Scientist in the Spotlight. Ben M.

How is it March already? Somebody please make time slow down as I feel like my time in the lab is running away from me! Anyone else feel like they blinked and the first two months of 2017 just disappeared? But on a positive note, it does mean that I can say I’m going on holiday NEXT MONTH 🙂 and it does mean that it is time for a new Scientist in the Spotlight.

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I have been extremely excited to share this Spotlight interview with you ever since this month’s Spotlight agreed to being a part of my blog. Why? Because we have a mutual love of science and sport, in particular field hockey! I unfortunately stopped playing all the sports I loved when I got to university – one of my biggest regrets! – and science took over for me! But this month’s Spotlight managed to juggle playing hockey and doing a PhD. Now when I say juggle these two things – I don’t mean spend your working days in the lab, then train with your local hockey club once, maybe twice a week, and then play a competitive match every week. Oh no! This month’s Spotlight managed to juggle being a PhD student with being an international hockey player! And he even managed to fit in a trip to Rio and the Olympics last summer with his team!

So, I am so incredibly excited to introduce to you this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight, Ben M.

Ben was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada. Besides playing hockey at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and the Olympics last summer, Ben studied for his biochemistry undergrad degree at the University of British Columbia and stayed there to start his PhD which he has now almost finished! This guy who’s friends would describe him as inquisitive, passionate, humble and easy-going as now retired from the Canadian field hockey team but is often found exploring local mountains, beaches and oceans of Vancouver with the love of his life and their dog named Pilot 🙂

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Exploring the beautiful landscape of Vancouver

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So, I cannot start with any other question other than – You’re an Olympian! Please tell me more about Rio and the Olympics.

Ben: To be honest, it’s surreal to look back upon it now. It almost feels like this really cool thing that happened to someone else last summer. But in one word, the Olympics were unforgettable. Walking into that opening ceremony is a moment I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It was the culmination of a long journey to get there. Our team didn’t qualify for the Olympics in London, and as a result we had a pretty drastic cut to our funding, and so there weren’t many people thinking we could qualify for Rio as only 12 countries get to compete at the Olympics. For our team to qualify, we had to battle against a lot of adversity and self-doubt which really brought us closer together. Walking into the opening ceremony with my friends and team mates was the moment where it all sunk in. We had done it. We were there. And that was such a special moment.

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Scientist and Olympian!

As for the hockey, the tournament itself leaves me with mixed emotions. We were the lowest ranked team in our group, but we had high ambitions that ultimately we failed to reach and that will always be disappointing. Our final game though was against India, who were ranked #5 in the world whereas we were ranked #15. They were a team that Canada hadn’t beaten or tied with in a very long time, but it was the match where we had our best performance of the Olympics and battled to a 2-2 draw. It wasn’t a win but it showed that we were capable of playing with a very good team, and while we were disappointed with our 11th place finish, we could at least be proud of our final performance.

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Ben and his Red Caribou team mates at the Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016

Otherwise, the Olympics were the culmination of years of work and dedication. It had been my dream ever since I was a kid, and when I first made the National team in 2009, it looked like it might be possible. However, injuries and poor form led to me being cut from the program in 2011 so it looked like my dream was then over. I was crushed. But the following year, a new coach came in and gave me another chance, and I was able to get back into the team. So for me, like most athletes I imagine, the Olympics was more than just those two weeks but represented my life’s journey and struggle to get there.

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Ben playing in that final game at Rio

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What was it like in the build up to Rio whilst trying to balance lab work too?

Ben: In the buildup to Rio, I did shift my focus more fully onto hockey. The Olympics are the pinnacle of the sport and I wanted to fully prepare for them and have no regrets on that front. Also, our squad was really deep with at least 25 very talented players competing for just 16 spots, so just to make the Olympic team was going to be a fight. For these reasons I was in the lab less than previous years. I’m not sure that I had a typical schedule, which makes answering the question a bit tricky, but I’ll give you a sketch of 2016 which should give you some insight into the year I had.

We started off 2016 with a 4 week training tour to South Africa. As has often been the case throughout my PhD, I used the hockey trip as a deadline for some experiments, in this case submitting ChIP-seq libraries for sequencing. So the week before was full of long days and nights, with libraries finally pooled and purified in the middle of the night before my flight. The trip itself was intensive, often with multiple sessions a day, and 11 games in total. It was an absolute grind of a trip, designed to physically and mentally push us to our limits, and while I did some reading and responded to emails, I did next to no work while away.

