How do you explain science to your family? How has science helped your health or relationships? We talk about this and gut microbes with the amazing Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre at the SACNAS National Convention in San Antonio. We also had the pleasure of speaking with Minerva Contreras who was presenting her work in neuroscience at the convention and was also a speaker at a live taping of Story Collider.
Follow Dr. Kat, Minerva Contreras & SACNAS on twitter
Check out Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes” Youtube Channel to learn more about the world of microbes.
Image Credit: Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre
Click Here for Transcript
(Dr. Regina) Welcome to Spark Science where we share stories of human curiosity. I’m your host, Regina Barber DeGraaff, astrophysicist and avid TV watcher. This episode is our first SACNAS show of the 5th season. SACNAS stands for the society of the advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in science. It has grown in the last four decades to be the largest organization dedicated to supporting racial and ethnic inclusion in STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math.
The annual convention is the largest gathering of scientists of color in the nation. Spark Science attends every year and I had the honor of interviewing key note speakers. This show was recorded on location at the convention at the San Antonio Texas. Now, sit back, relax, and let’s learn together.
>> [Speaking in foreign language.] Good afternoon I’m Dr. Katherine Keenan Actor Milligan Myhre. My student usually call me Dr. Kat. It’s a little bit easier. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Philosophy in Anchorage. I’ve been there for three years.
(Dr. Regina) You were a SACNAS lunch keynote speaker today. You just did that. I really really enjoyed your story about really trying to explain to your family what you were doing in college.
(Dr. Kat) I was in the lower 48 for over 20 years. I’m from Kotzebue so it’s very different from the lower 48. My mentors would try to ask me, “What questions I would I like to ask?” I would say, “What questions are you working on? That’s what I’ll work on.” I didn’t have an idea of what a scientist could do. I wasn’t looking for research questions when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I got into the lower 48 and started working in research that I realized, what you could do with this information, what you could do with the tools given in a traditional science education.
Now, when I have students that come to my lab, we have at least 5 different projects going on in my lab. I’ll sit down and I’ll go through each one. Then I’ll ask them, “Which one of these are you interested in? What aspect do you want to study?” Some students take whatever project I happen to be working on. Other students will come to me with their own project.
(Dr. Regina) I was a grad student too. As a grad student you sit there and whatever my advisor says I will do. I don’t have these big ideas. You’re right. You don’t have a basis to develop those big ideas. Where are they going to come from? Another thing I wanted to talk to you about, what are those other projects that you offered?
(Dr. Kat) I have a student that studies kombucha for example. He brews his own kombucha and says he thinks there are microbes in kombucha that can probably be beneficial and I want to figure out what those are and what kind of activity they have. From that we built a project around identifying microbes in kombucha and then figuring out what, if any of them have helicobacter activity. We chose helicobacter because his partner is Alaska native and I’m Alaska native and we’re both really involved in the major causes of illness in Alaska natives.
There happens to be a microbe that causes cancer, helicobacter, it’s a Gram-negative bacteria that causes ulcers but in a small subset of people it causes cancer, gastric cancer and colon cancer. Those happen to be two cancers that are highly prevalent in Alaska natives. We are trying to compare these different home brew recipes and find out if any of them are able to support any of these microbes and are more amenable to perhaps using this as a probiotic in kombucha.
(Dr. Regina) That is awesome.
(Dr. Kat) I’m really excited about that project.
(Dr. Regina) What do you do when you’re trying to explain these projects and you’re trying to explain them to even just undergrads that you’re working with?
(Dr. Kat) That’s part of my talk, too. I’d go home and tell these things to my dad and he’d be like, OK, his eyes would glaze over. I get that [laughing.] When I talk to undergrads, I like working with freshman because I can tell them the proper way to hold a pipette.
(Dr. Regina) It’s like working with an empty slate.
(Dr. Kat) Yes. I can train them exactly how I want. When I talk to freshman and high school students, I work with a lot of high school students, I tell them, “Look, what we’re really interested in are these microbes that are in our gut. Those microbes live in really complex communities with thousands of members just like you have an important job in your community, these microbes have an important job in their community.” Not just within the community itself, but then they’re also affecting the host.
