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Interview with Dr. Graham Scott


📷 Scottlab

Journalist: Yumnah Jafri


Yumnah Jafri: Welcome to SciSection. My name is Yumnah Jafri and I am the journalist for the SciSection radio show, broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM Radio station. We are here today with Dr. Scott. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today.


Dr. Graham Scott: Yeah, it's a pleasure to be here.


Yumnah: We can just kind of start off with a general question. Who are you?


Dr. Scott: I'm an associate professor in the Department of Biology, and I do a lot of teaching and research in physiology.


Yumnah Jafri: And how about your current research projects? What are they exactly?


Dr. Scott: We do a lot of work to understand how animals can live in the challenging environments at high altitude. High altitudes are interesting because they're really challenging in having very low oxygen levels and are also very cold. So, they're pretty hard places to be. We're really interested in understanding how the organisms that live there can overcome the challenges of these environments.


Yumnah Jafri: This is probably what led you to kind of researching high altitude deer mice.

Dr. Scott: Yeah, my interest in high-altitude organisms in general started a long time ago. I was looking for a research project to do for grad school, and it had always fascinated me how some species of animals could inhabit places that were really hard for us. The one that fascinated me the most was high altitudes. I remember hearing these stories about, if a low-altitude human were flown up to the top of Mount Everest and dropped there, they would go comatose within minutes or hours. And the same was true for many low elevation animals. Yet there were various different species that could not only survive these conditions but could thrive in them. What made these environments so challenging is that they're so limited in oxygen availability. We need oxygen to support all the biological processes (or nearly all the biological processes) in our body, to support energy generation. So, how animals live in environments that have very little oxygen had always fascinated me. When I was thinking of potential projects for graduate school for my thesis, I really latched onto this idea of studying the unique animals that live at high-altitude and that sort of kickstarted it. Ever since joining McMaster, I've been very heavily involved doing research on deer mice from high altitudes. These are really interesting animals. They're very cute and are sort of the dominant native mouse in North America. So, house mice that you might be familiar with are actually from the old world, from Europe. They came over with colonists, but deer mice have been here for much, much longer, and they're very small animals. So, when they live in cold environments, it's all the more impressive because being really small makes it really hard to cope with the cold, keep your body temperature up, and all that kinds of things. And so, we've been really interested in understanding these animals and how they've adapted to the cold, but also the very low oxygen conditions at high altitude.


Yumnah Jafri: That's wonderful that you were able to pursue your passion further after your thesis, especially at McMaster. Just generally speaking then, what are some key takeaways from what you have learned?


Dr. Scott: Like many good biological questions, the answers are often not very simple. It doesn't come down to a single takeaway message, but in general, what we found is that the ability to live at high altitudes comes down to a number of changes in their cardio, respiratory physiology, and all of these changes.

They help deliver more oxygen to tissues when they're in an environment that doesn't have very much oxygen. Their lungs work better at supporting oxygen extraction from the air. Their hearts work better at pumping blood around the body. The blood's better at holding oxygen and their tissues are better suited to using oxygen from low levels of oxygen in the blood.

And so, there's lots of changes throughout the bodies of these animals that turn them into little super mice. Like elite athletes of the animal world so that they can tolerate these conditions at high altitude.


Yumnah Jafri: It's like their physiology essentially evolved to help them live in these crazy, high-altitude environments.


Dr. Scott: Yeah. A big part of the story is that they have evolved unique features that a low-elevation deer mouse doesn't have. But that's not the only part of the story. The environment also helps shape their physiology. So, we know that the classic expression, nature versus nurture. How our bodies are shaped by our genetics, but also by our environmental experiences. And the same is true for a deer mouse.

That high altitude. Its physiology is shaped by the challenges of being in that environment and acclimatizing to that environment and growing up in that environment. But their physiology is also shaped by their unique genetics.

So, the things that have evolved specifically in those animals (and what's really interesting) is that those two things interact. So, what we found is that high altitude deer mice have evolved genetically, and those genetic changes has augmented some of the responses to the environment that a deer mouse would normally experience. So, nature and nurture seem to be really important in shaping these animals' ability.


Yumnah Jafri: Seems like you've done quite a bit of research on these topics, especially in relation to nature versus nurture and the impact of each, or impact of both. That's incredible.