In February and March we were centralised in Vancouver and was probably the most ‘normal’ stretch of the year. Here we were training on the field 4-5 times and in the gym 2-3 times a week. Outside of that I would have a practice session and a game with my club team, and the rest of the time focus on lab work. We had a lot of mid-morning training sessions, and so if I was growing cells I would often start experiments early in the morning, head to training (with travel a 4-5 hour break), and then come back in the afternoon to finish the experiment. If I needed a longer uninterrupted span of time then I’d start in the early afternoon after training and stay late. So through this time I was still working in the lab, but maybe not to the same extent as normal.

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In April we travelled again, this time for a tournament in Malaysia. A tournament setting is different than a training tour in that the workload is more manageable. So with a lighter schedule and more frequent off days I was able to post up occasionally in a coffee shop and work on bioinformatic analysis on my laptop.

While in Malaysia I strained my right hamstring, which meant that when we returned to Vancouver for a 6 week training block my schedule was significantly busier. Even if injured you still come to practice and are part of the team, but now I was also going to physio 3 times a week, and I was also running on an underwater treadmill once a week on the other side of the city – an hour and half each way by bus. The injury also gave me a real scare. It was far enough from the Olympics to have time to recover but also close enough to be a real risk that it would affect my chances of going to Rio. However, I was still in the lab running experiments – just with some creative scheduling for fitting in experiments when I could.

We were away for three weeks in June which was our last tour before team selection. The team was then pick in early July, and most of the month was busy with pre-Olympic things in Vancouver. We had several lovely send off events and the Canadian Olympic Committee made a video of our team selection, with a helicopter ride and Olympic jacket presentation which you can watch here. We hosted a test event against the USA and had a training camp on Vancouver Island. I wasn’t in lab much through July, but I still did a few experiments and was back and forth with my supervisor on a paper we were submitting.

So, the build up was quite varied. No two weeks were the same, but I was still conducting experiments this whole time. It was challenging but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world!

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What sparked your love for hockey in the first place then?

Ben: My parents are from England and so I started off as a soccer player initially and field hockey is in a lot of ways similar. In Vancouver, field hockey is played in the soccer off season, so my older brother had tried it our and liked it, so I decided to follow in his footsteps. Once I started playing, I just loved it, it is such a fast and skillful game that it quickly replaced soccer as my favourite sport. So, I guess I have my family to thank in many ways for my love of hockey.

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So Rio is over, what was it like returning to the daily grind of lab life?

Ben: Again, it was a bit surreal, and obviously an emotional let down. The Olympics were such a high and coming back to real life afterwards is always going to be an adjustment. But I loved it. The year up until that point had been very heavy with hockey training and travelling, which was incredible, but it meant that progress in the lab was slow. After the Olympics, I was able to focus on science. I could give it my undivided attention and that was just great!

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Who doesn’t love a lab selfie? Ben back to lab life after the Olympics

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Tell us a bit more about your PhD research and your science journey.

Ben: My science journey probably started when I was a child. I was home-schooled from grades 5-10 (ages 10-15) which was for a number of reasons. But it meant that my education for this time was question based and inquisitive in nature. I had a lot of latitude to decide what questions I thought were interesting and then go and research them and learn about them – which really is a lot like scientific research. While at this age I didn’t know that I wanted to be a scientist, it did instill in me a questioning curiosity of the world around me. I returned to public school for my last two years at high school and then to University of British Columbia for my undergrad.

Throughout most of my degree, I didn’t think I would go on to do research. I was more focused on field hockey. But I decided to take an optional upper level lab course and that was an important turning point in my life. It was the first lab course I had taken that was structured and more like research than a course, and the professor Dr. Scott Covey treated us more like researchers than students. It was by far my favourite course up until that point and for the first time I seriously thought about research as a next step for me. In hindsight, I think part of why I loved research is that it shared many aspects of the types of learning that I loved and which I was familiar with from my time as a home-based learner. The questioning, curiosity-driven approach and the self-directed, self-motivated aspect were all central to my early education. Research though had one additional component which I loved most of all. You get to discover new knowledge! I don’t think I can emphasise enough the thrill that comes with trying to answer a question that no-one knows the answer to. I was immediately hooked and jumped head first into research and haven’t looked back!

Now I study chromatin and transcription in LeAnn Howe’s lab at the University of British Columbia. My research tries to understand how gene expression happens, as well as how cells remember what they are over time. For an analogy, think of a cookbook. To make a meal – the recipes you make are as important as what the cookbook contains. Similarly, your DNA (the cookbook) contains genes (the recipes). Gene expression controls which genes are expressed in your cells.

