regions are a lot, have a lot more species than temperate regions. And there's a lot of possible drivers for that pattern. But one of the possible hypotheses is that these infectious diseases or more generally biotic interactions. So that's just any sort of interaction between living things may be causing there to be more species in the tropics.Saintsing: Okay. So you mentioned the Red Queen hypothesis. What is, what is that, why is it called that?Visher: So the Red Queen hypothesis actually comes from Lewis Carroll's Alison Wonderland, and there's this one quote that's in all of the red queen hypothesis papers. And it says it takes all of the running. You can do just to stay in the same place. So that name was the Red Queen hypothesis. That name was actually originally used to describe some patterns in macro evolution. So macro evolution is the study of evolution over millions and millions of years. So pass the dinosaurs through the fish through when things were just single celled organisms, kind of macro evolution is concerned with those patterns, right? And so the Red Queen hypothesis, that name was originally used to try to explain why species went extinct. But later on in the 1980s, the name was kind of co-opted by people studying infectious diseases and parasites to explain why organisms or species more generally have evolved sexual reproduction rather than just clonal reproductionSaintsing: And clonal reproduction is asexual.Visher: Yeah. So clonal reproduction is just that you make an exact copy of yourself. And so all your offspring are just exactly you. So when we think about natural selection, kind of one of the key tenants is that the point of natural selection kind of what it works on is your reproductive fitness. So your ability to get your genes into the next generation.Saintsing: And so ideally you would just want exactly your genes.Visher: Exactly. So if you're clinical, you're getting a hundred percent of your genes into the next generation, but if you're a sec, if you're sexually reproducing, then only 50% of your genes are getting into each offspring that you make. So that shouldn't be a good thing. No, it shouldn't. Um, so there was a bunch of kind of funny paper titles. Um, one of them I remember is called "Why have sex?" And it's trying, they tried to explain why you would ever want to do that. And so one of the key reasons that you might want to have sexual reproduction is to be able to get your genes into the next generation in different combinations. So rather than having me with brown hair and hazel eyes, maybe for some reason next generation, it would be really bad for my offspring to have hazel eyes, but they still want to have brown hair. And so through sexual reproduction, I could possibly make some offspring with brown eyes and Brown hair.Saintsing: So sexual reproduction is like taking whatever you have right now, throwing it all against the wall and seeing what sticks.Visher: Yeah. Well, throwing it in with your mate’s genes and see what sticks. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. So you're just mixing it up, kind of try and get different couple of different combinations and hopefully some of those combinations will be better at the future environment than the exact clone of would be. And so one of the big questions there was what sorts of environments make it so that you really want to mix up your genes that way, because a lot of kind of climate change or seasonal change that happens fairly slowly,Saintsing: Well, except now, right? With climate change.Visher: So, I mean, nowadays it actually would probably be really good to be able to switch up your genes very quickly, as fast as you can to keep up with climate change. But historically that hasn't yet. But historically that hasn't always been the case and climate change still is often happening over multiple generations of an organism or not of an organism, multiple generations of a species. And also it tends to be more directional. So that means it's, Oh, it's getting hotter for a long time or it's getting colder for a long time. And sexual selection can only really be selected for an a population if kind of the direction of the selection is changing every single generation. So if one generation it's good for me to have Brown eyes, that must mean that the next generation it's good for me to have hazel eyes and then brown eyes again, and then hazel eyes again. And there's not a lot of things in kind of abiotic. So your temperature, your precipitation, there's not a lot of things in those sorts of selection, selective pressures that change the direction of their selection, every single generation. And so the main thing that people realized might be changing the direction of its selection, every generation where infectious diseases or pests or parasites more generally, where if you have a virus that's specifically of involved to infect a certain genotype, then being able to change your genotype, every generation will allow for you to escape from that virus because that virus will be trying to evolve, to match whatever genotype is most common in the population. And so if you're clonal, it's really easy for a virus to keep up with the clonal population because viruses and bacteria have much shorter generation times than humans or plants. So a virus will have hundreds and thousands of generations to try to adapt in just one human generation, right? So one way that plants and animals host species can keep up with viral evolution is to be able to sexually recombine their genes to make new combinations. And so that means that whenever the host reproducing, it has a whole new set of genes for the virus to try to catch up to again.Saintsing: Okay. So viruses are very important for maintaining genetic diversity that we see across the world. And then going back, you also said that viruses play a role in shaping genetic diversity across the world. Differences in species diversity actually is what you said. Across the world. And can you tell us a little bit more about that too?Visher: Yeah. So one of the patterns that we've seen in nature for a really long time now is that there are way more species in tropical