Today’s interview is with Dr Matt Gage from the University of East Anglia (UEA). Matt is a professor of Evolutionary Ecology. His research interests focus on reproduction, sexual selection, and conflict. Matt’s research especially focuses on sperm form and function. To carry out his research into reproduction he uses a number of animals including fish, insects, and mammals. Matt uses a variety of techniques both in the lab and in the field to investigate research questions about reproduction.
How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?
I try to understand how evolution shapes the amazing diversity of life on our planet, especially how it works on that all-important process of life – reproduction.
Why did you choose this as a profession?
I didn’t really have a clear career plan, and was very lucky throughout. I was always fascinated by the natural world, so went to study zoology at Manchester University, but never really expected that to lead to a zoological career (the standard comments were that we would work in a zoo or open a pet shop….). The degree program was an excellent combination of traditional zoology and modern biology, with lots of field trips, and I look back on it with great fondness. Through all this, I learned how to study the natural world scientifically and, when I did my final year project on sperm competition in rats (unthinkable today), I was completely hooked on research and ‘discovering stuff’. I never thought I would be able to get onto a PhD, but got lucky and stayed on at Manchester for another 3 years. Through my PhD, I relished the independence and ability to design experiments that tested my own ideas. ‘Training’ was something you taught yourself, or learnt on the job from other buddies. I never thought I would get a post-doc after my PhD, but got lucky there too, and was fortunate enough to land my own NERC Fellowship, which I took to Liverpool. There I started to build a group, and some years later I found myself a University Professor!
Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?
Rejection and wasted effort are common features of a scientific career. Being told by an anonymous colleague when you are striking out that your manuscript or grant is a load of old rubbish hurts. Likewise, completing a 1-year experiment where the results are completely ambiguous / inconclusive is depressing as the effort counts for rather little. As you develop, you get better at writing manuscripts and grants, and become confident that they are publishable. So the bad experience with ‘reviewer 3’ can be moved on from, and you get back on the horse. I’ve also learned, when I review a manuscript or grant, to always seek and identify the positives, especially if it’s an earlier career researcher.
Funding is obviously a major challenge, where both rejection and wasted effort combine. To maintain funding, especially in blue skies research that doesn’t always have direct societal benefits, you’ve got to keep on the horse and know the ropes and box clever with the opportunities (and don’t use too many clichés!) Creativity, independence and originality, with strict attention to detail and planning, are important for funding. Some of that is innate, some learnt through experience. Reviewing grants, sitting on panels, and writing plenty of applications is the way to get experience and learn. Start with small society-type grants, as this will help hone your bidding skills, as well as furnishing your CV with evidence that you want to build your own research program. It’s easy to lose the motivation to keep trying when success rates are below 10%, and each application takes a month to prepare, which is why I think it’s important that you do scientific research because of your passion, rather than as a job.
How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?
Two areas define success for me:
First is to produce scientific research that can be described as a true discovery. Not a little step or an ambiguous outcome in a paper where there is still much to do to conclude, but a solid publication that is clear, generously replicated, and with all the loose ends properly tied off. It helps if they are on big journals like Nature or Science, and I think all subjects and researchers should think big, and not dismiss the possibility of publishing research that can be broadcast to all scientists. There are some colleagues who I hugely respect for their honesty, understanding, and what they themselves have discovered. If they complement me on a piece of work or paper, which happens on rare occasions, that is genuine success to me.
Second, success is creating new scientists by securing the funding and environment for PhD students and postdocs to flourish as they build their own research careers around your supervision. Some will fly, others not so, and lots of factors contribute to that. When I started my NERC Fellowship, still wet-behind-the-ears from my PhD, I was desperate to secure a studentship and supervise a PhD and start to help shape a new scientist. In those days you could apply direct to the Research Councils for such funding, rather than relying on internal allocations and DTP competitions, and NERC awarded me a studentship. Although that scientist probably flourished a lot more after his PhD than with me, I’m proud to have played a small part in kick-starting him into becoming a truly great scientist. More recently, my long-term research technician had to leave to return to the US after 5.5 years in our group; she left a letter which is one of my more treasured research possessions and makes me feel very proud. Among other, more embarrassing, things she said ‘I hope you’ll agree you made me into a scientist’.
What excites you about your current projects?
One of the big advantages of becoming secure in a university job, is the ability to take risks and run longer-term projects that early career-ers cannot. I’m also able to design projects which are a bit more applied, now that I think I have fledged as a basic scientist. We currently have some exciting projects exploring the importance of male thermal sensitivity for reproduction in insects which are yielding important findings. Our salmon work has shown that there are things about hatchery and fish farm fertilisations that create high levels of unintentional triploidy in offspring, so we’re trying to solve that and eliminate these wasted fish. And our lab flour beetle model allows us to run some exciting experiments into inbreeding, sexual selection, extinction vortices, and adaptation to climate change. They’re a bit of a jump from the natural world, but make superb experimental models.
What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?
Another cliché….. don’t think that you CANNOT eventually become a Professor running a group doing research into things that you yourself think are important. The odds look very poor, but I never thought I would get onto a PhD, or then a postdoc, or a Lectureship, Professorship etc etc. And if I can do it…. You must be independent, creative, hardworking, collegiate and especially productive. Write good solid papers, not half-baked outputs. Spot the really big questions and think – is this a good discovery?? Give great talks, and work really hard so that they are genuinely great. You cannot prepare enough for these. Collaborate with nice, bright, broad-thinking people: there are loads of them in science, and they are often much calmer once established! Productivity will flow best when like minds come together, rather than some strategy to link your University with somewhere else that has a good world QS ranking. And enjoy your own research group – treat them with genuine affection, friendship and support.
If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?
By email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Many thanks to Matt for taking the time to give us some insights into his work and some brilliant advice. I loved the personal element of science that was so clearly demonstrated here by the letter that Matt received from one of his students. It was also evident that Matt values seeing people grow, both from this example and the fact that he mentioned it as one of his metrics for success as a scientist.
In fact, I think Matt shared a wealth of advice that would serve anyone in a scientific career well if they take the time to put it into action. Put it into action time and time again. Work hard. Be creative. Be independent. But do not work alone; work with broad-thinking people, and treat those you work with with genuine affection.
Merry Christmas, and thanks for reading. I hope you have a great opportunity to recuperate, spend time with your loved ones, and remember to treat those you work with with genuine affection.
I’ll be back next week with another interview to end the year. In the meantime don’t forget to share on your favourite social media platform.