Dr. Rebecca Wattam is a Research Associate Professor in the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory within the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech. Rebecca received her B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of New Mexico in Biology. Next, she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she earned a joint Ph.D. degree in Entomology and Veterinary Science. Rebecca received a MacArthur Fellowship to conduct postdoctoral research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and she completed a second postdoctoral fellowship there as well before accepting a position on the faculty at Virginia Tech. In our interview, Rebecca speaks more about her experiences in life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:23)
Living in Blacksburg, Virginia, Rebecca is close to the beautiful Appalachian Trail. She spends much of her free time hiking, canoeing, exploring the outdoors, and watching the wildlife.
The Scientific Side (2:59)
Bacteria are diverse and abundant, and they play important roles in our lives. Rebecca is the outreach and biology lead for a bioinformatics research center that scientists use to share and analyze their data on bacteria and bacterial genomes. This research center was originally funded to study bacteria that can make us sick in order to develop vaccines, identify drug targets, and predict outbreaks of illnesses. However, there are a lot of beneficial types of bacterial that are also now being studied based on their use for fermentation, alternate energy sources, probiotics, and other purposes. Rebecca is particularly interested in examining the similarities and differences between groups of bacteria.
A Dose of Motivation (5:08)
“What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what’s going on.” – Jacques Cousteau
“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” – Linus Pauling
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:43)
Though she always loved biology classes in school, Rebecca had a rocky start when it came to mathematics. One year of poor instruction in algebra meant that Rebecca struggled when she tried to proceed to the next level of math in high school. Based on her difficulty with math, Rebecca thought she couldn’t pursue a career in science. She got involved in acting and went to college to earn a degree in theatre arts. Partway through college, Rebecca decided that theatre wasn’t for her. She wanted to return to her interest in biology, so she started back at the beginning with an elementary algebra course. From there, Rebecca worked her way up through statistics to get her biology degree and pursue a career in science. Her time studying theatre has helped Rebecca become more comfortable speaking in front of crowds and reading her audience during workshops and scientific presentations.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (23:26)
Only decades ago, there were substantially fewer scientists being awarded PhDs, and jobs and research funding were plentiful. Rebecca finished her degree just after there was an explosion of PhDs awarded in biology, and it has been a struggle. Suddenly, there weren’t enough jobs, and funding levels have been steadily dropping. Both Rebecca and her husband are in similar scientific areas, and they had a tough time finding permanent jobs. They spent a long time as postdocs, and they kept waiting for positions to open up. At the same time, they were trying to raise a family, and money was tight. Eventually they found positions, but Rebecca never got the tenure track job she was expecting when she finished her PhD. Despite this, her current position as a research track faculty member has worked out well, it is a great job, and she really enjoys it. Still, it has been hard to see bright and talented people in her field struggle to find jobs, fail to get funding to do their research, and leave the academic careers they love to take other jobs.
A Shining Success! (27:20)
Recently, Rebecca and her colleagues submitted a proposal to examine large samples of bacterial communities. After years of trying to get a project funded on this topic, they finally have a proposal that is in the negotiation stage and may be funded. Currently, little is known about types of bacteria that scientists haven’t been able to successfully grow in cultures in the lab. Because of this, there are a lot of bacteria species within soil, our bodies, and other environments that researchers haven’t identified or described. Their goal is to take samples from large, complicated communities of bacteria to determine if there are potentially harmful bacteria, get genetic sequences from them, and analyze those bacteria. This was an amazing proposal to write, and it brings together a myriad of experts across different areas of biology.
Book Recommendations (31:42)
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Most Treasured Travel (33:41)
The most memorable trip for Rebecca was when she traveled to Thailand to give a workshop. In the beginning, everything that could have gone wrong definitely went wrong. Her flight out of Roanoke was delayed, so she missed her connection out of Japan, had to change airports in the middle of the night in Japan, the person who was supposed to meet her in Bangkok wasn’t there when she arrived, the airlines lost her luggage, she wasn’t able to communicate with her cab driver, her cab got in an accident with a motorcyclist, and she had to start her scheduled meetings with people there when she was stressed out, running on little sleep, and still wearing the clothes she traveled in. However, it was all worth it, because her visit was amazing. She met with people from all over the world who were trying to better understand the bacteria used in their local fermentation processes to preserve these traditional processes and help facilitate more efficient food production. This was the first time Rebecca was really able to delve into studying beneficial bacteria, and the people were absolutely fantastic to work with and talk to.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (38:03)
Rebecca’s research group likes to get together outside of the lab, go out to dinner, talk, and have fun. One of her colleagues is particularly fun to travel with because he always plans in advance the places they should go and sites they should see when visiting a new city. When traveling, Rebecca holds workshops, meets with students, helps students with their data, meets with collaborating scientists, and then is able to explore the places they are visiting. She has seen some phenomenal sites and shared many wonderful and hilarious moments with scientific colleagues.
Advice For Us All (45:01)
Work isn’t fun all of the the time. Sometimes work is hard or tedious, but it’s up to you to make it fun for you. Do the best you can at your job so you can be proud of the work that you do. This way, even if people criticize your work, you can still go home at the end of the day knowing you did your best. Also, you absolutely can have a career as well as children and a family. Regardless of what others may say, you can have your job and your life too.
Rebecca trained as a parasitologist and medical entomologist, but she currently works on comparative genomics of bacteria in the Pathosystems Resource Integration Center (PATRIC) project at Virginia Tech. PATRIC provides integrated data and analysis tools to support biomedical research on bacterial infectious diseases. It also provides data and analysis tools for multiple omics data types including genomes, proteomes, and transcriptomes. With PATRIC, you can upload your private data in a workspace, analyze it using high-throughput services, and compare it with other public databases using visual analytics tools. This platform provides researchers with a wealth of freely available data and analysis results to facilitate biomedical research on microbes across a wide variety of fields.