regions than temperate regions. So tropical regions are everything around the equator and temperate regions are the things closer to your North and South poles. And so there's way more species there in the tropics. And there's been a ton of hypotheses for why this might be the reason. So one hypothesis is just that climate has been a lot more stable there. Another hypothesis is that they're just warmer and maybe get more sunlight. And so there's just more energy and resources in the tropics, but another really promising hypothesis is that biotic interactions. So again, interactions between living things are what actually drives this higher diversity in the tropics. So we think that if biotic interactions are stronger or more specialized in the tropics, then that means that there's a advantage to being rare. So one of the big kind of areas that this hypothesis is used is to explain tree diversity. So why do tropical rainforests have so many different species of trees? I mean, this is called the Jansen Connell hypothesis, but one of the reasons that we think that they have so many species of trees is that if biotic interactions are really strong in the tropics, then if a seed lands really close to a seed of a tree in its species, then it will have a lot of negative fitness consequences. So whatever insect herbivores are on that tree might come and eat it. If there's any fungus on the tree of it, same species that it might come and eat it again. And so trees really don't want to be near trees of their same species, which means that kind of rarer trees. So trees where there's just fewer of their same species around have an advantage. And so whole forest ecosystems are much more diverse.Saintsing: So species maintain rarity. So you're saying viruses drive that, but is that just kind of like a consequence of what you were saying about trying to have this genetic diversity to respond to viruses that as viruses become more intense, there becomes more intense pressure from these viruses that ultimately you're just, speciated, you're actually becoming distinct species in terms of how genetically diverse you're becoming.Visher: So I think there's a difference in, well, sometimes there's a difference in our hypothesis between what driving speciation. So making diversity and what's maintaining diversity that already exists. So I think a fair number of the hypotheses that are trying to explain tropical species diversity have more to do with the maintenance of that diversity than the generation of that diversity. And so for things like the Jansen Connell hypothesis, so that's again just saying why trees that are rare can have an advantage in a forest because they can escape from pests and parasites that specialize on them. So it's taking those species pairs as already existing and trying to just explain why some of them are more competitive than others rather than necessarily explaining why they are speaciating or creating diversity in the first place.Saintsing: I see. So it's explaining why we would continue to have diversity in the tropics, but not necessarily how we got the diversity in the first place.Visher: There's other hypotheses for that.Saintsing: Right. So you're not arguing that viruses or potentially viruses played a role, but when you talk about viruses and diversity in the tropics, you're more talking about the maintenance of diversity. Yes, I see. Okay. Well, cool. So viruses are really important to evolution. Yeah, they are. This is just a reminder that I'm speaking with Elisa, Visher from the department of integrative biology. How do you actually study these viruses?Visher: So I personally use a method called experimental evolution. And so that's actually one of the reasons that I really like viruses as a study system is because they evolve so quickly. So what I do in experimental evolution is I take populations into the lab. So my particular model system is a moth and baculovirus model system. So it's just a moth, it's the Indian meal moths. So if you've ever had moths that have invaded your pantry before, eat all your flour, it's that one. So what we do in our lab is we have pots of those moths in our lab and we have vials of viruses and we kind of play at, we play at being God, actually an experiment evolution. We basically set up populations with some sort of, if we want to ask some sort of question, we set up populations of mods and viruses under some different environmental condition. And then we see how they evolve to meet that condition.Saintsing: I see. Wow. Does it make you feel really powerful?Visher: Yeah, I really like it. I really like it as a method because you get to have the reality of actually using a living biological thing. So a lot of people in my lab actually are just math petitions. So they do all of their work on their computers and on paper using numbers or really at their level, a lot of letters, but they don't, they can talk about why things might evolve, but they can't prove it in a biological system. I guess.Saintsing: There's math, but there's no driving process?Visher: Yeah. Yes. And then you need, yeah, there's math and it could explain what you might expect to evolve and then you have to kind of prove it.Saintsing: Right.Visher: In an actual living thing. And so I like to say that I do math with malls because I can basically take those predictions that the mathematicians make about whether an environmental condition. So say whether your population is genetically diverse or not. So I can take that math. And then I can ask what a virus that's evolving in a genetically homogenous system. So there's only one genotype everything's clonal evolve differently than a virus that's evolving in a genetically diverse host population. And so I take that math. I find my moths, I make one population that's genetically diverse. I make another population. That's just all one genotype. And then I can put my virus into those two different populations and see how it evolves in response. So what I do kind of sits between the math and then also more kind of the more realistic field work. So experimental evolution still has a level of non-reality to it because we're kind of making up these