April 19, 2014

Better Know A Scientist – Byron Roberts

Today’s installment of Better Know A Scientist is Byron Roberts. He was kind enough to answer some questions via e-mail recently. Here’s the transcript.

Atoms to Zebras (AZ): Thank you for taking the time to allow us to better know you and your work. Tell us about yourself.
Byron Roberts (BR): I have a somewhat unusual history compared to many graduate students. I grew up in northern California, in Sonoma County, and graduated from high school there in 1991. From high school I went to the local junior college and took courses that pre-med students usually take in their first couple years of college. However, I wasn’t a particularly motivated student at that time, so it took me a few years before I had got enough work done in order to transfer to one of the University of California campuses (UC Riverside). Right about the time that I got accepted for transfer, I decided that I wanted to become a paramedic and work on a 911 ambulance for a couple of years while I finished college. So instead of going to UC, I applied to paramedic school and went through all of that. I had intended to go back to college right after I finished paramedic school, but back when I first got my license, paramedic jobs were hard to come by. My first full-time ambulance job consisted of 24-hour shifts, which made going to school extremely difficult. At any rate, it wasn’t until January 2000 that I was able to switch to 12-hour night shifts and get back to school. However, now I was a much more serious student. I spent another year and a half at the Santa Rosa Junior College and this time got accepted to UC Davis, to which I transferred in 2001, initially as a Cell Biology major. While I was at Davis I participated in undergraduate research, and it was there that I realized that what I really wanted was a career in scientific research and not clinical medicine. However, my research interests are still strongly driven by my past experiences in the clinical world. I graduated from UC Davis in 2003 with a B.S. in Genetics, and took a job there at the Vet School studying the molecular genetics of brain tumors in dogs (pet dogs get brain tumors that are very similar to those seen in humans), as well as developing potential therapies to treat brain tumors. In the summer of 2005 I started graduate school in New York at the Tri-Institutional Program in Computational Biology and Medicine.

AZ: Explain to the readers your general area of research?
BR: In order for our hearts to be effective at doing their job of pumping blood throughout our bodies, they need to function in a certain way. The four chambers of the heart need to work together in a concerted fashion. Also, the heart can’t beat too slowly; otherwise the needs of the various organs and tissues won’t be met. But the heart can’t beat too fast, either, since a heart that is beating too fast won’t have enough time to fill up with blood between beats. The mechanical pumping action of the heart is regulated by an electrical system within the heart. In order for the various parts of the heart to work together, and with the correct timing, electrical impulses must originate in a specific region of the heart and then be conducted throughout the rest of the heart in a specific pattern and in the proper amount of time. Many people aren’t aware, especially on a day-to-day basis, of this electrical activity that’s going on in the background to keep their hearts pumping correctly, but it turns out that this electrical activity is very complex. Even within individual cardiac cells there are a fairly large number of components that must work together to produce the correct electrical series of events. And on top of that, there are billions of cells in a human heart that must work together, adding additional complexity! The people in our lab use computers, in addition to doing wet-lab experiments, to study different aspects of electrical activity in the heart. In particular we are interested in arrhythmias, which are abnormal (and sometimes lethal) electrical conduction patterns in the heart. By learning more about the mechanisms by which arrhythmias arise, better treatments (and prevention) for a wide range of cardiac conditions can hopefully be developed.

AZ: What is your area of focus?
BR: I’m still in a very early phase of my work, but I’ve become extremely interested in what are referred to as reperfusion arrhythmias. When blood flow is cut off to a region of the heart (as during a heart attack, when one or more coronary arteries become blocked) or to the entire heart (as during some surgical procedures which require the heart to be stopped temporarily), changes occur in the tissue that is not being perfused (i.e. tissue is being deprived of blood flow): the cells aren’t getting glucose that is needed to make energy required to carry out work, the inside of the cells become too acidic, etc. When you restore blood flow (the blocked coronary artery is reopened or bypassed, or the heart is restarted at the end of surgery) and the tissue that was previously deprived of a fresh blood supply is reperfused, you might expect everything to return back to normal. However, in some patients, the opposite occurs: the heart actually gets sicker. The affected region of the heart might not be able to pump as strongly anymore, or severe electrical disturbances (arrhythmias) may occur. There has been progress on this problem in the past, and there are certain things that many people agree are happening when these reperfusion arrhythmias occur. But it appears that the causes of the problem have not been completely worked out yet, not to mention that there still appears to be room for improvement in devising therapies. I hope to be able to make some progress in this arena.

