Talking Real Science with Brent Sinclair

This episode of Share Science features Brent Sinclair, PhD, a biology professor at Western University. Brent’s research largely involves insect thermal biology and has seen him freezing bugs all over the world. Brent spends quite a bit of time outside of his research and teaching responsibilities organizing career events for graduate students in the biology department. In this interview, Brent shares why these opportunities are so important for graduate students as they get close to finishing their degrees, as well as his career path and passions in and out of the lab.

Where did you grow up and how did your youth influence your path and passion towards science?

I grew up in New Zealand, which is why I talk funny. I’m the first generation in my family to go to university and that sort of thing. I grew up in the North Shore of Auckland, which is about as exciting as growing up in Burlington near Toronto. What we had back then on prime time Saturday evening television was blue-chip nature documentaries, most of which were actually made in New Zealand. Strangely enough, the Natural History unit in Dunedin is the second largest producer of natural history documentaries in the world after the BBC. There were all these great things about the biology of New Zealand and surrounding areas, and that meant that when I got to university, I could really relate to where all these creatures were.

Where did you study and how did you end up in your current field?

I started out at university with this grand plan to do a double degree in English and biology. At the time, you had to do an entire degree in biology and also an entire degree in English, and almost no courses could be cross credited from one to another, which was going to take five years. Looking back, that could have been a monumentally stupid idea for me. This was at the University of Auckland. When I was between first and second year, I had this job banging lids on pots in a chemical factory. I was the guy that would weigh in 500 grams of pool chlorine when you would buy it in tubs and hammer it on with a rubber mallet.

I was chatting to the other guy that was working with me–through respirators, of course. A lot of conversations were like this: I was talking about the difficulty of figuring out my schedule for the next year because all the biology courses had all these lab components and the English courses tended to be in the afternoons when the biology labs were. He was a couple of years ahead of me at university and asked, “What have your grades been like in these different things?” I said, “Well, I do really well in biology because it’s easy and not so well in English and philosophy because they’re challenging and interesting.” He asked, “Well, has it occurred to you that you might be good at biology and not as good at English and philosophy?”

“This was a revelation, which probably tells you all sorts of things about my self-awareness. I went into full-time biology.”

At the end of the year, I managed to get myself a research job for about six weeks. There were research studentships, but I wasn’t successful in getting one of those for the summer. There was a guy that had taught a field course and I really wanted to do it, so I phoned him, back in the days when we telephoned, every week for the entire term until he found some money to employ me for six weeks to help out his various graduate students in the field over the first part of the summer. As that wound up, I had a job sticking barcodes onto books in the library. If you’ve ever wondered how all those barcodes got onto all those old books, it was people like me, which meant that I finished my summer with an incredible knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System.

The problem was that the department was amalgamating zoology and botany, and the university was also shifting from a quarter system to a semester system. The third-year courses were just all weird and screwed up. Knowing what I know about undergrads now, I was probably misreading the whole thing, but it seemed to me that it was just impossible to do any of the courses I wanted to do. I talked to my supervisor, who said, “You could think about going somewhere else. Otago University is really good for zoology right now and could be a good place to go.” I wrote a letter, as one did in those days, to the department chair with a photocopy of my transcript and said, “What would be my chances of doing zoology?” He wrote back and said, “I think you’d be an excellent student here.”

“I packed up and moved to the other end of the country to do zoology, where, by the way, the library used the Library of Congress system, so all my knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System was a complete waste of time.”

I immediately wriggled my way into doing some volunteering for various graduate students and field work. As it turns out, that was a theme throughout my studies at Otago. Dunedin is the wildlife capital of New Zealand, and we would literally have afternoon undergraduate lab trips to see seal colonies and penguins and albatrosses. It was just a stunning place to study, and it meant that there were all these opportunities with people doing fieldwork nearby. I spent a bunch of time with Jenny Rock, who is now actually faculty at Otago, helping her catch lizards and measure body temperatures. I did some work for various people that were running around at night banding sea birds. I was also interested in working on insects, which is strange because I was a little bit scared of insects.

When I was in third year, we had an environmental physiology class and we had a guest lecture by a guy called Bill Block who was a researcher at the British Antarctic Survey. He gave two guest lectures about insect cold tolerance and about the fact that there are insects that survive freezing and insects that avoid freezing. I was like, “That is what I want to do.” I basically signed off on helping out with lizard endocrinology and went and visited the person in the lab closest to this, which conveniently had Bill visiting on sabbatical.

That winter break, I read the entire literature of insect cold tolerance, which was easier in 1995 than it is now, finally got a summer studentship, and worked on insect malpighian tubule physiology, which we are still working on in my lab, and did an honors project which involved me running up and down in the mountains and catching cockroaches in the winter. Then I knew that I wanted to do a PhD. I knew I wanted to stay in this university environment and I looked around and I didn’t really know about anywhere other than Otago and Auckland universities.

“I liked the lab I was in and there was an opportunity to go to Antarctica. I was like, “Great, I’ll stay here and do some fieldwork in Antarctica.” That’s how I ended up doing my PhD.”

Who has influenced your career and how?

I don’t have any one person or mentor or anything like that who has had a huge impact on direction. There have been people along the way that have been enormously helpful and supportive. There have been people that haven’t been supportive, but have still been helpful. I think that over time, you adopt mentors and peers as you go depending on the situation you’re in. I think for anyone, that list should change over time.

“I had my various supervisors and advisors who were formally involved, but also I often had people that I would informally adopt.”

