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Interview with Dr. Jay Phelan

Journalist: Allison Yan

Allison: Hi everyone! I’m Allison and for this week’s Scientist of the Week, I’m here with Dr. Jay Phelan. He’s a biology professor at UCLA, a researcher of evolutionary genetics and aging, and also a writer, having coauthored Mean Genes. So thank you for joining me Dr. Phelan!

Dr. Phelan: You’re welcome! It’s good to be here Allison.

Allison: Well, to start us off, you’ve been teaching for a while now and have encountered many, many students, so I was wondering what do you think makes a successful student?

Dr. Phelan: Well, the question of what makes a successful student is one I’ve thought about a lot because when I was a student, when I first started college at UCLA, I was a terrible student. I really did every possible thing wrong. I never went to a single office hour, I didn’t go to a lot of classes, I failed classes as a result and so on. So I answer this question from that perspective. And what I will say is this: you have to as a student understand that you have to be in charge of how your program progresses. So that means that you’re gonna get lots of advice from advisors, counselors, your parents, your friends. But you have to decide. So you have to think, ‘Do I like this class? Am I doing this because I like it, or am I doing it because my parents have always wanted me to do this?’ When you talk to your instructors, you have to realize that there are situations where you control the agenda. For instance, everyone will tell you, ‘You should go to office hours!’ But then no one ever tells you why you should go to office hours! And it’s funny because the assumption is ‘Oh, we all know what you should do.’ But it’s not clear so the idea becomes ‘Oh we’ll just ask the professor to deliver content again.’ But that’s not a very good use of office hours. The professor has already done that in class. There might be a video from class, there’s a book, you might have a teaching assistant, and so to hear it explained again can be useful, but think about this: this is the time to ask, ‘How did you figure out what you wanted to study? How do you apply to graduate school? When you teach a class, how do you design it? Do you design the take home messages first and then the examples or what? When you write an exam, how do you do it? What’s your process? If you were a student in this class, how would you do it? What do you think is the biggest mistake that students make?’ And so on.

Dr. Phelan: And so understanding that there are situations where, as a student, you have to take charge.

Dr. Phelan: You have to realize, ‘I’m in control here. I can figure out what to do or what to ask or who to get advice from.’ And so you have to be active, proactive rather than reactive, in terms of making the decisions in your college life.

Allison: That’s really great advice! The idea to take initiative is something that I feel like, even I am like, ‘I need to work on that sometimes.’ You just kind of sit and wait for everyone else to do something, but sometimes we gotta do it by ourselves.

Dr. Phelan: Yes! Almost always! What I’ve thought about now, I’m in the process of finishing a book with a friend of mine, and it’s about how to get more out of your college experience. And one of the things we’ve written about is, what we say is you have to have a relationship strategy. So when you finish college at some point, you’re gonna need to have recommendation letters. At some point, you’re gonna need to get wise advice from a mentor. You can’t do that at the last minute. It’s something that has to build over time. So even just the idea of how do you have a relationship with someone? Well it means that every year you have maybe ten professors. So you go, and you talk to them at office hours. You send them a quick note. You plot it out so that you can find out, ‘Which one am I interested in? Which one maybe seems receptive?’ And you might start with ten and have three that are willing to meet with you and from those maybe one. And so all of a sudden over the course of your four years, you end up with two or three or four people who can help you. But you have to be active, and you have to have that strategy at the outset.

Allison: Wow! Ok that’s great! And so at UCLA, you are a biology professor, but beyond teaching bio majors, you teach nonmajors as well. So why do you believe it’s important to introduce biology and the life sciences to these nonmajors?

