Interview: Tyler Carrier – “Research, Career Path and Science in Pandemic Times.”
We recently extended our host-microbe interview series to an additional focus on international junior researchers in the field. In the next issue of this new series, CRC1182-speaker Thomas Bosch talks to Dr Tyler Carrier (a transcript of this interview is also available, please read it below). He is visiting Kiel as a postdoctoral research fellow funded by the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation. Carrier holds a dual appointment at Ute Hentschel-Humeida’s lab at Geomar and Thomas Bosch’s Lab at Kiel University. Bosch is hosting Carrier in the CRC 1182 and recently talked to him about his research, career path and science in pandemic times.
More about Tyler’s work:
Thomas Bosch: Welcome Tyler to the Collaborative Research Center “Origin and Function of Metaorganisms”. It’s very nice that you will find a little bit time to talk behind the scenes behind the daily work in the laboratory. You are here at Kiel university as a postdoctoral fellow supported by a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt foundation. Just recently, you got your PhD and immediately got this prestigious fellowship and you came to Kiel in a very unfortunate time. Of course, moving during pandemic time is challenging. All the more, we are very happy to have you here and you are making certainly an impact. A number of our members and others will be interested to learn a little bit more how you experienced these times and what drives you and how did you get to where you are right now. As I understand you always were kind of an ecologist, a marine ecologist who is interested in the deep biology, the networks of marine organisms. And we will talk about what you did recently. You just had a beautiful paper. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to the field where you are right now?
Tyler Carrier: I had always had some interest in the ocean. I knew that I wanted to study marine animals. I took a broad undergrad degree in marine science and the class I liked the most was invertebrate zoology. So I started studying and looking at touch tanks and really the animals that stuck out for me were sea urchins. And I came to then find that they have these beautiful larvae, they have this unbelievable developmental program. And I just began to be really fascinated by how these larvae navigate their time in the ocean and find their way back to the sea floor. So I’ve started studying how a bunch of different ocean processes influenced larval development and larval survival. And one of the ones that I came across and I thought it was a bit unexpected was that there were microbes in inside their tissues. I became quite curious if those microbes help the larva while they’re in the water column. There was only about two studies at the time, and there were both one, both two different groups of researchers that were like one-off observations while they were looking under the microscope. So while I was studying ecology then saw these microbes and it was curious how they interact.
TB: And may I ask her what there something in school or family or something who drove you into that? I mean, who raised your interest in marine organisms?
TC: I grew up in an ocean state in the US and I moved to a land state that was big on skiing and nothing to do with the water. And I guess when I was young, I would always ask my dad to go down to the ocean. And then when we couldn’t he decided to put a fish tank in our house and I always want to take care of it. So I just had this interest in it and he fostered that.
TB: Great, let’s jump and come to your latest success. And that is a wonderful PNAS paper, which still stays with the sea urchins, but you alluded already a little bit to it. And you were getting deeper and deeper in these larvae life and the biology of the larvae. Can you summarize in a few sentences in more general words, what’s the major finding of that new paper?
TC: So one of the big evolutionary successes for symbiosis has been animals having a gut. It’s a good environment to house microbes. The main question of the paper was what happens to this microbial community when that gut is lost. What we found was that there is a reduction in the different types of microbes and how abundant they are when a host loses a gut. So it really fits into the idea that when animals evolved a gut, that these communities probably evolved with them.
TB: That’s also the message for the broader symbiosis community, important for going away from the larvae, to the sea urchin? So that’s the importance of the paper that it highlights that there is this, this distinct and specific correlation between our gut microbiome and the presence of a gut?
TC: Yeah, I would definitely think so.
TB: This symbiosis research, it started with very few people on very exotic animals, and it didn’t really catch too much visibility in the broader biological field that all was on about genetics and development et cetera. But now it became one of the major areas of activity. People are trying to understand how the fitness of an organism certainly depends to some degree on the symbiont community the organism is colonized by. Why is that? And this attracts more and more young students. What is so attractive for young people to enter that field?
TC: I think symbiosis really ties together a lot of concepts that maybe once didn’t seem as tightly knitted as they’re now appearing to be. Whether that is just a simple relationship between an animal and a microbe or between different disciplines, both ecology and evolution and development viewing it in a microbial light seems to allow a young researcher to look at a question from all these different angles and in the view of symbiosis, they appear to be a lot more connected.
TB: Would you agree with thinking that knowledge in the last 50 years got very reductionistic and type of a silo thinking. It has the big advantage that we understand a lot in depth, but the real biologist really wants to have kind of what I call a holistic understanding of the whole organism in its environment. And then now is this possible that this makes it and an attractive field to enter?
TC: I agree completely. Naturalists used to be really common in departments all over the world and researchers now rarely are just naturalists. They’ve really been replaced by model systems. So definitely with the exploration for new symbiotic relationships comes people stepping back out of the lab and going into the field. For the model organisms that I’ve been working with: people have used them before, but just in a completely different context. They haven’t been trying to culture them as close as they can to in the ocean as possible. So we definitely are definitely seeing that a bit.
