World record in mashed bananas! Thomas Merritt joins Real Scientists

MerrittSNOLAB 2014We’re happy to welcome our next curator Thomas Merritt (@tjsmerritt), Professor and Canada Research Chair at Laurentian University Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry in Sudbury, Canada. Thomas is also the Canada Research Chair in Genomics and Bioinformatics, and his lab is primarily focused on studying metabolic networks using the fruit fly model system, but about a third of my students study species and metabolic diversity in microbial communities. Broadly, we study the path from genetic diversity to biological complexity. Thomas has volunteered since 2007 with the STEM outreach group Partners In Research, and is active in promoting access and inclusion in the STEM fields with a particular focus on women and Indigenous Peoples. Earlier this year, Thomas worked with a local school to try and set a Guinness World Record for the most people isolating DNA at one time; over 340 students were mashing bananas in the gymnasium!

I’ve known I was going to be a Biology Professor since I was 6. I was exactly the kind of 6 year old that you picture when I tell you that… As a kid I spent all the time I could in the fields and woods chasing frogs and snakes and kept a menagerie in my room. Some time in university I started to learn genetics and the idea that I could actually understand the molecular basis of the amazing biology all around me began to take hold.  Around the same time that I took my first genetics class I took a class in evolutionary biology. I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology, almost pursued that in university; the idea that I could study how the genetics of how a system evolved was amazing and infectious. As a professor, I can direct the kind of questions my group gets to ask, the systems we work in, even the incredible instruments that we get to use. This kind of freedom allows us to ask incredibly exciting questions and is what keeps me excited about my work.

Very broadly, my research group studies the connection between genetic diversity and biological complexity. We ask questions about how the amazing diversity that we see at the DNA level leads to the stunning complexity of the biological world – or doesn’t. We are as interested in the genetic differences that don’t seem to lead to biological changes as those that do. Traditionally, my lab has asked these questions using metabolic networks in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as a model, but now about half of my lab work with bacterial systems and we’ve done some work in fish and birds. Current projects in the lab include: examining how chromosomes physically communicate with each other, describing the metabolism of stress and the impact of single amino acid changes on enzyme function, exploring the genetic and metabolic diversity of microbes in contaminated environments and we’re wrapping up a project looking at double-crested cormorants diet. The common theme is using genetic complexity to explain biology.

Why should people care about our work? Thats a great question. One simple answer is that some of the work that we are doing will have direct applications. For example, we have a project in the lab using fruit flies and a particle physics lab located 2km underground to understand the metabolism of working deep underground. From this work we will make dietary suggestions on how to make mining a healthier workplace. The work that we are doing in microbial communities has direct applications in making mines cleaner and more efficient. A more complex answer is that the work we are doing is helping to explain the broad patterns in genetics and biology. This kind of foundational work may not have immediate applications, but may lead to applications that we can’t predict at the moment – we simply don’t know enough, yet, to know how the things we are exploring could be applied. A really exciting example of this point is our work in chromosome pairing and communication. We’ve shown that in flies chromosomes actually regulate gene expression on each other by physically interacting and that this interaction is modified by genes across the genome. We’ve studied this as foundational, basic, science, but it looks like some cancers are actually driven by this same kind of pairing. Our work in flies, may explain the genetic basis of some cancer and that understanding could lead to potential cures.

I run an accessible sporting program that offers rowing and paddling to people of all abilities. The program I started has been recognized regionally and nationally for our work in making sport accessible. The program is incredibly rewarding and helps keep my lab work and university obligations in perspective. The athletes I have an opportunity to coach daily face challenges that  put anything I face in the lab to shame. Sometimes, I need to go to practice to remember that a bad day in the lab isn’t such a big deal.  Outside of coaching the ParaSport Program I run, row, and paddle. My summers are full sunrise workouts on the water and my winters are full of cold commutes to school. My personal best is a -36C run to school.

My perfect day off? On the water paddling – with some time to fish and some time to bring my daughter out with me. I’m a parent of an incredible seven-year-old girl and half of a dual career couple, my wife is a Professor in the LU Biology Department, so work/life balance is incredibly important to me. Outside of the lab, I run an accessible rowing and paddling program and am involved locally and regionally in promoting access to sport.

Please welcome Thomas to Real Scientists!     

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