Jack Bateman, Bowdoin’s Samuel S. Butcher Assistant Professor in the Natural Sciences, studies how chromosomes are organized within the three-dimensional space of the nucleus, and, in particular, how physical interactions between chromosomes can influence gene expression. Last year, he won a $797,395 National Science Foundation’s prestigious CAREER award for junior faculty “who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars though outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.” Bateman is also a co-founder of the Personal Genetics Education Project, which raises public awareness about the ethical, legal, and social issues around personal genome sequencing.
Bowdoin Daily Sun: Can you describe your path to becoming a biology professor?
Jack Bateman: It wasn’t exactly linear. I switched majors a handful of times in college but eventually wound up as a biology major after a 5th year victory lap. I applied to grad school at Harvard and was lucky enough to get in, and while there I slowly started figuring out the types of biological questions that I was interested in. In most of the sciences, one typically does a postdoc after grad school before becoming a professor — I took a year off after graduating with my PhD just to be sure that that was what I wanted to do. Once I started my postdoc, I felt strongly that a faculty position at a liberal arts college was the type of life that I was interested in.
BDS: Last year you won a big NSF grant. In the months since, what has been the most exciting moment or moments of research for you?
JB: The things I find most exciting about research are the parts that go into designing the experiments. It is very rewarding to use your imagination and invent ways to tackle a problem, and to adapt new techniques that others develop into your own system. Once you start the experiments, you get to see whether your ideas actually work and give you answers — for me, those answers don’t typically come in “Eureka!” moments, but more often lead to a “hm, that’s weird” response, which then brings you back to your imagination, trying to design clever follow-up experiments to support or refute what you’ve seen. That cycle runs a few times before you’re confident that you’ve actually discovered something. I often think of the Dread Pirate Roberts line from The Princess Bride, “Good night Westley, sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.” Every experiment gives you a Westley, a finding that is alive and beloved just so long as the next experiment supports it, but likely to die the next morning when a piece of data refutes it. A couple of the experiments from the NSF-funded work are in the midst of this now — the first round of experiments showed something cool and somewhat unexpected, and now we’re redesigning the approach to see whether our interpretation is correct.
BDS: You are a co-founder of the Personal Genetics Education Project. Are you still involved in this organization? If so, in what way?
JB: I’m very proud to be a part of pgEd. We are living in an amazing time for genetics, where it is cheap and easy to gain information about one’s own personal genome. The challenging part is understanding that information and what it can tell you (and what it can’t tell you!). PgEd started out humbly, with a few of us visiting local high schools and writing lesson plans that K-12 teachers could use in their courses to include aspects of the ethical, legal, and social issues that surround modern human genetics, but the organization has expanded its efforts over the years: they have a large social media presence, they organize national meetings of educators, and they have recently begun holding congressional briefings in DC in an effort to keep policymakers up to date on new developments in the field. Since coming to Bowdoin, I am no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of pgEd, but I occasionally get a chance to give a talk or do other work on their behalf. At Bowdoin, I teach a first-year seminar on personal genomes, and my to-do list includes writing up my syllabus and class notes so that pgEd can offer them to faculty at other colleges. (For anybody who wants a small taste of what pgEd does, they have created an interactive quiz called Map-Ed where you answer a few simple questions about genetics and then pin yourself on a map. Check it out at www.map-ed.org — it is a great way to get a conversation started!)
BDS: How have you involved students in your work?
JB: Student researchers play a fundamental role in my lab. Often the research questions can’t be answered within the time frame of a single student’s project, so typically one student will begin a project, take it so far, and then hand it off to another student. We’ve had one long-running project in the lab that has involved four different honors theses, with each one adding a little bit more to the big picture — we’ll finish writing that paper up this summer. I think the students feel a real sense of accomplishment seeing their names on a journal article, they work very hard and it feels good to see that rewarded.
BDS: What is your favorite way to engage with students outside of class?
JB: I love catching up with former students and seeing what they’ve been up to since they’ve left Bowdoin. I’ve been at the college for seven years now, and I’m seeing some of my first students graduating with MDs and other advanced degrees. It is gratifying and makes me feel ancient.
BDS: Can you tell us something about yourself that people at Bowdoin may not know?
JB: I am a kick-ass drummer.