TB: But you mentioned the burden of the model organism. I sometimes think by myself, what is a model organism? You are studying sea urchins – is that a model organism, and then if so, a model for what and what does it need to be a model organism?
TC: I think it’s a relative comparison. First, what is the definition of model organism? Something where you can use just about any possible technique available to study its biology. I think this is probably a very broad definition. Sea urchins have definitely been viewed as a model system in a developmental context, they have for a while. They’re easy to use in the lab and to manipulate. They’re definitely not a model from a symbiosis perspective, but it probably won’t take that much to get it to that status. And that’s simply because people have been working on them for 150 years. They were very easy to go down to the seashore, pick them out and spawn them to look at their gametes.
TB: I think I would even go a step further. Sea urchins are certainly a well-established model. The regulatory network in developmental biology by Eric Davidson, that was that sea urchin. But go back and go to the sea and do a scuba diving and you’ll find something interesting. Wouldn’t that available technology allow you to really study that strange organism in depth. And by that, then you make that organism to a model organism.
TC: Yeah, certainly. It seems like some of the techniques that are being used right now in symbiosis research, the one that of course comes to mind is any type of sequencing. That should allow you to advance what is known about that system to then do strict empirical work that is often done on model systems. So definitely having these broad, very easily adapted techniques, should allow non-model systems to become a model systems or be very experimentally tractable.
TB: I think that the fascination of symbiosis research partly is also due to the fact that really because of the modern technology many different organisms can now be used really in-depth at a mechanistic level. I think that’s what we all agree on. We need move away from correlation and associations to an understanding of causality. Many different organisms may tell you so much about how nature managed to make so many fit organisms. And I think this is really fascinating, which was not possible 30 years ago, as simple as that, because there was not the means to do that. And you said it right at the beginning, that you are you’re compared to naturalists. Then we see whatever you call it, experimental biologist, molecular biologist, reductionist, whatever. But this also seems to me to reflect an old and overcome culture and your work certainly crosses many different boundaries and crosses departments. Are you an ecologist? Are you a microbiologist? Are you a biochemist? But the question would be as a junior investigator in the field: How important and how challenging is interdisciplinary working? And is that something that you really think is bringing the field forward?
TC: My undergraduate grade was in marine science and it was this group of aquaculture folks and marine molecular ecologists and oceanographers, and you’re always going back and forth. And that was what really spurred a lot of ideas. And I was in a broad biology department for my PhD as well. Every research has a completely different perspective of something that you may not realize you needed to know, or that may provide some hint at the question that you’re just sitting on. And that definitely came to fruition in this recent paper. And once it does, I think that’s when really cool findings can come up.
TB: Now you made a very tough decision: During pandemic times you left the US and the came to Europe came to Germany, came to Kiel, you joined a new institution, the Geomar Helmholtz Center. In your experience now, what does it need, that an Institute has to offer, in terms of structures, platforms, communications? What would expect from an institution before you choose to go there?
TC: So I will proceed my answer with saying that I got a lot of help. There are a lot of people who made it possible. You and Ute being probably the two most important ones. But the thing that I really struggled with when I got here was knowing what is needed to become a resident it’s on top of figuring out where the pipettes are in the lab and where I can find my animal in the ocean. But knowing what legally makes you allow to stay where you are and work and find just the normal resources that were easy to find before.
TB: You talk about bureaucracy and immigration offices and stuff like that?
TC: Yeah, and how to pay your electric bill. Usually it’s not an issue of money or timing. It’s: Who do I send this money to? How do I send it? There were a lot of things that I learned very quickly of what not to do that was fine in the US and just knowing the ins and outs is, would probably be something that would be really helpful. Because doing that on top of the day-to-day of trying to maintain some research program, is quite challenging.
TB: German universities, in particular Kiel university, have a deficit in terms of internationalization. I think this is exactly one of the problems where we have to make it easier for our international guests, which are all invited and most welcome and highly recognized. But if they fail in filling out some very trivial daily forms or something, there’s something wrong and we have to change that. And we have to improve that. I mean, it’s clear you’re going to a country where English is not the native language, but you also go to an academic institution where English is the lingua franca. That’s why I ask this type of questions. I thought about scientific structures and platforms, and I think, institutions like the Geomar are very well structured in that respect. But if you have a very hard daily life in terms of surviving, uh, as you say to pay your electricity bill, that is something that there is room for improvement. I, I fully agree.
TC: Yeah, no problem. Just one note on that, I was very close to a multi thousand Euro issue, cause I had, without having any idea signed up for the wrong healthcare. It is a common one in Europe. But it was not the correct one based on my contract and my financial position for being here. And then it was illegal to be out of it without signing up for something new. So avoiding those situations I think would be, you know, pretty good for future people.
TB: Well, you made it and you were pretty successful and you’re continuing to be successful and there is no doubt that you are on a uprising path towards a very international, visible career. If you look back, what, and if you now maybe talk to the very junior, the unaccredited members of which are somehow associated with our collaborative research center. Is there anything, would you like to tell them, what is necessary and what they have to stick to and what to make it to that nice and high level where you are right now?
