Meet STEM Chateaubriand Fellow William Beckerson
Department, degree, and expected graduation date
Biology - Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental - PhD - 2020
My research addresses the role of protein-protein interactions between pathogen/host co-evolution in emergent disease and host shifts. In specific, I study unique small proteins particular to individual species of the fungal pathogen species complex Microbotryum violaceum, secreted in order to block host plant defense responses, and the role they play in co-evolution and host shifts between these pathogens and their highly specific host plants of the Caryophyllaceae family (aka Carnation Flowers).
You were awarded a STEM Chateaubriand Fellowship. Tell me about the fellowship, and what your experience was like and the work you did there.
The Chateaubriand Fellowship is a collaborative grant opportunity with the goal of fostering relationships between U.S. and French universities for research in the STEM fields.
Our lab here at the University of Louisville is part of a large but close community of researchers working on the Microbotryum system. By collaborating with labs in France, Germany, and other labs in the US, we are able to share expertise and research goals with one another, and form niches for each lab to accomplish these mutual goals. For example, our lab does a lot of work with molecular genetics while our collaborators at the Universite Paris-Sud do a lot of work on the quantitative genetics and genomics side. This style of allotment allows us to work together to produce a high-throughput research and prevent the “recreation of the wheel,” meaning we don't each have to start from scratch when working on the same projects. This allocation was one of the reasons I applied for funding.
My trip to the lab of our friends in France was a mutually beneficial excursion with two goals in mind. First, a new method of genetically modifying these fungal pathogens had been created and published by our lab at the University of Louisville, and my goal was to implement the tools and train lab technicians at the Universite Paris-Sud in these techniques. The second goal of this trip was to work alongside with some excellent bioinformaticists to analyze the genomes of the three Microbotryum species that I work with, genomes that have been sequenced by their lab.
Working in France was an eye opening experience for me, both personally and professionally, as this was the first time I had travelled outside of the United States. Witnessing firsthand the many different cultures and ways of living, in addition to the many similarities we share was an awesome experience, truly. I am also very humbled to be given the opportunity to be building these international relationships and hope that I can continue to do so. Already I have been eagerly working on a grant to make a similar trip next summer to do research with our collaborators lab at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany.
Why did you want to go abroad to perform your research? What inspired you to undertake the experience and what appealed to you about it?
I've always viewed and promoted science as something that should be available for everyone. I truly believe that science should be something that is open, collaborative, and available to all. In a world that doesn't always share these values, and where sometimes researchers are secretive in order to be the first to discover something they can attach a dollar sign to, I was thrilled to be able to be part of an environment where people work together rather than behind closed doors.
One of the most iconic quotes from Isaac Newton is, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulder of giant.” I really believe that humanity benefits most when scientists come together to hold each other up. Actually being able to lead by example and foster these kind of relationships is something I am very excited about.
Do you have any key mentors? Tell me about them.
Of course! The most influential mentor I have is of course my prinicipal investigator Dr. Michael Perlin (Biology). Dr. Perlin and I share a lot of the same values with regards to research and collaboration. He has been an excellent mentor, always giving me a lot of autonomy with regards to research opportunities and encouraging me to explore new avenues, while at the same time keeping me from going too far down dead-end roads.
I also have two additional mentors whom have helped me a lot with the formation of this research project, Dr. Tatiana Giraud from the Universite Paris-Sud in France and Dr. Dominik Begerow from Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany. I stay in touch with both of these professors, both of whom are always very welcoming and willing to give advice when I need it.
What is the last non-required book you read? What made you pick it up?
The last book I read was The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton. I have always enjoyed science-fiction literature, especially books by Michael Crichton. He has such a way of capturing the philosophical and moral implications of science, and presenting them in a way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Most people are familiar with him from his Jurassic Park series, but I highly recommend reading the rest of his body of work, especially Andromeda Strain, which is one of my all-time favorites!
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?
Funny enough, I actually went to college to become an Accountant. It wasn't until I looked into the lens of compound microscope in a general education biology course that I realized my love for science.
Coming from a small rural community in Kentucky, tools like microscopes were not something that my high school had the money or appreciation to afford. I still remember the first time I looked into that microscope at a seemingly boring petri dish of pond water and saw a world of complexity.
I remember watching as an amoeba made its way around the field of view when something miraculous happened – the amoeba made contact with a much smaller blob and began to engulf it! It stretched its body around this tiny organism and consumed it right in front of my eyes. I remember being completely baffled that something that tiny, without a brain, without muscles, without bones, had the complexity to not only be able to recognize its prey, but also had the ability to warp its body in a way that allowed it to consume its prey.
After that point I was hooked, I simply couldn't get enough of science. I had to know more about the invisible world that surrounds us. This experience is also why I am a big proponent of a liberal arts education. I absolutely love coming into the lab every morning and could never imagine doing anything else.
Without being “forced” to take that introductory biology class I would probably be at a desk somewhere punching numbers into a calculator instead.
Tell me about how your research impacts the world outside of academia?
We are in an age of technology, where sequencing entire genomes is possible to do for a fraction of its former cost, and at a rate that is exponentially faster than it used to be. Some companies are currently touting the $4,000 genome in under a week’s time. When you consider that first Human Genome Project had a budget of $3 million dollars and an estimated completion date of 25 years, that is absolutely amazing.
We are also in an age where genetically modified organisms are becoming more and more common. Ater 20 years of research these have been determined to be safe, as long as proper care is taken to ensure there are no environmental consequences to introducing these transgenic organisms. Most people aren't aware of this but 90% of the corn in the United States is already genetically modified and has been for 20 years, and when you consider that agriculture and selective breeding are themselves methods of genetic modification, we've been doing this for thousands of years.
Currently, fungal pathogens cause billions (yes, I said billions) of dollars annually worth of lost crops across the United States. Additionally, host shifts in these pathogen species can wreak havoc when they jump to new plants due to the highly monocultural and clonal methods of modern farming. Essentially, when a new pathogen arises and infects these crops, they are all susceptible.
The Cavendish banana, for example, is currently being wiped out in droves by a Fusarium fungal pathogen. Despite many attempts (cross breeding and genetic manipulation) to create a banana resistant to this fungus that is also suitable for export and consumption, there are many people – people who depend on these crops for income – who are really suffering from this outbreak. Plainly speaking, I think waiting for these outbreaks to occur before you address them causes undue hardship on the people who rely on these crops; therefore, my research seeks to provide a preventative approach to determining what molecular interactions allow or prevent pathogens from infecting certain plants.
Hopefully, from this knowledge we can create a database of fungal effectors that can be compared to the genomes of these crops to determine a level of risk associated with potential for emergent disease. There are many great studies that show preventative care like annual checkups with your doctor and washing your hands keep people healthy, and actually save them money in the long run. I simply want to apply this approach to the agricultural industry as well.
What is your goal as a researcher? What do you see as the bigger picture of your involvement in scientific research?
My number one goal as a researcher is to benefit society. Science is a powerful tool that has made our lives tremendously better and I want to continue to carry that torch. Whether through the education of students, groundbreaking research in disease prevention, or simply through the discovery of material used by someone else to make a difference, I am confident and excited to contribute to finding solutions to global problems.
Anything you'd like to add?
I really want to thank the University of Louisville and the College of Arts & Sciences for helping me pursue my dreams, and I would like nothing more than to continue building bridges between this great university and universities across the globe.