environmental conditions and we're putting things in a lab and we're just trying to make everything except our exact question that we're asking as consistent as possible. And so that's where it has a bit more power sometimes than field work because in field work, you might have a question about how host genetic diversity affects how a virus evolves, but any sort of system that you find in the field. So if you could just go out into nature or to a farm, there's going to be a ton more variables involved between non genetically diverse populations and genetically diverse populations. So there might be differences in temperature. There might be a differences in precipitation. You might have to look at entirely different species to be able to compare, but with experimental evolution in the lab, I can basically isolate my one variable of interest and test only that one.Saintsing: Okay. So now you do experimental evolution work on moths. Was that just kind of a project you came to here? Or, I mean, how did you end up working on this virus and this moth?Visher: Yeah, so I've done experimental evolution for a bit. I did a little bit in my undergraduate, but where I actually started was in biological anthropology. So I like many...Saintsing: So you did use to study humans?Visher: I did use to study humans and I've studied human and I don't hate humans in theory. I will always keep some sort of human bent to my work. I'm just right now, I'm studying very things, very far removed, very basic science, right. And so I like many college freshmen originally wanted to be a doctor. I think it's, it's, it's obviously it's something that has a lot of career stability. It's something that kind of allows you to do a bit of science, but a little bit through my freshman year, I started actually shadowing doctors and I realized that it didn't allow that being in medicine as a MD probably wouldn't allow me to kind of explore questions the way that I wanted to. So I had a, I guess, crisis and I was looking to see what else I might want to do. And so I don't remember exactly when I just remember being in my bed in my freshmen dorm and being like, what do I want to do? And remembering this time in high school, where I was going to the California Academy of Sciences with my family, and I had recently seen on the news that, Ardi was a skeleton that was found actually by a professor here at Berkeley, and already was at that point, the earliest hominid fossil that had ever been discovered. And I was really excited by this. I was reading all the news and I kept on having all these questions about why humans evolved. And I think that experience was actually the first time that I was really exposed to real science because as I was trying to figure out, well, why did Ardi evolve? Like I was trying to look at it like I was doing my high school science classes, clearly the answer should be in a textbook. Right. Um, and I found that there was no answer. That's what the scientists were doing was actually trying to find these answers. And for some reason, as I was looking back on this, my freshman year, this idea that I could be involved in trying to find the answers in being involved in like a very creative process, honestly, that seemed really exciting to me. So I joined a biological anthropology lab that summer. In that lab, I wasn't working on human evolution. I was working on primate evolution. What, what projects was I doing? I was, my first project was looking at chimpanzee poop and trying to kind of use it to track chimpanzees around this natural national forest. I never, no, I never saw chimpanzee. I just got vials of it's poop. And then I played with it in the lab.Saintsing: Wait, were you in Africa?Visher: No.Saintsing: Oh.Visher: No, just vials of poop in the freezer pulled them out.Saintsing: Well, you got to start somewhere.Visher: Yeah. Tried to get the DNA out of it and that entire project failed, but I stuck with it even though I didn't get any data from that project. I really liked the process, I guess. So I continued in biological anthropology for a couple years. And in my classes I started also learning about more recent human genetic evolution and how more recent human genetic evolution was also implicated in kind of genetic diseases of humans and kind of differences in how different populations dealt with infectious diseases. And that seemed really interesting to me. So at that point I started taking more classes in evolutionary medicine and at one point I was like, so I've been learning all of this from the human side. I can either do a lot of genetics in the lab, or I can, I guess, try to like dig up human fossils in the, in the field, or I'm also really interested in how evolution impacts infectious diseases. So I decided to join a lab that would allow me to look at how evolution impacts infectious diseases from the viruses side, rather than just the human immune system side. So I joined another lab my junior year and in that lab was actually where I got started with experimental evolution. So that lab was working with viruses and bacteria. So they were working with bacteria phage, which is a type of virus that infects and kills bacteria. And that lab, I started doing experimental evolution on these very kind of like basic science, theoretical principles. And I really loved it. I really loved the methods of experimental evolution. I really liked how it seems like I could be very creative with what questions I came up with and also kind of designing experiments to try to test them. And so I decided that I wanted to stay on the infectious disease side of things. Um, and then once I graduated college, I didn't want to go straight to graduate school. I kind of had decided I'd made my final decision that I wanted to do infectious diseases kind of towards the end of things a little bit past when I would have wanted to start applying to graduate school. Right. And I also just wanted a little bit more experience and emotional maturity, I guess, before going into graduate school. So I applied to be a research technician and I joined a lab at University of Michigan that was studying flu evolution because I also wanted to explore what