AZ: What led you to your current position?
BR: Back when I was working as a paramedic, a lot of what I did revolved around monitoring cardiac electrical activity, as well as treating emergent cardiac problems. I monitored the ECG (an ECG gives a “picture” of the heart’s electrical activity as seen from the surface of the body) in probably the majority of my patients. In addition, some of the most powerful tools at my disposal acted directly on the heart: either drugs or electrical therapy to “reset” the heart in cases of extremely severe cardiac arrhythmias (the familiar paddles that are used to shock patients when they’ve experienced a cardiac arrest). My first exposure to reperfusion arrhythmias came when I was in paramedic school. We had to spend a couple of days doing a rotation in the cardiac cath lab, where images are taken of the coronary arteries, or procedures such as an angioplasty to unblock a coronary artery using a miniature balloon are performed. During one of the angioplasty cases that I was watching, almost immediately after the coronary artery was reopened, all of these extra irregular heart beats (called ectcopy) appeared, and shortly thereafter the patient went into cardiac arrest. The team was able to shock that patient and get the heart restarted, but I remember thinking, “Whoa, what just happened there?” At that time someone explained to me why reperfusion arrhythmias occur, and I came away thinking that the whole mechanism was already worked out. But recently I learned that the whole puzzle is not in fact solved, and now I’m working on this interesting problem that I have seen directly affects real patients.

AZ: What did you want to do when you were growing up?
BR: When I was a kid, I loved to take apart and tinker with all sorts of machines, and later computers. By the time I was in junior high, I had decided that I wanted to work with with computers and/or robots. But later my interests turned more to biology and medicine, so by the time I was half-way through high school I decided that I wanted to become a physician. I guess I’ve landed somewhere in between: using computers to tackle medical problems.

AZ: What do you enjoy most about your work?
BR: I get to continually learn new things about how nature works, and I get to work on a problem that was largely of my own choosing. Being a graduate student means that your time can be relatively free of rigid structure, and it requires a lot of reading, which is something that I love to do.

AZ: What is the most challenging aspect?
BR: Figuring out which questions to ask. There are always lots of questions that can be asked, but I need to formulate my questions in a way that is specific enough to make them scientifically tractable.

AZ: What’s on the horizon in your line of work?
BR: I’m still in the early phase of my program, so my next steps will be to finish courses and take my Advancement to Candidacy Exam.

AZ: Any advice for students interested in your field and science in general?
BR: Communication is an important part of science that I think is too often overlooked. Whether it’s writing or public speaking, try to get feedback from your colleagues after you’ve given a talk or written something. My two pet peeves (actually, I think I have a lot more than just two!) are presentations that have not been targeted to the audience correctly, and presentations that are comprised of disjoint pieces of information that don’t tell a cohesive story. The latter is especially easy in this age of PowerPoint where people tend to put lots of pretty pictures or huge amounts of text onto their slides. My personal feeling is that even if you feel like you’re “dumbing down” your presentation too much, there will probably still be a sufficient number of people in your audience who will appreciate it and actually get more out of your talk or paper than if you had done otherwise.

Many thanks to Byron. For more information on his work check out the website for the Tri-Institutional Program in Computational Biology and Medicine and the Cardiac Electrodynamics Laboratory. Stay tuned to learn more about his and for more chances to Better Know A Scientist (index).

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Posted by Tim Roth, author of the political blog Think Anew and Act Anew

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