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Interview with Ben Evans

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 Ben Evans

Journalist: Omer Choudhry

Interviewer: Welcome back everyone to this week segment of scientist of the week today we are joined by professor of biology within the faculty of science at McMaster Dr. Ben Evans glad to have you today would you mind telling us a bit about yourself?

Dr. Evans: Sure I am a professor in the biology department and I'm about 50 years old I married person who has two children so I'd say not in that order those are the important things about me I'm a biologist and I study evolutionary genomics and I’ve been at McMaster about 15 years and I'm from the United States. I'm an immigrant here and I am the child immigrant parents my parents are from the United Kingdom and I guess things that I think about our what's happening to the world and are we going to be able to keep looking on this wonderful planet in the sustainable way and we can talk more about that and its influence on my life and my research if you want.

Interviewer: For sure yeah I was just wondering if you would begin by explaining the focus of your research you mentioned that through the field of biology evolutionary biology you've conducted a lot of research would you mind explaining maybe the primary focus of what you found most interesting in your time as a researcher or kind of what that whole aspect of your life was like?

Dr. Evans: Sure So my research focus is actually changed quite a bit over the course of my work as a scientist so I, I guess I'll begin with the current things I do now and then work backwards and times.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Evans: Broadly speaking I'm interested in how important things evolve and the particular system that biological system that I've focused on most recently is that of sex determination so the set of genetic events that happened during development that determine whether an individual becomes a male or a female individual and I'm talking about the genetic determinants of sex not the gender identity of sex and that's a separate equally interesting field that isn't what my focus is and so we're using as a model group of frogs that have really rapid evolution of the genetic cascades that govern sexual differentiation and that group is it's called it's in the genus sanabis and their African clawed frogs sort of stumbled into this system based on previous work where I was interested in conservation biology I still am, but I was also interested in conservation biology of endangered species particularly in biodiversity hotspots of places where there's unique species that don't occur anywhere else in the world and I wanted to try to make an impact on conservation about diversity by studying endangered species and understanding how they evolve how variation genetic variation is distributed over landscapes and also how humans are affecting their habitats and for that reason I was doing field work and as a graduate student in Africa and that began in the 90s before you and probably the listeners were born.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Evans: And I've basically been working with this group and also with colleagues in Africa including doing field work with the name of understanding their evolution and basically what we stumbled into is really remarkable variation in the genetic systems that govern sexual differentiation.

Interviewer: Interesting that it's very cool and one of the most beautiful things about science I guess to note you mentioned like even though the research was conducted in the 90s how relevant research is still remains to this day especially when focusing on that topic there's still much we don't know that we are building on but for sure it's important for all of us to understand back then the research was equally as more important especially when we were governing our new knowledge of things.

Dr. Evans: Yeah I think that's true I think that actually questions and research don't change as quickly as the methods that we use to address the questions so I think that's really well put.

Interviewer: For sure and just a follow up question to that many people when it comes to research their little hesitant about what to do how to do it a lot of questions throughout undergrad into till grad students maybe I was just wondering what your thought process was like when you chose to travel to Africa and study there in conduct this research were there any hurdles you came across that in particular you look back at and wish you could tell yourself something differently or which remain the same anything that really stood out to you during that time?

Dr. Evans: So when I was an undergraduate I was lucky to have several research experiences that I think really changed my life so as a second year student I worked with a professor called Dr. Norton Nickerson and he's since passed away, but he introduced me to field work we actually worked in the Caribbean and mangroves and that was fascinating but then as well as a third year student I did as a semester abroad in Kenya and I was able to do field were gone species of amulet called orix and we also traveled all over national parks and got to see different ecosystems and spun an I would say that one of the things that influenced me most was the fact that I was willing maybe naively so to go and put myself in a situation where it was outside of my norm so for example after working in Kenya in this study abroad situation I hitchhiked around Lake Victoria on my own and you know I found myself standing out within communities that I that I saw and also within the trucks and buses that I was on in a way that I think helped me understand how other people live helped me understand how other people what their needs were and I think it it maybe care and appreciated more other you know about these other people in ways that I don’t think I would really have a deeper appreciation for now had I not had those international experiences and so I think just the willingness to stick my neck out and feel silly sometimes and feel out of place sometimes was was one of the things that motivated me in the end. Could I go back in and give myself advice? Yeah I would say maybe for example communicating more with my folks to let them know I was okay would have been a good idea. So for example this is before email and texting cell phones that I was doing this and for example I remember going to a post office to send a telegram in 1991 my parents and it was very expensive but I didn't have very much money and I didn't send that telegram and then I carried on hitchhiking for another three weeks and I remember calling my dad once I got back to Nairobi and have been very happy elated I'd say to hear from me 'cause it had been too long but I think maybe probably the listeners wouldn't have that kind of challenge now 'cause technology.

Interviewer: Maybe not is yeah but I mean it's once again it's remarkable to see how people not not only you but certainly you in this case but people with a passion for science in general were willing to go out and take risks in a time where say now we have more resources available that can address some issues so for example if someone needs to be able to communicate with their parents can through their phone in my phone but-

Dr. Evans: It's quite easy.