What we’re studying is the relationship between those microbial communities and the host. For the host, we use the immune system as our read out. How are these microbes changing the host via the immune system? When we think about the host, we not only look at the immune system, we also look at how they’re developing. So, how big are they getting? Do their internal origins look correct? Because, we can see through these fish because they are transparent.
Then we can look at their behavior too because the microbes also affect the way that the behavior develops in the fish. We can see how much time they spend close to other fish or we can see how far they travel. That tells us how timid they are or how bold they are. I focus on this relationship between the microbes and their host and how they affect development.
(Dr. Regina) There’s a lot of new research coming out in neuroscience about how the gut is affecting your brain and how those things are connected.
(Dr. Regina) For more information about this, check out our student blog post about recent studies that suggest a link between gut microbes and Alzheimer’s disease.
(Dr. Regina) Is there anything that you’ve used in the past or now or are thinking about using that has to do with pop culture in your science?
(Dr. Kat) I’m actually really excited that Ed Young was at the … [laughing] he wrote a good book, I Contain Multitudes, I tell my students to read that book. It tells the story of the microbe research from the point of view of the scientists that are doing the research while also telling about the science behind those stories. It’s a really nice tool to be able to explain why these things are so important.
The other thing is that Ed Young has is a series of videos, the I Contain Multitude series, my favorite one to show at the beginning to my microbiology class is a show that he did with Jack Gilbert talking about what would happen if we took away all of the microbes. It’s this apocalyptic view. It also gets the point across that microbes are a really important part of our everyday life.
(Dr. Regina) Ed Young is a world-renowned science journalist who writes for the Atlantic. Here is the clip that Dr. Kat was referring to.
>> Microbes may be tiny but they have a profound effect on our lives. Most thought of bacteria as germs, as bad guys, and yet only a few hundred kinds or so are known to cause disease. The vast majority of them are innocuous or beneficial even. Just look in the mirror. Your face, your skin, your mouth, they are covered in gardens of microbes that are stopping more dangerous species from colonizing.
Your guts are homes to thousands more species that are eating your food for you. Or perhaps, you are eating their food for them. All told, there are at least as many microbial sells on my body as there are native human cells which means, at best, I’m just half the person that I think I am. If it’s even me doing the thinking at all.
(Dr. Kat) Then, Rob Knight gave a really neat TED Talk a few years ago. The TED Talk book that came from that is just a really easy way to see where microbiology work has come from and where it is going in the future.
(Dr. Regina) Has your dad seen any of those, I Contain Multitudes? You could say, “Hey, I saw Ed.” Did you get to meet him right after the talk?
(Dr. Kat) Yeah. It was really fun. I haven’t shown my dad these videos. I want to the next time I go home. I’m wanting to. My parents have a computer but the internet service has been slow. They just finally upgraded to faster internet service. Now I can be like, “Dad, look at all of these great things!” I have shown him pictures of my little fish moving around.
(Dr. Regina) I want to thank you for talking to me. I do want to say that your talk was very inspiring.
(Dr. Kat) Thank you.
(Dr. Regina) I know you hear that a lot, inspiring.
(Dr. Kat) I don’t. This is my first time giving a big talk like this. I was really happy. A student came up to me afterwards and said she was considering dropping out of her science research. She listened to my talk and was inspired to stay. Honestly, I almost cried. 200 people who were standing around after, this is the first time I’ve been able to give a talk like this.
It was inspiring to hear the stories from the students that were coming up to me afterwards talking about their struggles and where they’ve been and where they hope to go. Hearing that my talk helped them realize that it was possible and that the things that they’re working on are worthwhile, it just, it was really moving for me.
(Dr. Regina) That is so, I’m like smiling ear to ear. You’re emotional, like, that’s awesome. Thank you so much for talking to me.
(Dr. Kat) Yeah. It was a pleasure. I’m so glad to have met you.
(Dr. Regina) Follow Dr. Kat on Twitter @napaaqtuk. Spark Science will be back with more from the SACNA convention, the number one convention with the focus on inclusion in STEM.