When I was a grad student, I worked a lot with a guy called Robert Poulin, who’s a Canadian parasitologist, absolute superstar. I wasn’t doing parasitology, but we spent a lot of time talking about science and he mentored me a great deal, probably more than I realized. Also, Janice Lord, who is a botanist but an alpine ecologist. I spent a lot of time in the botany department because there were fun people, like Kath Dickinson, who really influenced my thinking. Also, Sir Alan Mark, who’s the godfather of New Zealand alpine ecology. Of course, I moved on and ran into various other people, postdoc advisors and so forth and such like, and also just generic advisors that you latch onto at conferences and become friends with.

“Now I have the pleasure of … still having mentors of various sorts, but also having a group of peers that really help me situate my work and understand where we’re at and … talk about what we’re doing science wise.”

What is your motivation for organizing career events for graduate students year after year?

This started many years ago when I realized that I would often see people that had graduated with their PhD still kicking around the department six months later because they hadn’t really made any plans during their PhD as to where they were going to go next. The thing you have to realize is that people very seldom fail a PhD because they go into the defense and they don’t know what it was that they did.

“People fail PhDs by not submitting them, and that could take the form of a very long PhD, or it could take the form of just disappearing out.”

I think that if you start developing a plan as to what you are going to do next, then finishing the PhD stops being this giant hurdle goal that you need to reach and becomes just another thing that you need to get done in order to get to where you want to be. I started out by running workshops, helping PhD students figure out how to find a postdoc, and trying to promote the idea that you should be looking for this before you finish your PhD. If you start after you’ve finished, then you’ve left it a bit too late. Then over time, that has evolved because I started to think about, well, who’s doing PhDs?

“A lot of the time, people are doing PhDs not because they really want to be where a PhD will take them, but because it was convenient to hit snooze and stay at university instead of going out into the real world.”

On one hand, I think that’s great. You can think of a PhD as being a national service for spending some time doing science and things, but realistically, how long do you want to be poor for? I started building a bit more of a non-academic careers series, and this partly came about because I was involved with trying to develop people’s skills in that regard. I would work with the careers service and run workshops on resumes and LinkedIn profiles and things like that. I had plenty of jobs outside of academia when I was younger, but none of them are particularly relevant to the sorts of things that people want to do with their master’s or PhD. Adding in advice about non-academic careers is just another thing for which I have no qualifications or experience. It fits perfectly well with my general expectations of the universe.

Then I started running situations where I’d get people in to give some talks. This is all pre-Zoom, and it was expensive and complicated and it relied on people driving from wherever and being there in person. In some ways, the series really took off when we entered Zoom Land with the pandemic. Suddenly, I could get people from all over the world to come and talk about their experiences. As a result, we’ve had a lot of people that did their master’s and are now working in Toronto or Montreal or whatever. That’s been very easy to organize. Among PhD students, we’ve had people moving into all sorts of different kinds of positions and often not in London, Ontario. It’s really helped to build that.

“My motivation, I guess, is to make sure that people know what is out there, because it’s very easy to do what I did and just keep hitting snooze because it’s this cozy, comfortable place in academia.”

Can you tell us about how your diagnosis with ADHD as an adult has influenced your career path?

Yes, so this is all still brand new. We’re still figuring out what it looks like and how to treat it. What I’ve realized is that a lot of the strategies that I had for doing academia are actually strategies for managing ADHD as well, in that I have a legendarily complicated granular calendar of all the things I need to do. I don’t have to make lists. Actually, if I’m going to do something, I put it in the calendar. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to people how this is just a really great way to manage your life as an academic and make sure that you get things done on time and so forth and such like. I now realize that, to some extent, I’ve come to that because I have some of those ADHD traits of not really doing stuff unless it’s in the calendar.

“As long as I sold my soul to my calendar and did what it told me to, then I worked fine.”

How I came to the diagnosis was that I think that a lot of the things that worked well in person on campus were starting to break down with the pandemic. Instead of walking around to meetings and doing some of that physical stuff that’s quite important for concentration, I was occasionally staggering a couple of meters to the bathroom. Various things came to the head with that and I think that that’s been quite common during the pandemic.

I think the other thing that I’ve really realized is I’ve always been quite judgmental of people that don’t manage their time, that don’t come to a meeting that we’d arranged or something like that. Also, I get very upset with myself if I’m not arriving at a meeting on time or doing things on time or meeting deadlines. I think that was because I work so hard to make sure that I don’t do those things that I get very upset if I fail at it. Yes, it’s an ongoing process. I’m certainly not alone.

“Academia is a place where people with ADHD can operate quite well because we have a certain amount of flexibility. … Academia allows my short attention span, and I’ve always got far too many projects going on.”

I describe myself as a farmer rather than a miner in terms of the research that I do. I don’t go very deep and I always have a bunch of different questions. I’m dabbling and trying to go a little bit deeper into some of my research right now. Usually, that is facilitated by having really great graduate students who are interested in actually figuring out the mechanisms because I’m just like, “That was nice. Now what about that?”

It’s an ongoing process and I think that one thing that is a little bit tricky is that the standard ADHD questionnaires don’t always pick up academics that have figured out a way around it. The first set of questions are all about whether you find it hard to start or finish projects or get things done. It’s like, “No, dammit, I don’t. This is how I identify myself, as someone that finishes these projects.” What I haven’t realized is that the second half of the book about managing ADHD is all about these little strategies that you can use, which I developed independently.

It’s quite an interesting experience. I’ve been a professor for 16 years now, and everything changes over time. I’m not the same person that I was when I first got my job. I’ve just finished teaching a graduate writing course where I was looking back and picking out manuscripts and drafts that I’d written over my career. I’m so much a better writer now than I was when I started as an assistant professor. In fact, I’m a much better writer now than I was this time last year.

It’s important that we are always developing throughout these things, and academia is a good place to allow that. I don’t think that it’s restricted to academia because there aren’t very many jobs where you would remain static, especially if you’ve got a science degree and you’re working in that area. I think that it’s nice to do that continuous development.

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