Talking Real Science with Martin Young

This episode of #ShareScience features Dr. Martin Young, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). His research focuses on understanding nutrition and the timing of meals and how that influences cardiometabolic and cardiovascular health. Martin holds a deep appreciation for the art of teaching and mentorship and has dedicated himself to supporting undergraduates, graduates, medical students and postdoctoral fellows throughout his career. In this interview, Martin tells us about his journey into cardiac metabolism and chronobiology as well as some of his mentors, and the fascinating science he learned along the way.

Jumping off with the first question here, where did you grow up and how did your youth influence your path and passion towards science?

Sure, it’s kind of a complicated question in my case unfortunately, I guess nothing is ever straightforward. So my mother is American and my father is British, which means that I’ve moved back and forth across the Atlantic several times in my life. Much to the disappointment of my wife, I don’t have an English accent because I spent the first ten years of my life in Ohio where my mother had familial ties. Around the age of 10, my family moved back to England and that’s really where I finished all of my schooling in an area called Yorkshire.

“Throughout my childhood, I loved to solve problems and puzzles, especially those that were based on math.”

I loved math problems and was a total nerd, so much so that during the last years of the equivalent to high school in Britain, I took extra math classes and got extra math qualifications. My teachers were convinced that when I went to university I was going to pursue math or some kind of math based science, like physics or engineering. However, I didn’t, instead it was biology that I really felt the strongest pull towards. This was because I felt that it was a greater intellectual challenge. I was completely fascinated by it because I recall whenever we had biology classes, I would often try to apply some type of math-based principles to understand what was happening in biology and I always failed. There were always exceptions to these rules and so I felt like I was being outsmarted by nature, which really intrigued me and made me realize even at a young age that there was so much we don’t understand about biology, and that if we could unlock those secrets that that could ultimately benefit humankind as well as all life on the planet. So that really was the kind of puzzle that I wanted to solve.

That’s amazing, and I feel like a lot of people that we speak to on this podcast have a similar kind of pull at a young age. Did these cross-Atlantic experiences influence where you went to school? And how did you end up in your current field?

Well since I had British-American dual nationality and was living in the U.K. at that time, I had the opportunity to apply to universities in England. I applied to five different universities and in each case I was trying to get into the biochemistry courses, and to my surprise I was very fortunate to get into Oxford University. I was super stoked. My family and even the school was very surprised because no one else in the history of the school had ever gotten into Oxford before. I felt very privileged and this was really a turning point for my scientific career, I mean, it laid the foundation for everything to come thereafter. I studied there in total for seven years and got my Bachelor’s, my Master’s and also my PhD, all in biochemistry.

“It was during my undergraduate studies in Oxford where I really fell in love with metabolism. It was the concept that cells and organisms had evolved all these different pathways to convert simple precursor molecules into very large complex molecules and, at the same time, also be able to use some of that carbon for the generation of useful energy that ultimately could be used by the cell for work. It just blew my mind.”

It wasn’t until the time between my first and second year during my undergraduate when I had an opportunity to get my hands wet in a lab. I was studying an enzyme called trehalase, which breaks down a disaccharide that’s found in fungi, often generated by things like mushrooms, that’s how we get the majority of it. It was brilliant, it was wonderful; I actually saw in real time, got this data that allowed me to apply a lot of the scientific principles that I had been learning about in lectures and so I was absolutely hooked. At that time there was no way I was going to do anything else but metabolism. So during my Master’s and my PhD I really gravitated towards a lab that was putting these principles into practice with disease states. We’re really trying to understand the importance of skeletal muscle metabolism during diabetes and obesity. Even to this day, my lab is interested in some of those same principles, and is trying to understand instead how heart metabolism is altered in the same disease states.

Such a cool path, and congrats on your acceptance to Oxford. I know it was a number of years ago, but that’s a very big deal. So my next question: who has influenced your career and how?

You know, as with everybody, mentors always play pivotal roles in guiding career paths and important life decisions, and mentors can really come in any shape or form, both professionally as well as personally. I’ve been fortunate to be influenced by numerous mentors over the years and I’m truly blessed to call many of them my friends. One noteworthy example would be Heinrich Dagmar. I don’t know if you know this, but Heinrich was the last graduate student of the late Hans Krebs who won the Nobel prize for discovering the Krebs cycle, which was named after him. Heinrich is absolutely a leader in metabolism and particularly cardiac metabolism and has really been an inspiration throughout my career. So during the last year I was completing my PhD in Oxford, Heinrich came to Oxford as a visiting professor on sabbatical. During that time we got to know each other and he offered me a job as a postdoctoral fellow in his lab.

I was really honored and taken aback, but unfortunately I had already accepted a postdoctoral position in Boston. Well, fortunately it was a great experience too. So after that, I went to Heinrich’s lab for my second postdoctoral fellowship which was in Houston, Texas. This was really a huge turning point for my career because up to that point, I had been studying skeletal muscle and Heinrich was interested in the heart, he’s a cardiac metabolism guy. It gave me the opportunity to change my focus towards cardiac physiology and develop a scientific career in heart disease. Now, 20 plus years later, I’m now a vice director for research in the cardiology division here at UAB.