Dr. Scott: Yeah. And this work has involved a lot of graduate students, but it's also involved a lot of undergraduate students. So, many thesis students have contributed to the work that I mentioned over the last 10 or 12 years.


Yumnah Jafri: Wow! That is definitely quite a bit of research then. So, in terms of your undergrad career, what do you think you did differently compared to your peers that helped you become who you are or where you are today?


Dr. Scott: I think one of the main things is that I just always followed questions and ideas that were of interest to me. I wasn't overly strategic about choosing directions that would get me a job or make me the most money. I just wanted to do things and have a career that was of interest and that always was going to light the light, the fire to get things going and always motivate me. So, I always followed my passions in research and my general biological interests. And that has served me well. I've always done that, and I've always been able to get a job and keep doing the kinds of things that I find so fascinating.


Yumnah Jafri: This would kind of tie in with our next question; the advice that you'd give to students who are listening to this show right now and who are interested in pursuing research, maybe to the same level that you’ve pursued research in your career.


Dr. Scott: I think getting involved is the best thing that you can do. And I know that can be a hard thing. It's often hard to find a lab that you can get into and get research experience in. So, it's maybe hard to get a bit of a start, but it's so important to be persistent and to really consider lots of different options so you can get your foot in the door. Just getting a little bit of experience and having a little bit of research success can really get you off on the right foot. Then as you sort of progress, you can really shape the types of things that you're interested in. Although it can be a little hard, as I mentioned, to get things started and get your foot in the door, I think as you develop, you'll be able to really shape the direction that you go in once you start with that bit of experience. So, yeah. Do your best to get involved.


Yumnah Jafri: It'd be finding what you're passionate about and then staying persistent, right?


Dr. Scott: Yeah, I think so. And a lot of times when students contact me, I don't necessarily have a spot at the time, but things can come up over time. Sometimes research isn't necessarily planned on a term-by-term basis. It's planned on an experiment-by-experiment basis. So, we don't always know exactly how many students we might be able to take on in the lab until we find out the findings of the next experiment. So, sometimes it's about touching base a few times, not just once if there's a research group that you're really interested in. But also try to broaden your pursuit to look into various different places. Because sometimes one particular research group maybe doesn't take on that many undergraduates, but another one does. So, yeah. Just, just do your best.


Yumnah Jafri: Thank you so much for that answer. I'm sure it'll really benefit our listeners, especially after the pandemic where I feel like so many undergrad students are really lacking this type of research, as well as the knowledge on how to even get it in the first place. So, thank you so much for that. What do you think our scientific community needs to do right now in terms of surpassing these types of boundaries for undergrad students, or just in general? So, what do you think the scientific community needs to do right now or needs the most right now?


Dr. Scott: I think the scientific community needs you and your listeners. One of the things that I've noticed is that there's no shortage of undergraduate students that want to get involved in research, and that's fantastic, but not as many undergraduates stay in science and stay in research going into graduate school. I think maybe part of that is just the job market now. There are so many opportunities on the job market coming up. But I think I would strongly encourage people to consider staying in science, consider going into graduate school for research. That might require you to work really hard in undergrad and get that undergrad thesis experience to get in the door. But, I'm often finding that there's a lot of really great people coming into grad school, but there's often a lot of openings as well for good, qualified undergrads to take on those positions. So, we need people in science. We need great people in science. Anyone that has an interest in science and an interest in research, I'd encourage you to stay in research and look to it for its career opportunities. Everyone that's done grad school that I know of has gotten a great job afterwards, so that's not ever something I think anyone needs to worry about.


Yumnah Jafri: That reassurance is very much appreciated for many who are entering their final years of undergrad right now. For our final question, what is your favorite hobby and why is it important to you?


Dr. Scott: Well, it's changed a little bit over the years, but the last few years I've gotten into doing triathlons. Kind of been keeping me busy. I'm far from an elite athlete. I just do it for fun and for fitness. But it's been something that's kept me busy, and I've enjoyed and it's kind of nice to feel the metabolic challenge that the animals I study, experience. It keeps me humbled to the great feats of athleticism of our animals.


Yumnah Jafri: You're incorporating your research into your personal life as well, which I think is always a great thing.


Dr. Scott: Exactly.


Yumnah Jafri: Okay! And that's it for this week of SciSection. Make sure that you check out our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews.



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