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What have you been up to in the lab most recently?

Ben: After Rio, I was working on revisions for a paper studying how an enzyme regulating chromatin structure is targeted to different regions of the genome, which just recently came out in the journal Genetics – which you can read here if you’re interested.

If you want more of an idea of the experiments I was doing, I have a timelapse of me performing qPCR on ChIP samples – the second part of an experiment looking at where in the genome the enzyme I was studying is targeted. I had to do this 33 times to generate the qPCR data for Figure 3 in the final paper.

Currently, I’m working on hopefully the last few experiments to finish up my main PhD project before writing it up to submit for publication and also writing my thesis, which should make for a busy spring!

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Why science and not hockey then?

Ben: I never planned on being a scientist. When I was younger, I thought I would be playing hockey full time, but then I got a taste of research and I couldn’t not do it! I was lucky to have the support from both my coaches and mu supervisor LeAnn so that I was able to manage both, but I chose science because I loved it and I couldn’t not do it. But that’s not because I love science any more than hockey. It’s just the path I saw myself taking.

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What has been the most memorable part of your PhD so far?

Ben: Definitely having my first 1st author paper accepted! It was a really cool moment! It was the first paper I’d been a part of where I was the one doing the writing, so I was quite attached to it. Then I received the email from the editor informing me the paper was accepted in the afternoon on December 23rd – so just in time for Christmas! The perfect Christmas present!

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As you’re nearly finished with your PhD, what’s the next step for you?

Ben: I love research, and so next for me is a postdoc. I’m still trying to discern what area of chromatin and transcription I’m most drawn to as there are so many fascinating questions to study. I’m likely looking to leave Vancouver for this in early 2018, so if you know anyone awesome let them know that I’m interested 🙂

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Is there any advice you would give to someone who was choosing between a career in sport and a career in science?

Ben: Gosh! It’s tough to know. One is to make sure you follow your passion – cheesy, but true! My supervisor has always told me to live without regrets and not to pass on an opportunity that you would spend the rest of your life regretting – which I think is great advice! However, before diving into something, if someone is faced with this sort of choice, I would ask yourself these questions:

1) Why do you want to do science? And why do you want to do sport? These sound simple enough but unpacking these questions and coming to an honest answer can be harder than it seems. I know for me it was really important to try and understand why I wanted to do these things to realise how much I valued them.

2) What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve this, and do you see it as a sacrifice? We often get asked the sacrifice question as an athlete and it’s one that I actually quite dislike. If you love what you’re doing then you won’t see it as a sacrifice and you should see it as a privilege to get to do what you do. The second part of this question then is telling if you see the things in your life that you will have to give up to follow sport/science as a big sacrifice, then you should question if it really is the right path for you to choose.

For some people though it may not be a choice between sport and science. For me, I was largely able to do both and given the right circumstances that may be a possibility for someone in that position. You need both your supervisor and coach to be supportive, and the logistics of your research have to somewhat mesh with the sport schedule. It’s not for the faint hearted, but if you’re passionate about sport and science, then you can find a way to make it work.

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And finally, where should my next travel destination be?

Ben: Vancouver! I’m biased, but I love my city! The city itself has great restaurants, beaches, walks etc and you’re so close to everything outdoors! The mountains for hiking or skiing and the ocean for swimming and boating.

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Ben sporting one of his many Red Caribou hats and this time exploring Vancouver from a different angle

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As I’ve mentioned time and time again, one of my main aims for this blog is to break down the stereotypes that are associated with being a scientist. Now I feel thanks to this Scientist in the Spotlight, we have shown that scientists are not just old men with grey hair and glasses – they can be Olympians in their spare time too 🙂 A huge thank you to Ben for taking the time to be a part of my blog and share your experience with us. I’m sure if you have any more questions about Ben’s research or hockey he will be more than willing to answer them for you.

I loved sports before, but reading about someone’s sports journey whilst being a scientist too is really making me want to dust down my hockey stick that is in my cupboard at home and get back out on the pitch, and making me regret even more not continuing to do sport at university.  My hockey spark has definitely been re-ignited. But my younger self had to decide between two very different career paths – one being science obviously, and the other being another of my passions that is languages. I always assumed that I could only have one or the other – and for languages and science that may have been the case – but it is so refreshing to see that if you do have two passions in your life, you may not have to choose between them. If you are determined to do both, it can be done and you can achieve your wildest dreams in both fields.

Is there anyone else out there who is an athlete and a scientist? Or maybe you juggle being a scientist with another passion? I would love to hear about your experiences too so please contact me or comment below 🙂

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Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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