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Noah Spencer


Noah Spencer
Advisor: Rita Rio, Evolutionary Biology/Microbiology/Vector Biology

Featured Researcher: Noah Spencer

I absolutely love discussing scientific literature with my lab. Reading other papers from my field really makes me feel like my research is part of this larger narrative that spans across decades and countries.

1. Briefly describe your research project and its importance. (Try to write this in a way that people outside of your field will be able to understand).

Broadly, my research focuses on how animals interact with and benefit from the microbes that live inside them (what we refer to as the microbiota). The specific system I work with, the tsetse fly, is important because, in addition to harboring those helpful microbes, it can transmit disease-causing parasites to mammals whose blood it feeds on. As a result, manipulating and disrupting the tsetse fly's relationship with the microbes that it needs to survive has emerged as a possible approach for controlling the spread of diseases like sleeping sickness. The most important microbe to the fly is a bacterium called Wigglesworthia glossinidia, and it's been evolving specifically to live inside these flies for millions of years. I'm trying to better understand that relationship by looking at a specific part of the Wiggleswrothia genome and understanding how it functions within different species of tsetse fly hosts.

2. How did you first get involved with research?

That's actually a really interesting story! I started out wanting to go into neuroscience, and my high school coursework towards that goal left me enamored with evolutionary biology. I knew that the Rio lab did work in that field, and I saw a video on one of WVU's Snapchat stories about the tsetse fly colony that really fascinated me. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Rio while I was still in high school and ended up joining the lab pretty much right after starting at WVU. Since then I've learned to appreciate a lot of the nuances of the field, and now it's hard to imagine a time when insect-associated microbes weren't the center of my academic and career plans!

3. What does a day of researching look like for you (tools/methods/setting/etc.)?

Field work hasn't really been a part of my personal research experience, so I'm pretty much always in the Rio lab at the Life Sciences Building or the Genomics Core facilities just down the hall. At any given moment, I'm usually in one of three places: the insectary, the lab bench, or the computer. The Rio lab actually has an entire tsetse fly colony that needs to be feed with cow blood three times a week, and there's a lot of upkeep associated with that. Throw in maintaining experimental lines and extracting tissues for analysis, and it's pretty easy to see how working with the live flies can become pretty time-consuming. What most people probably associate biological research with is working at the lab bench, and while it makes up a much smaller portion of my research time that people might think, they probably have the activities involved just about right. I mostly do things like polymerase chain reaction, gel electrophoresis, growing up bacterial cultures in petri dishes or tubes of media, and things like that. It's a lot of moving liquid around with pipettes and following step-by-step protocols as methodically as possible. Finally, a surprising amount of the actual science takes place strictly on the computer. From designing figures to analyzing huge libraries of molecular data to modeling evolutionary relationships, a programming background or just general computer fluency goes a long way.

4. What surprised you about doing research?

The first thing that surprised me was how little of a researcher's time is spent running the actual experiments. Between my own experiences that those of graduate students in the lab, I've come to understand that more than half of the research experience is taken up by tracking down, reading, and understanding the appropriate scientific literature or writing and revising your own written work. You can't just jump in and collect all this data without understanding your experiment and being able to justify every single thing you did. The next surprise was just how often things go wrong. I guess I always knew that science was a lot of trial and error, but I never knew how extreme. Within that fraction of time spent doing actual experiments, it's safe to say that a huge majority of that time is just troubleshooting something that went wrong.

5. What’s a challenge that you’ve had in your research experience and how did you overcome it?

This is maybe more of a philosophical or psychological challenge, but I've found that when you're really passionate about your research, it's easy to see research setbacks as personal failures that take away from your credibility as a researcher. Thankfully, the lab environment makes it really obvious that some of the smartest people I know are constantly making mistakes and dealing with setbacks, and talking these issues out with them does a lot to help me take those obstacles in stride.

6. What do you like most about doing research?

I absolutely love discussing scientific literature with my lab. Reading other papers from my field really makes me feel like my research is part of this larger narrative that spans across decades and countries. I'm always surprised by how many specific people and institutions I've come to recognize as important to my field. A lot of these people even know each other personally! And they're all always doing really cool research, which makes it all the more fun to dive into their latest publications.

7. How do you spend your time when you’re not researching?

Music is a big part of my life, so I spent a lot of time listening to music, talking about music with my friends, playing music, and writing songs. I'm also really into student support, so during the semester I'll do things like TAing or providing tutoring through the biology department or WVU's MindFIT program. Any time leftover after all that is probably spent drinking tea.