Dr. Phelan: That’s a really good question. When I first started teaching, I noticed that you would have these faculty meetings where it would be ‘Okay, you’re gonna teach this, you’re gonna teach this,’ and trying to fill in a grid. And the attitude was sort of ‘Oh and if we don’t have anyone to teach the GE class to the nonmajors, oh well, we’ll get someone else. We’ll get a secretary to do it because it doesn’t matter.’ And it was this bizarre attitude that that was less important. And more than that it was an attitude that ‘Well they're like science students but just dumber.’ And that’s not true at all! They’ve chosen a different major. And what I came to realize is that when you’re teaching science students, you teach them one biology class out of maybe 10 or 15 that they’re going to have. So my percentage of their brain that I can influence is [very little]. Whereas if I am teaching a non-science student their one life science class, for the rest of their life, when they are a parent, a consumer, a voter, just a citizen, everything they think about biology, about science, gets to come from me! So it feels like teaching the non-science students, you get more bang for your buck, but you're also I think tasked with a much greater responsibility. Are they going to be scientifically literate? Are they going to know how to read a label or how to be skeptical about claims? Are they going to understand evidence and how we use it to figure out what we should believe? And so for that reason, I find that it’s fun! You get a lot of bang for your buck, and the students wanna use the information that they get in class in different ways. It’s not about ‘Oh I need this for my next class, I need this for the class after that, I need this for a graduate school application.’ They’re thinking about ‘How does this influence my own choices about nutrition or exercise or sleep or human behavior?’ All those different things, and so I like that. There’s a real relevance to people’s lives. And I'll say one other thing on this. They come into the class, because they’ve chosen not to be a science major, they come in with really low expectations. And that’s funny because they usually have these misconceptions that ‘Oh science is about memorizing stuff, it’s about jargon stuff, it’s not creative, it’s done by people in lab coats far away.’ And that’s not true. Science is really interesting and relevant and fun! So everyday they leave thinking ‘This class is awesome!’ So I like that I get to pleasantly surprise them with how interesting and relevant to their lives it is.

Allison: You can really show the applicability to so many different things! And that’s part of the reason why I chose bio. Cause I saw it kind of connects to so many different things, and you can just see it everywhere which is always really fun.

Dr. Phelan: Yes! I think that’s essential! That if you’re sitting in a class, and it’s not speaking to you about your life, it’s very hard to integrate it into your brain, what you know. Whereas as soon as it connects to things that matter to you, it’s no longer work. It’s fun, it’s easy to think about it, to tell you friends about it, and so on.

Allison: Well that’s awesome! So your main areas of research are evolutionary genetics and aging. So could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Dr. Phelan: Sure. I first started doing research in aging because I am so interested, always, in how things are relevant to my life. And I hate the thought of getting old, the prospect of just getting older. I don’t like that, so I thought ‘I’m going to figure this out, I’m going to solve it, I’m going to cure it.’ So I went into it with these very applied hopes, and the research I did has been focused on this one method that people use in lab animals to get them to live longer called caloric restriction. And we’ve known for 80, 90 years that if you restrict the caloric intake of mice or rats or fruit flies or worms, you can increase their lifespan by a lot! Like 50% or more! And I thought wow that’s really cool! So maybe we can learn something about human longevity here. Unfortunately, as I learned more about it, and how evolution has caused aging to occur in different species, I came to this realization a) that you weren’t going to cure it. It's not like a disease that ‘Oh, find the gene and turn it off.’ It’s the accumulation of things that have bad effects late in life because natural selection can’t weed them out. So I had this sad realization that I wasn’t going to cure aging. And then I had another sad realization which was that caloric restriction, which was so effective in animals even in studies that I did, and I realized that I think it causes them to get this great increase in longevity because if you restrict their caloric intake they immediately shut down investment in reproduction. Even if they’re not reproducing, they shut down their hormone systems, they shut down behaviors, all these different things that take a toll. And so by shutting those down, everything is safer, everything is better in their body, and they live longer. In the case of humans, we have evolved to wait and wait and wait until we reproduce. You know if you’re a mouse you’re reproducing two months of age and every month you're producing your body weight in offspring. Whereas humans you can get to 20, 25 you still haven’t even reproduced. And if we put humans on caloric restriction. and some people do this voluntarily because they think they’re gonna live longer, it will shut off our investment in reproduction. If you're female, you stop ovulating. If you’re male, your testosterone levels go down. And your body senses ‘Oh, times are tough. Don't invest in reproduction.’ The problem is we're investing so little, there's no benefit to come from it. So that was one of the saddest papers I ever had to write. It was called “Why caloric restriction increases longevity in animal models but won’t in humans.” So those are the areas of aging that I'm interested in. Behavior, I’m fascinated by. I want to know what motivates people. Why do they do what they do? Why is it easy to do some things, harder to do other things? Why is it that we are attracted to some people and less attracted to other people? All of these things where people make choices. How am I going to save for the future? So for instance lately I've been doing work with a friend on behavior and genetics, but as it relates to economics. In other words, how do people plan for the future? Economics isn’t about interest rates and the FED and credit cards, it’s about human behavior. How do you decide to allocate your time, to save your money, to try and make it last all these things? So I think that evolution and genetics can give us insights into why we do the things we do. And it’s not just with money; it's with food as well. Why is it that people have a hard time controlling their body weight? Like it’s a really bizarre thing. That I could be silly, and I could say ‘Oh you wanna weigh less?’ Given that the vast majority of Americans weigh more than they want to. And I could say well we already solved that problem: eat less, move around more. There. You know, all done. But that’s not the case; people want to, and they can’t do it. So that’s weird you know, who’s in charge? And to me that's really interesting. ‘Why is it that our behavior really nudges us towards calorically dense foods?’ Even when we don't want to, our brain, our genes are nudging us that direction. So I'm interested in understanding that better. Again, from the perspective of ‘Can I help people to get better outcomes?’