Interviewer: Yeah exactly just WhatsApp them and get the job done, but yeah I know it's so nice to see how passion for science is prevalent within our world and how we lead to findings and experiences like you said where you not only got to understand the aspects of biology that you appreciated but also understanding people from a different lens so definitely seems like a very motivating experience.

Dr. Evans: Yeah it was.

Interviewer: Yeah, now jumping into a bit more evolutionary topic had compiled list of questions of some of the misconceptions may be aware just thoughts that some people have initially when discussing evolutionary biology kind of based on your like high school curriculum sure like what is taught. So the first question that I found was often asked online and by some of our listeners to spoke to is are all species actually related and some people have this common misconception of how they are related if they are and if we can even call each other all related at this point what's your intake inside on that?

Dr. Evans: The answer is yes.

Interviewer: Yes.

Dr. Evans: We are all related so humans are related to each other we are related to chimpanzees, chimpanzees are related to mice, mice are related to bacteria, I mean it goes all the way across down the ancestry ladder to the origin of life from which every living thing from bacteria to worms to humans spray and that's a process has been happy name for a 3.8 billion years or so and so that's why we look so different but we are definitely an interconnect we are all connected to each other and to everything living through our common ancestry.

Interviewer: For sure and it's interesting how you brought up the tree of life for example like most people don't look at things like bacteria and consider the fact that they might be that they share some common industry down the road with it so for sure interesting to look at it from that lens another question I've found a lot of people have a misconception on that just to clarify is are evolution and natural selection really the same thing?

Dr. Evans: No, so evolution refers to change overtime, natural selection refers to the environment favoring the propagation of some variation over other variation as a consequence of that variation being linked to differences in reproductive success. So maybe I can put that in a different way evolution is fueled by mutations, mutations are just essentially errors that happen when cells are copied when DNA is copied and sometimes those mutations introduce variation in the ability of an individual to reproduce an environment natural selection refers to a phenomenon where some very variants of DNA get passed onto the next generation by virtue of the fact that the individual that has those variants makes more offspring or maybe because those offspring are better able to survive than some other individual that lacks that an aeration and so they're very much inter related you wouldn't have natural selection if you didn't have evolution but not all of evolution is a consequence of natural selection. I think that's the major difference so some types of evolution happen not because some advantage that the change has but just because it's tolerated by the environment. So for example in humans differences in eye colour is something that in most scenarios doesn't influence your reproductive success but it's still variation that has its basis in mutation and evolution but it doesn't necessarily involve natural selection.

Interviewer: Interesting yeah that's a great way to put it Just some people I know maybe sometimes confuse that whole survival of the fittest with just as what evolution stands for but it's great that we're able to clarify you know although natural selection may be of component within evolution is more aspects to evolution which really feels that people can study and can go explore for sure right now. Just a follow up question that I had in terms of evolutionary studies many people growing up when explaining science concepts to their friends will give the answer, often though it's just how it works it's just how stats the definite answer but evolutionary biology for students for me for example seems like something that there's a lot more open in terms of your understanding while you may come to the same conclusions as other people and maybe from different means there's evidence throughout the world of it that everyone can like for example your experience with frogs you came to a similar conclusion maybe as someone who studied a different species and came to similar conclusions so just your opinion on that statement that people limiting themselves in the field of science really saying that statement oh it's just how it works, this is why evolution occurs that's it as I know through it like the study of evolution we've had people question evolution people really take different approaches within this that have actually strengthen our understanding overall as we've been able to conduct more research but what was your thoughts on this?

Dr. Evans: So I think that people that question evolution as fundamental theory for binding our understanding of biological phenomena don't have sufficient understanding of the information at our disposal that supports the theory of evolution for example there are people that reject evolution on religious grounds, and in my opinion those people haven't considered the breath of information that we have that supports evolution I think there's even within people that accept evolution as a phenomenon and there's a lot of misunderstanding about how it works and you know it's it's a privilege actually to be able to talk to you and the listeners about this so one common misconception is that evolution is some sort of goal oriented phenomenon that organisms evolve particularly characteristics because they want to be that way and that's of course not the way evolution happens so mutation delivers variation to species and then natural selection acts on that variant variation favouring some or other individuals to reproduce more than their counterparts and that's what influences whether or not differences happen among species are among individuals so it's not because you want to be something or a species in needs needs to be some some some way in order to adapt well it's very much random processes that introduce variation and then the environment acts on those on that variation to determine what genes get passed on.

Interviewer: For sure yeah that’s a great answer I think it explains a lot of and clarifies a lot of what the question was asking which is great now just that concludes the episode of this segment of scientist of the week but to end since our topic for this interview is obviously evolutionary biology ending with a statement that might be familiar with you how spoiler alert you used this in our lecture but I found that it was such a great quote and the meaning behind it definitely fits with our interview it's nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution and that was said by Theodosius Dobzhansky.

Evans: Correct.

Interviewer: Yeah thank you but yeah that concludes our segment for this week and thank you everyone for tuning in will see you next time.


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