New faculty interview – Michael Ailion
Many graduate students experience feelings of uncertainty about their futures, but few will answer questions about what they will do next with “I don’t know, maybe I’ll buy a one-way ticket to South America and see what happens.” Even fewer would actually identify the southernmost city in South America with an airport (Punta Arenas, Chile), buy that one-way ticket, and fly there. But that is exactly what Michael Ailion did. As an undergrad, he had studied both biology and creative writing, and he joined the MCB program because he thought an advanced degree would be more important in science, and hoped that completing the degree would help him decide on a career path. However, after graduating from MCB, he still did not know. A casual question from a friend about his future plans gave him the idea to travel, so he spent two years after graduating exploring South America and writing. He completed a manuscript about his travels that he may publish at some point.
After his travels were over, Michael realized that he missed science, so he became a post doc. And after six years as a post doc, he is the newest professor in the Biochemistry Department here at UW, and also one of the newest MCB faculty (he can now take rotation students starting Winter 2012).
Michael was interested in science starting from childhood. He was always curious about how things worked, and why things happened a certain way, and quickly realized that scientific research was a great way to explore his curiosity. He says that science education is remarkably good at scaring people away from science because it focuses on memorization of details, and not on the scientific process that is so important in research. He was drawn to biology because, relative to other fields, it has more unknowns and more things he could explore.
As a grad student, Michael had a eureka moment during his first rotation (also the lab he joined). He was studying dauer formation (a spore-like state) of C. elegans, and a week into the rotation, he started an experiment to quantify the phenotype of a variety of mutants at 25 degrees C. He had difficulty finding a 25 degree incubator, but eventually found one in the cold room that appeared to be set to approximately 25 degrees. The controls became dauers as well as the mutants. He looked back at the incubator and realized that it was actually set to 27 degrees, and that the change in 2 degrees was sufficient to sensitize the controls. From this experience he learned the importance of weird results, and of paying attention to details so that you can determine their source. However, he warns that there is a trick to determining which weird results are actually interesting and which could be a waste of time.
For research, Michael has two different projects. One of these projects is focused on neuromodulators, which are peptides that control complex behaviors in animals, such as moods, emotions, and appetites. Very little is known about how neuromodulators work at a molecular level, so Michael intends to study the signal transduction pathways, and also to use a genetic approach by screening sensitized C. elegans mutants, which at a single cell level have similar neurons to humans. This project appeals to Michael because it connects complex behaviors to molecular biology.
Michael’s second project is focused on natural genetic variation within populations, and how it relates to phenotypes, in particular speciation. We can find examples of speciation but very little is known about what genes and processes lead to speciation. Michael is studying a system with a hybrid incompatibility within C. elegans. In this system, there are two genes producing the incompatibility: a toxin in sperm, and the antidote to the toxin. A worm with both the antidote and the toxin or just the antidote is fine, but the toxin alone results in embryonic lethality. These genes are extremely effective at propagating themselves, and are selfish genes in the true sense. Michael hopes to be able to harness this system for disease treatment. For example, a selfish element linked to malaria-resistant genes in mosquitoes could be used to rapidly propagate malaria resistance in natural mosquito populations.
Michael blames Seattle for the fact that he has returned as a professor. He enjoys spending time in the outdoors, especially hiking or backpacking in the mountains. He doesn’t even mind the rain, so long as he can still take a hike! He also chose to come back because he UW Biochemistry was his best offer. The department is broad-minded, and he does not consider himself to be a biochemist but will want need to do biochemistry as part of his work, so he chose the department to surround himself in biochemistry expertise.
Much of Michael’s creative writing experience was playwriting, and he has also had some acting experience. For his professional debut, he played a number of bit parts in Romeo and Juliet (the biggest part he played was Gregory, one of the Capulet servants who appears in the first scene). However, he generally prefers watching plays to acting in them.
Michael’s advice to grad students is simple: make sure not to choose a lab from any single factor, and focus primarily on your relationship with your PI in choosing a lab. In particular, choose a PI who approaches science in a way that you are comfortable approaching science. And remember, most PIs expect rotations to be a way for you to learn about the lab and model system, and experimental results are a bonus!
When Michael started grad school, he had great difficulty in deciding where to go. He narrowed down his options to MCB and UC Berkeley’s equivalent program, but after that point vacillated rather than coming to a decision. One of the Berkeley professors called him and gave him what he considered to be the best advice he received about grad school: “ ‘This is a really important decision, … The lab you work in, the project you work on, this will pretty much determine the possibilities for you down the road … Career-wise this is probably the most important decision of your life.’ Then he paused and said ‘But it doesn’t really matter.’ ” What he meant was, depending on your decisions in your graduate career, your life will follow a different trajectory. But chances are your options are equally good.