Dr. Patrick Schloss is an Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan. After completing his undergraduate studies at Cornell University, Pat stayed on to receive his PhD. Both degrees were in Biological & Environmental Engineering. He went on to do his postdoctoral training at the University of Wisconsin and served on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst before joining the faculty at the University of Michigan where he is today. Pat is here with us today to tell us all about his journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (02:05)
Pat spends most of his free time with his 8 kids, who range in age from 2 months to 14 years old. They live just outside of Ann Arbor on a farm with sheep, cows, pigs and chickens. Recently, Pat and his kids had a fantastic time at the community fair showing their animals. Working on the farm is a good way to escape the stress of science, and it’s also nice for Pat to sit down to dinner at the end of the day and think about how everything on their plates came from within a mile of their own farm.
The Scientific Side (04:40)
As a microbial ecologist, Pat is fascinated by bacterial communities. He believes that bacterial communities in and on us are interacting with each other and with us, to keep us healthy. If something goes wrong with these communities, then we need to figure out how to get them back on track so they can help us stay healthy. Pat also has a knack for bioinformatics and enjoys building tools for computational analysis. He has an engineering background, initially specializing in waste treatment and how bacteria work as a community to break down waste.
A Dose of Motivation (06:40)
“What is true for E. coli is also true for the elephant.” by Jacques Monod
What Got You Hooked on Science? (14:30)
Going through junior high and high school, Pat had phenomenal math and science teachers. He fondly recalls attending science fairs, doing experiments, and the way the teachers were able to get them really excited about science. Though Pat was interested in a career in science, he struggled to get accepted into graduate school. When Pat approached his undergraduate advisor for yet another recommendation letter for the next school on his list, he ended up getting into a deep discussion on his advisor’s research. This led to his advisor agreeing to take him on as a PhD student, despite the dozen or so rejections Pat had faced from other schools.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (28:00)
Getting his first tenure track job was a struggle. Pat was submitting applications in the last year of graduate school, as well as throughout his time as a postdoc. There was a period of almost 8 years during which he submitted about 80 applications. Pat was invited for a few interviews and ultimately accepted the first job offer he was given. It was particularly challenging because he was making a transition from engineering to biology, and this involved thinking about things in a very different way.
A Shining Success! (32:30)
For the last few years Pat and his exceptional students have been making great progress in the lab and publishing excellent papers. One recent success involved using a mathematical statistical approach called random forest modeling. With this approach they are able to make quantitative predictions of outcomes using information from a current microbial community. For example, they could predict how many tumors an individual will have in the future based on their microbial communities today.
Book Recommendations (37:10)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Most Treasured Travel (39:35)
Pat is not a huge fan of traveling. Earlier in his career, Pat was traveling a lot to attend conferences and give presentations, and he finally had to limit himself to one trip per month. He has declined a lot of invitations because he wants to make sure he is spending enough time with family. Last year Pat attended a workshop where he had a excellent experience working with students and postdocs in discussions and educational sessions related to reproduceable research. The people he met were phenomenal and he has continued to stay in touch with the friends he made there.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (42:41)
Lab lunches are a tradition in Pat’s lab, whether they are going out for food or just eating in together at one of the campus cafeterias. His lab also comes together over fantasy football, with draft day pizza parties and a healthy dose of competition.
Advice For Us All (47:15)
Put your head down and work hard. Also, computational and programming skills are important and will help you immensely with your science.
Pat grew up in Columbia, Missouri and went on to complete his undergraduate and graduate studies at Cornell University. His dissertation work involved trying to understand the dynamics of bacterial communities in waste treatment processes such as composting. Having been bitten by the microbial ecology bug, he began to wonder not just who was present in these communities, but also what they were doing there. To answer these types of questions, he went on to do a postdoc in the lab of Jo Handelsman at the University of Wisconsin. There, he learned to apply 16S rRNA gene sequencing metagenomic analysis methods to better understand the microbial ecology of soil and insect guts. It was there that he also began to develop his expertise in bioinformatics. Pat went on to start his own lab at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where he started the mothur software project. In 2009, Pat moved his lab to the University of Michigan. There they continue to develop bioinformatics tools for analyzing microbial communities and to apply them to understand the role of microbial communities in maintaining human health in the context of colorectal cancer and bacterial infections such as *Clostridium difficile*. When Pat isn’t thinking about the factors that affect the structure and function of his own microbiome, he obsesses about the microbiome of his kids and animals that live on his family’s farm in Dexter, MI.