(Dr. Regina) Welcome back to Spark Science. This episode is our first SACNAS show of the 5th season. The annual convention is the largest gathering of scientists of color in the nation. Story Collider is a podcast featuring person stories related to science. They came to the national SACNAS convention in San Antonio. I had the opportunity to interview a student who spoke at the live taping.
(Minerva) My name is Minerva Contreras or Minerva Contreras as you would say in Spanish. I was born in San Diego but I grew up in Tijuana, Mexico. I went to school for biotech engineering in Mexico, specifically in Queretaro at University of Autonoma La Queretaro.
(Dr. Regina) We were talking earlier that you were born in San Diego you studied in Mexico, do you have family in Mexico?
(Minerva) I do. I have a lot of family there.
(Dr. Regina) What made you want to do that? What made you want to apply to an undergrad? Did you have ideas of being a scientist already, like fighting cancer?
(Minerva) I actually didn’t find my passion for science until I was a little older, so around 21 or 22 years old. I went to art school actually. I went to film school because I wanted to do something creative, you know, something that would spark like a creative side of me, a story telling side. I thought filmmaking was great so I went in to do that.
(Dr. Regina) How far did you get into that industry?
(Minerva) Not far at all. I was there for three years. I got an associate’s degree and then, maybe like 6 months before graduating, I started reading, literally. I’m just going to graduate because you have to finish what you start.
(Dr. Regina) I like that comment though because I think a lot of the scientists and the science majors I talk to on this show is, we all kind of hit that wall where things get so hard, things are very clearly planned out, you go to university and you have a syllabus and you have a series of classes that you have to take. Then, you hit this part where it’s not as well planned out and you have to problem solve or you have to do things on your own and it’s hard to finish things that you start. That’s kind of the accomplishment to science is actually finishing projects that you start.
(Minerva) Something definitely changed in me. I finished because I knew I had to finish the filmmaking associate’s degree in LA. But I did not go to graduation because I wanted to feel proud of whatever I was going to graduate from.
(Dr. Regina) You mean you didn’t feel proud so you didn’t go to graduation?
(Minerva) No. I’m not going to pursue it, you know. I don’t want to stay here in this industry.
(Dr. Regina) Did you regret that ever?
(Minerva) No, I feel like I don’t regret it because I want to get there, you know? I want to graduate and be super proud of my degree and now I think that I will be.
(Dr. Regina) So you’re in film school and stuff happens within your family health wise. You start reading about what happens in the brain.
(Minerva) My parents got divorced when I was 11. My dad was always kind of particular I guess. Odd in a way. I always had a feeling but I didn’t really know how to define what was wrong with him until, I guess, when I was older. One day I got a call from him saying he needed to see me. I was in LA in my art school. He lived in Tijuana. I knew I had to go. So, I just went.
When I got there he was just completely out of himself. He started like, showing me around his house, it was a huge mess, the house. This was the house I grew up in so I knew the house but he started showing me the house as if I had never been there before and pointing out every stain on the floors and on the walls and on the ceilings, every piece of trash, talking to me about the meaning behind all of these things.
Then he said that “they” were out to get him and everything had been placed or arranged that way by “them.” I didn’t know how to react, you know? So, I left, feeling very worried and very confused. I think in my mind I was just like, “There has to be a scientific explanation to this.” So, that’s what I did. He’s very lonely, he was very lonely and he had no one. I think I was one of the persons that he was actually like more open to. Even then, it didn’t seem like he trusted me all that much. I had to figure out a way of learning about what was going on with him and then trying to solve this huge problem and help him.
I eventually hypothetically diagnosed my dad with paranoid schizophrenia. I really got into science because of that. I start reading about the brain, and then it kind of like, went from wanting to help him to just literally finding my passion. Now I’m more into the neurobiology of everything, not specifically schizophrenia.
(Dr. Regina) That opened the door a little bit, and you’re like, oh, these other things.
(Minerva) Right. Yes.