more applied infectious disease evolution looked like since I had done very basic science, infectious disease evolution. And so I worked with flu for two years, and then I started applying to graduate school and came here to Berkeley.Saintsing: How'd you pick Berkeley?Visher: Oh dear, should I say this? So I made some interesting decisions, I'll say applying to graduate school. Um, so I started emailing a lot of professors and getting in contact with them. And I think at this point I had decided that I wanted to go back into more basic science, infectious disease evolution. So I realized that I really liked being the one to come up with these more theoretical questions rather than trying to explain actual applied infectious disease systems. And so, as I was looking around at different graduate schools, my current PI Mike Boots had actually just been hired at Berkeley. So I had been checking Berkeley's website a couple of times because I'm from California, it's a very good department. I was like, well, this would be a great school. If it has someone there for me, when the first couple of times it didn't have anyone here for me, but then kind of all at once, both Mike and Brit, Brit Koskella, were hired and suddenly Berkeley seemed like a really great option. And so when I was reading about Mike Boots's work, I really liked kind of the type of question he was asking the fact that the lab looked at these very theoretical infectious disease questions. And I ended up Skyping with him. I really liked the model system. I like the moths. There are, they're a pretty good system. You don't feel as bad about killing them as you do with mice. You can see them a little bit better than you can see bacteria and bacteria phage. So by the time applications came around, I actually only applied to Mike Boots, his lab, which was the choice. I'm not sure I would recommend it broadly,Saintsing: But being in touch with them, you felt confident.Visher: Yeah. I'd been in touch with him for quite a bit at this point. And I personally know that I'm very stubborn and my mother has told me that I'm very stubborn. And at that point I just really wanted to come to the Boot's lab. And I figured if it didn't work out the first year, I would make more sensible decisions. The second year I had applied to more labs and luckily I got in and I came here.Saintsing: That sounds like a good way to get here. And now you're here and you're investigating experimental evolution. And you’re in your third year,Visher: I'm in my third year. Yes.Saintsing: And, do you have plans for life after graduate school?Visher: What happens afterwards. Um, I will say I have a lot of plans just cause I'm in, I am at the type of person who will plan out three 10 year plans and then make rapid decisions between them. But yeah, so I think I personally really want to stay in academia. I want to stay as a research professor. Um, of course that's a very tough career path to get into. So, you know, I might have to make some other choices, but right now I'm definitely, you know, trying to get my PhD in the next two to three years go on to do a postdoc, maybe two, maybe more, I don't know,Saintsing: Just because that's the way it works in the job market?Visher: Yeah. It's, I mean, it's the way it works. And then I also, I think there is a lot of value in exposing yourself to different lab systems, to different lab cultures, to like different both intellectual cultures. And also I guess more like, you know, mentorship and those sorts of cultures that you can, I guess, create an individual identity for yourself as a researcher and be able to kind of combine the intellectual perspectives of a number of different groups to make your own research program. So I'm personally actually pretty excited about doing postdocs and kind of doing random things, learning new things, doing cool science.Saintsing: Yeah. Yeah, that sounds cool. And then after that you want to get an academic job, a tenure track professorship?Visher: Ideally. Yeah. We'll see how that goes.Saintsing: Well, I wish you the best of luck in that pursuit. Uh we're about out of time, usually, uh, at the end of the program, we offer the guest time to make any points about, um, their science or social issues or anything you'd like to talk about. So are there any statements you'd like to leave the audience with?Visher: Let's see. Oh, I gues I know the statement I'll leave the audience with. So I think coming from an anthropology background, I did a lot of social sciences and I also kind of studied a fair bit in medical anthropology. And I think we often think that our biology, that biology, that we study is really apolitical and divorced from kind of social issues. But I would like to say that infectious diseases are inherently political. And a lot of the pressures that you see from infectious diseases across the world are really unevenly, distributed along axes of power. You see things like huge infectious disease burdens in parts of Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. You see that infectious diseases are worse with political instability, with emerging infectious diseases like HIV. You found, you see that we had an epidemic that reached across the globe and infected millions of people before political entities did anything about it because it was infecting people who were already marginalized by society. So I think in my personal work, even though I am very much on the theoretical end of these things, scientists need to pay attention to society, to humans, to marginalized people, and actually integrate them into what we do and kind of integrate the learnings of social sciences into our biological science.Saintsing: Okay. So we can't avoid politics and science.Visher: We cannot avoid politics in science or medicine.Saintsing: Right, yeah. That's an excellent point. Thank you so much for being here, Elisa. I am Andrew Saintsing and I've been speaking with Elisa Visher. She's told us about her work and experimental evolution to understand how viruses can, uh, lead to genetic diversity in populations and maintain species diversity in the world. Tune in, in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.