Allison: That’s really cool cause I feel like a lot of the times when you think of behavior, I kind of think of it in terms of mental psychology almost. But you don’t think of it as genetic, as something that’s already a part of you. It’s been a part of humanity for such a long time. Like that’s a really cool take on it! I never think of it that way!

Dr. Phelan: Ya!

Dr. Phelan: Just as evolution shapes your body size or fur color in some rodent or the antler size in deer, it’s also shaping our behavior...

Dr. Phelan: ...because with one behavior versus another you might end up passing on more copies of your genes that influence those behaviors. So ya, it’s just an extension of our physical presence.

Allison: Wow! And then so in your book Mean Genes that you cowrote with Terry Burnham, you kinda talk about that. About how the evolution of our genes has impacts on human behaviors like you said with struggling with dieting, with saving money and so much other stuff. But you also, in this book, you kind of use that awareness, that we’re a little bit inclined towards certain habits, and [you] use that to have advice on how to outsmart our genes. So I was just wondering, while researching for your book, did you find anything that specifically affects students, and what would be your advice to overcoming those ‘mean genes?’

Dr. Phelan: That’s a great question! There are so many of these drives that we are fighting all the time, and if we can understand that we can, I think, get better outcomes. That was our motivation for writing the book. It wasn’t just a book to say ‘Oh you can’t help it because your genes are pushing you to do this or that.’ It was - the subtitle of the book is From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts - trying to figure out how can you get some better outcomes? And so for students, a big issue that a lot of students wrestle with is just that you’ve got so many things to do, so many options, and when your brain is aware ‘Oh I could hang out with these people, I could increase my status, I could have a richer group of friends that I’m going to have reciprocal altruism bonds with.’ All these things have real value in our evolutionary past and today. But you're trying to balance needs that you have. One of which is you wanna do well in school. You wanna learn stuff, you wanna study hard, you wanna take the right classes. So how do you do that? And one of the things we learn in Mean Genes is that willpower on its own is not always that good. That frequently we fail, or your willpower is good for a while but then all of sudden you get weak at the end. So one of the things as a student you do is, you have to, when you have a small moment where with a little bit of strength, you can get a good outcome, you have to use that minute of strength. So one of the things you might do is when students decide ‘Hey I’m going to study at this particular place and I’m always going to do that.’ And you get it so it becomes such a habit that ‘Right when I finish dinner in the dorms, I go to’ in my case, ‘BioMed Library.’ And once you’re there, all these other distractions are out of the way, so you don’t have easy access to food right there that you might have in your apartment, and because of that now you don’t have to keep using willpower. ‘Oh I’m not going to eat, I'm not going to make dinner, I'm not going to talk with my roommates.’ You don’t have other people around, and so it doesn’t take willpower to keep studying. You’ve structured your environment in such a way that none of these tempting things are there, and therefore it doesn’t take much willpower. What takes willpower is structuring your life so you know where it is, you get there, you have the stuff, and you can do it. And so another thing you can do is, because it still takes willpower to do that, you link it in with our desire to have relationships. So you find a friend and you say ‘Hey let’s go every you know Sunday through Thursday night from 6 to 10pm to the library.’ So now you’ve got someone else that you’ll let down if you don’t go. So it takes less willpower. So that would just be one. This removing the tempting things from your world when you have some strength, so that then when you might be weaker, now they’re not options, and you are better able to optimize your usage of time.

Allison: Ohh okay! I’ll keep that in mind for when school starts! Well that wraps us up so thank you for taking the time to talk with me Dr. Phelan.

Dr. Phelan: Well it was a pleasure talking with you! These are all fun questions, and interesting things to think about because that's what biology is.

Allison: Oh ya for sure! And then for our listeners and readers make sure to check out the SciSection podcast available on global platforms or the Humans and Science website for all of our latest interviews!


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