(Dr. Regina) You’re here at SACNAS and you’re actually presenting research. Now you are an undergrad and you want to go and get a degree in, is it neurobiology?
(Minerva) Yes. Neuroscience, neurobiology specifically. Today I’m going to be talking about neurodegenerative disease called FXTAS, fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome. We used cast proteins to rescue the cellular pathology of the deceased.
(Dr. Regina) That’s a lot of words that I don’t understand. So, start from the beginning. Exactly what is that that you just said?
(Minerva) So, are you familiar with Cas promotions? CRISPR-Cas9?
(Dr. Regina) A little bit but give out listeners, this is new, this is new technology that is actually very amazing and like moving forward very quickly.
(Minerva) It’s fascinating. It’s a gene editing technique basically. For the disease that we’re studying, there’s this pre mutation that leads to neurodegeneration at the age of 50-55. So your whole life can go through and you’re fine and then you’re 50 and then you start having these weird neurological symptoms. Which are like tremor ataxia, problems with memory, etc.
We were trying to see if this protein, and it was engineered at the lab that I worked at, the Lowe’s lab at UCSC to target RNA. Its CRISPR-Cas9 is able to edit genetically. Then the lab engineered it to be able to edit RNA.
(Dr. Regina) I know that you weren’t super proud of your filmmaking degree but there must have been skills that you got that aid you, that actually make you, I think, really valuable to your teams in neuroscience, or to your class. What are those things that you’ve maybe noticed?
(Minerva) I think what has been most valuable is the story telling part of it. It’s common that as a scientist, you can’t really find a way to be able to communicate all of your great discoveries to the general public. I think that’s a huge problem because it really segregates us from the rest of society. Not in an arrogant way, it’s just we really don’t know how to communicate our findings in a simple or relatable way. I’m really passionate about that actually. I’ve been trying to get more into that which is one of the reasons why I am doing this in the first place.
(Dr. Regina) The story collider and talking to me.
(Dr. Regina) Which I’m very approachable. [Laughing.]
(Minerva) Yes. [Laughing.]
(Dr. Regina) I think somebody can write a story or maybe tell a story to their friend. But to actually be able to really communicate it to people is a separate thing. Both those things are something that you’re bringing to science that you should be proud of, that you did graduate from filmmaking.
What are your goals then? You’re going to graduate. You’re looking to grad school. What do you want to do in grad school? What is your passion, your mission in life?
(Minerva) I really want to get into the molecular biology of the brain. I’m super passionate about how the brain works. I think I owe my need to understand everything to the fact that I wasn’t 100% able to understand my dad. It’s kind of like, you know, if you look at it like psychologically, I’m trying to fulfil that, you know?
I’m so passionate about science and I had no idea about this part of me until I was 21 or 22, you know? I feel like if everyone was a little bit more open to just listen to simple science, it’s actually really relatable, they would get as excited as I did. You don’t have to pursue a scientific career but I feel like the world needs to be aware of what’s going on scientifically and I want to be a part of that.
(Dr. Regina) Thank you so much for talking to me, because that was really inspiring. I hope you are proud of your filmmaking and your communication skills because that is something that is very valuable in your field.
(Minerva) I’m trying to be. Thank you.
(Dr. Regina) We’d like to thank Dr. Kat and Minerva for taking the time to talk to us at such a busy convention. You can follow Dr. Kat on twitter @napaaqtuk. If you’d like to learn more about SACNAS, check out their website sacans.org. The I Contain Multitudes series can be found on YouTube and it’s based on the book by Ed Young. It was produced by HHMI Tangled Bank Studios in association with Room 608, Inc.
Spark Science is recorded on location in Bellingham Washington at Western Washington University the producers are Suzanne Blaze, Regina Barber DeGraaff, and Robert Clark. Student editors are Julia Thorpe and Andra Nordin and Sarah Cokely. Additional editing is done by WWU video services. Spark Science is sponsored by WWU and created in partnership with KMRE. Thank you for joining us. If you want to listen to past episodes, visit sparksciencenow.com. If there is a science idea you are curious about, post a message on our Facebook page or Tweet us @sparksciencenow.
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