“Without Heinrich’s mentorship and influence my career trajectory would have been completely different, so I’m really grateful to him. So Heinrich, if you’re listening, thank you so much.”

Since you brought up your research, let’s talk briefly about that. It’s pretty much common sense that we maintain our physical health in part thanks to our normal bodily rhythms, sleeping and eating, for instance. But on the grand scale of your research, has anything surprised you about how time of day and nutrition influence our health?

That’s a great question, and the straight forward answer is I’ve really been blown away by the enormity of their impact, both in terms of the diverse number of processes that are influenced as well as the magnitude of the effects. I love chronobiology, I love time of day, and I love nutrition too, but I’m gonna focus here a little bit on the chronobiology. My lab is really interested in circadian clocks, which coordinate biological processes in a temporal manner. I like to think of these clocks a little bit like the conductor of an orchestra. Each musician in the orchestra are professionals, they know how to play their instrument and they’re going to do a great job. However, in order to make beautiful music, the conductor needs to ensure that each musician within the orchestra plays at the right time. If not, and subsequently if you didn’t have this type of temporal control, this orchestration would simply lead to chaotic noise and you wouldn’t make beautiful music. Well, the same is true at a biological level. What these circadian clocks do is they orchestrate cellular processes in a temporal fashion. They make sure that these processes are only active at specific times of the day which really has several noteworthy implications.

“For example, if circadian clocks become dysfunctional, you lose temporal control and that invariably leads to disease. Shift workers are a great example. They disrupt their circadian clocks through behaviors and they have increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.”

Secondly, because these clocks exist and you have this temporal control of pathways, it means your body responds to the environment depending on the time of the day at which it’s stimulated. A great example is that second thing that you were talking about – nutrition. So because metabolic pathways change throughout the day, the time at which you consume nutrients impacts whether your body is going to take those nutrients and burn them as a fuel, or is instead going to store them as some kind of fuel, which could lead to weight gain. It could even take the carbon from nutrients and convert it into some kind of signaling molecules leading to accumulation and cellular dysfunction, all of which is going to be time of day dependent.

Here’s a great example that we recently reported on and, to this day, it still shocks me. There are a family of amino acids known as the branched-chain amino acids that are abundant in protein rich foods such as red meat. It’s well known that an elevation of branched-chain amino acids in our blood circulation is associated with many of the diseases we study, like obesity and diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Several years ago we asked a very simple question: if we were to eat branched-chain amino acids at specific times of the day, would the heart respond differently to that nutrient? So we did this in mice; we fed them either branched-chain amino acids for breakfast or for dinner. We found that when we fed branched-chain amino acids to the mice at breakfast, we weren’t able to see a big impact on the heart. However, when we fed branched-chain amino acids to mice at dinner time, within four hours, the heart cells increased in size by 70%, a huge number. It really to this day just blows my mind and it really shows the impact the time of day can have on our response to nutrients.

I think you mentioned you’ve authored over 200 peer-reviewed research articles and held numerous appointments in academia but you also have found the time for teaching and mentorship. Why do you think that this aspect of your job is so important to you, and how do you balance your research and your teaching?

That’s a really great question. You know, as a principal investigator of an academic lab, sometimes we feel great pressure to show productivity at the levels of getting grants and publishing high-impact papers. So much so that it sometimes seems that the academic mission of education takes a backseat. In reality I personally think that education and mentorship are at the core of every academic institution and that we really need to push this further. As I mentioned previously, on a personal level, I would not be where I am today without the influence of dedicated educators and mentors, I’m simply a product of their influence and their guidance throughout the years. So I feel that as members of academic institutions, it’s essential that we pass this gift onto future scientists. I often find that during the process of interacting with trainees, especially very bright and motivated trainees, they often challenge me to question and really to rethink some of the concepts that I’ve kind of glossed over in the past, unfortunately very foolishly. I often take some things for granted and they really challenge me as an educator, which is great because that scientific exchange between a mentor and a trainee is acting in a symbiotic manner; it’s benefiting both the trainee and also the mentor, invariably enriching the research that’s being performed, leading the science in new directions, and ultimately leading to new discoveries. So personally I can’t imagine working in an environment that doesn’t consider education and mentorship as being important because it’s certainly been very important to me.

I know earlier you mentioned your mentor who was kind of a descendant of Dr. Krebs, I feel like a lot of young scientists will now view you as their descendant of Dr. Krebs as you keep pushing that passion for science forward. I think developing those mentor relationships is so important for keeping young people interested in the field and for keeping innovative science going.

You’re absolutely right, we’ve got to keep on passing this on. I like your analogy there, it’s almost like a family tree, you know, someone like Krebs at the top. Heinrich would be a son and I guess I’m a grandson and then my trainees are going to be great grandsons and daughters of future scientists that are descendants of really some outstanding mentors, including Heinrich and Krebs.

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