Welcome to Science interrupted, my blog for what I think about when my adventures in science are interrupted by my real life.
When I started my adventures into science, realistically when undergraduate me decided that getting a Ph.D. was what I wanted to do with my life, I assumed that getting a Ph.D. would be an all-absorbing, determined, and fulfilling adventure. In a lot of ways, that is a pretty accurate way to describe the process. But at the same time, this is wildly inaccurate. Science can be all-consuming, but real life tends to happen anyway. And, at least for me, my adventures in real life have been just as important as my adventures in science for helping me think about science.
For more context, let me give a few examples of what I mean and how real life has interfered to help my science. Broadly speaking, I study the psychological and behavioral manifestations of genetic conflict. Or, more plainly, I study why your genes don’t agree on who you are and who you are going to be. Think back to high school biology and sex ed classes. We’re taught that humans reproduce when sperm meets egg and - BOOM - there is a new human! This is a good way to teach high schoolers the basics of reproduction, but this isn’t the whole story. In reality, humans have a bunch of these really cool imprinted genes that come from our parents - ones that come from our moms have maternal interests imprinted and those that come from our dads have paternal interests imprinted. It is these imprinted genes, and their genetic interests, that can be in conflict with one another. Scientists can see signs of these conflicts as soon as conception happens - in fact, there is a decent amount of research looking at differences in imprinted gene expression in the placenta during pregnancy1–3 (the placenta is probably the coolest organ you know nothing about, by the way), how these differences in imprinted genes lead to pregnancy complications4–8 (this includes some of my own work), and how the effects of genetic conflicts can have long term on growth and development9–13.
But, as you might have guessed, your genes don’t just go away and stop influencing you and your behavior as soon as you reach adulthood. Your genes are yours for life and, for better or worse, they will influence how you think, feel, and behave. That also means that genetic conflict influences how you think, feel, and behave throughout your life. There is some evidence that genetic conflict reduces as people get older14, but this line of thinking primarily deals with genetic conflict WITHIN an individual. When we add the potential for genetic conflict BETWEEN individuals, holy monkeys! The possibilities for conflict are nearly endless! For example, we can look at how genetic conflict between individuals influences things like sibling rivalries (sorry, Jill, you’re a pretty cool microbiologist and sister no matter how much I pick on you), romantic relationships, friendships, and so on. Basically, any social relationship we look at has the possibility of being influenced by genetic conflict. A lot of my research also deals with how genetic conflict influences our psychology and behavior in these relationships.
But, my interest in genetic conflict doesn’t stop as soon as I leave the lab (or, more realistically, my office). I’m a real-life person, I have real relationships, and occasionally I find myself understanding how my life unfolds through the lens of my research. But, more often than not, I find myself understanding my research through the lens of my life.
So, in the middle of a pandemic where I’ve already experienced pregnancy, my comprehensive exam defense, childbirth, and adopting a new puppy, I decided to start writing down how my life influenced the way I think about science. Hopefully, this blog is as fun for you to read as it is for me to write. I can’t promise that these blogs will always super science-filled, but I can promise you that will always contain what I think was the most interesting and interrupting thing that week.
Stay curious my friends,
In case you are interested, here are some of the articles that I read and thought about while writing this.
1. Pilvar, D., Reiman, M., Pilvar, A. & Laan, M. Parent-of-origin-specific allelic expression in the human placenta is limited to established imprinted loci and it is stably maintained across pregnancy. Clin. Epigenetics 11, 94 (2019).
11. Haig, D. Colloquium papers: Transfers and transitions: parent-offspring conflict, genomic imprinting, and the evolution of human life history. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 107 Suppl 1, 1731–1735 (2010).