TC: So there’s two things that come to mind. The first is just try a lot of stuff. I started off actually in aquaculture. I was working with a sea urchin there, because it was the only thing that they had. I cultured clownfish for a summer course, I was interested in the ocean and worked on diseases and biomechanics for a little bit of just trying to see what I actually liked. So my first piece of advice would be just to try a lot. And the second is that failure is totally okay. I think anyone at any degree of seniority would say that failure is the expectation not success. And it shouldn’t say anything about your quality to be a researcher or a scientist or naturalist or whatever you want to be. Those are the two that really come to mind.
TB: Continuing on that, science is a communication business talking to each other, meeting each other are getting ideas, spontanious ideas in a pre-planned meeting, which has topics, which then we discussed. And then the discussion leader says, it’s over now. So I’ll see you next Monday. And we are living in our own times where science is isolated scientists are isolated physically. We talk online under very controlled conditions. So spontaneity is rather rare. How do you cope with that, physical, social distances time? Now you do quite well. You see, you’re still smiling and shining eyes and burning of getting to the next step of research and career. So how to cope with that certainly very challenging time?
TC: Yeah, probably the best way that I cope is actually go running. It’s actually not do science, but I think what may be more beneficial for people broadly, as that I, I try not to judge myself for not being as productive. I know there’s a degree of productivity that I could be achieving, I want to achieve, but just realize that it you’re just in a circumstance where it’s probably not possible and it’s totally okay. And I still try, I still try to be creative. It just takes a lot more effort and a lot more time than normally.
TB: I fully agree. I think we should really stress that this time is not easy for getting up for being creative. I mean, it needs a lot of self-discipline. This has many benefits, of course also, you know, having more time, being less disturbed. But when we talk about creative scientific thinking, we realize that our sources for that creativity come from many different directions, which are usually a very hard to define. But then they are cut off as right now, then we are missing them.
You’re quite established already in the field, you write perspectives about going beyond your own observations. So coming to an end of this small little chat, but I want to ask you, where do you see the field of symbiosis research, or maybe marine symbiosis research in the next five or 10 years? What are major open questions and which questions you think will be answered in five or 10 years?
TC: Oh boy. Um, I think the major questions are probably stuff that we didn’t realize was influenced by microbes that actually are. The thing that comes to mind for me are major life history transitions, where we thought it was this host directed process that may not be. One of the big takeaways from this recent paper was that a big change in development could have been by a reproductive manipulating bacteria and maybe much less to do with the host. And those types of changes in animal lifestyle are found all over the place. So I would not be surprised if looking at major transitions in an animal’s life outside of the life cycle would be one area where these types of studies really blossom. Another one that I think about are all these lifestyles that people thought were quirky, like, how does an animal live like that? There are larvae that people have observed that can be in the larval phase for years when usually the normal time is a few days to a couple of weeks. They just hang out and have no worry about, about being in that state. So I just wonder if there are, if there is this microbial influence that allows them to sustain these really intriguing lifestyles.
TB: Thank you very much. I think this is to actually pretty novel and original ideas or visions in the future. I fully agree what. I want to add, and you are good in that and not everybody’s good in that is, is: It needs also a lot of effort to communicate that findings in our classical communities. Developmental biologists, the microbiologists quickly learned that microbes are not exclusively pathogens. Now these are now great members and friends and colleagues and experts, which we need because they know so much about microbes, but having a good deal of communication skills I think is necessary because still what you will find. Um, and just the last few concluding sentences, that you expect that we discover more and more key developmental processes and transition steps, which may be influenced much more by the microbial environment and by the host itself. That is something which I as a classical developmental biologist, still have a hard time to accept, in my experience. And it needs careful persistent and trained communication to convince the community. Would you agree to that?
TC: A hundred percent. And I think that will dissolve with time just as more data that they can look at with their eyes comes out instead of a researcher like you and I tried to hit him over the head with it. I think it will be inevitable that they’ll have to accept that complimentary perspective on that aspect of animal biology or plant biology.
TB: Where do you want to be in five years?
TC: I think by then I would, I would like to have a lab that is beginning to be pretty independent and at least to some degree, self-sustainable. I would love to have the transition where I can be in a position to seek funding for projects that I’m curious about about and be in a network of people to work on these questions. And hopefully more that aren’t even in my head come up from all the people that I’m working around.
TB: I’m very confident, Tyler, that you are there where you want to be in five years, you are already very independent. I remember reevaluation of your thesis by your thesis advisor and then with your thesis, you were already pretty independent and your own ideas, and it’s great. So you can count on us and we will support you very much in your future steps. I wish you all the very best. We come to an end of this short chat, it was a great pleasure. And thank you so much for sharing personal views, which are other members of the center, junior members, but also senior members, maybe interested in learning. It may also help some of them to go through challenging times that you have managed somehow to go through. So thank you so much and very best wishes for the future.
TC: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure to sit down and talk.