Dr. Gareth Fraser is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Florida. He received his bachelor’s degree in palaeobiology and evolution from the University of Portsmouth, his master’s degree in evolutionary biology and systematics from the University of Glasgow, and his PhD in evolutionary developmental biology from King’s College London. Afterwards, Gareth conducted postdoctoral research at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He served on the faculty at The University of Sheffield for about nine years before joining the faculty at the University of Florida in 2018. In this interview, he shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:40)
When he’s not working, Gareth enjoys being outside in nature, playing soccer, scuba diving, and hunting for fossils in the creek near their home. He and his two young daughters have also been having fun exploring the mysterious realm of cryptozoology and reading books about monsters.
The Scientific Side (3:56)
Gareth is a developmental biologist interested in how things form during development, how they are recreated during regeneration, and how features develop and persist on evolutionary timescales. His lab typically examines these questions looking at oral teeth and dermal denticles (tooth-like structures) in unusual fish like pufferfish, hammerhead sharks, and ghost sharks (chimaera).
A Dose of Motivation (6:25)
“Keep asking your questions.” – Stephen Hawking
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” – Stephen Hawking
What Got You Hooked on Science? (11:04)
The ocean has fascinated Gareth from an early age, and as a kid, he spent a lot of time exploring and finding fossils at their local limestone beach. After his parents separated, he sometimes accompanied his father night fishing, and Gareth will never forget the first time he watched the movie Jaws at the age of seven. These experiences deepened his curiosity about the natural world. Along the way, some of Gareth’s teachers encouraged his interests, particularly his high school geology and history teachers. As a first-generation college student, Gareth wasn’t familiar with academic career paths, and he didn’t know any scientists. However, he knew he wanted a career doing science, and he decided to go to college. Through serendipitous connections, Gareth was recruited for a new course in paleobiology and evolution at the University of Portsmouth. This was a great experience where he learned a lot of geology, paleobiology, and marine biology. Towards the end of his time there, Gareth began to get more interested in genes and development, so he decided to pursue a master’s degree in this area. As his master’s program wrapped up, Gareth began thinking about his next steps. The final piece missing from his training was developmental biology. He found the perfect PhD program at Kings College London, but by the time he found the advertisement, the application deadline had already passed. Fortune was in Gareth’s favor because after visiting the lab he was interested in, he discovered that there was still an opening for a PhD student. Gareth accepted the position, and this further cemented his scientific career path.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (36:53)
Though he had an outstanding experience in his PhD program overall, the first year was really difficult. Shortly after he joined the lab, Gareth’s advisor went on sabbatical for about eight months in Australia. She had made arrangements for him to work in another lab during her absence, but the new lab turned out not to be a good fit. Gareth wasn’t excited about this lab’s research area, and he and the lab director didn’t get along well. Ultimately, Gareth made the difficult decision to leave the lab because he wasn’t making the progress he wanted or getting the support he needed. Gareth was pretty sure his scientific career was over before it really got started. The imposter syndrome was severe, and he dreaded having to tell his family that after spending all this time, effort, and money, his career wasn’t working out like he thought it would. Fortunately, Gareth had developed many other connections within the school, and when he went to submit his resignation letter to the dean, Gareth was surprised by the response. The dean and other faculty within and outside the department were determined to help him find a lab to work in where he could do research he was excited about. After exploring a few options, Gareth chose a new lab, and it turned out to be a fantastic fit.
A Shining Success! (44:27)
About two years ago, Gareth’s lab started a project working on ghost sharks (chimaera). These are deep sea fishes with a variety of strange physical features including their slimy texture, their venomous dorsal fin spine, and their unusual tooth plate. Gareth had wanted to study these fish for a long time, and he was thrilled when an opportunity arose to teach in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Washington’s marine station in the Pacific Northwest. This is one of only three places in the world where ghost sharks come into the shallower water to breed and feed. In the particular species of ghost shark there, the males have an odd club-like, articulated appendage that comes out of a cup in their foreheads. This structure is called a tenaculum, and Gareth wanted to know what this structure was used for and whether the teeth in the bulb at the end of the tenaculum were more closely related to oral teeth or dermal denticles. The last scuba dive of the trip was scheduled for late at night, and Gareth was thrilled to spot a male ghost shark during the dive. The inquisitive fish swam with them for about twenty minutes while Gareth filmed it. At one point, the ghost shark turned to him and shot out its tenaculum. Gareth couldn’t believe his luck to have seen this phenomenon and to have managed to record it. They are now working on a paper based on this cool ghost shark project.
Book Recommendations (56:51)
Into The Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search for Evolution by Sean Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species by Sean Carroll, The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
Most Treasured Travel (1:00:21)
Gareth has had multiple opportunities to travel to Japan so far in his career. During his PhD, he met a wonderful friend and colleague who was a visiting professor at Kings College London. This individual invited Gareth to visit Japan and got him connected with researchers at the Misaki Marine Biological Station. One collaborative project they are working on now is focused on pufferfish. These fish are unique because they form a beak, rather than teeth, during development. The Misaki Marine Biological Station is in a beautiful, isolated area on the coast south of Tokyo, and Gareth has enjoyed working on the pufferfish project, as well as taking time to enjoy the natural beauty of the country, including climbing Mount Fuji.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (1:03:04)
When Gareth was on the faculty at the University of Sheffield, he and some of his colleagues formed a department band. They played cover songs as the opening comedy act at the graduation ball for undergraduates each year, and students could shout out song requests for them to play. It was an outstanding opportunity to show students that academics knew how to have fun, be creative, and have a sense of humor.
Advice For Us All (1:08:17)
Science is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t focus all your energy on hitting major milestones right away. Pace yourself, and make sure you enjoy the journey.
Gareth’s research is based around understanding the diversity, development, and regeneration of vertebrate dentitions, with a major focus on sharks and their relatives. His interdisciplinary work cuts across several fields such as paleontology, developmental biology, and regenerative biology. Gareth’s most recent work has enhanced our understanding of craniofacial and tooth development using unconventional models of evolutionary developmental biology, including sharks, pufferfish, and chimaeras (ghost sharks). These organisms have evolved sometimes extreme and divergent morphologies that allow us to appreciate the boundaries of evolutionary change. Gareth takes great pleasure in finding out how these oddball species develop and why they form such unusual features. Recently, Gareth and his collaborators have set up an accessible Research Experience for Undergraduates program, specifically focused on increasing research opportunities for students with disabilities. Outside of the lab, Gareth enjoys soccer, scuba diving, wildlife photography, fossil hunting, and learning about cryptozoology with his two daughters.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by New England Biolabs, Inc.