Matthew Oberhardt 
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Source: Matthew Oberhardt

1. Please tell us a bit about your current position – your academic/research background and your particular area of focus at present

I did my PhD in biomedical engineering, studying the metabolism of a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosaPseudomonas is a highly antibiotic resistant pathogen that lurks in hospitals and infects people whose immune systems are weakened after surgeries and things like that.

A lot of what I did during those years was tedious work building a genome-scale model of the bacterium’s metabolism.  I did a lot of digging through scientific literature to find snippets of knowledge about different enzymes and pathways in order to get the most accurate picture possible.  In the end I produced a model that seemed to give reasonable predictions, and that may hopefully help to save lives.

Right around when I finished my PhD, a paper came out announcing a new platform that could produce genome-scale models for bacteria automatically.  The models are not as accurate as manually built ones like the one that I built, but I jumped at the chance to use models produced by this tool to study many different organisms at once, without having to go through the tedious model building process all over again.  So in my post-doc, I focused on these automatically built models and the kinds of questions they can answer that individual, carefully built models cannot.  These topics include studying ecological distributions and of microbes and the formation of antibiotic resistance.

2. Why did you choose this topic and what are you hoping to discover through your research?

Bacteria are amazing and versatile lifeforms.  However, their very versatility makes them problematic, and nowhere more than in the formation of resistance to antibiotics.  We are now finding strains of bacteria that have gained resistance to some of our strongest antibiotics, and even strains that are resistant to multiple of our strongest drugs at once.  This resistance creates a disincentive for drug companies to develop new drugs, which means that the effectiveness of our antibiotics is simply running out.  It’s a huge, hidden public health disaster that’s waiting to happen in a decade or two if we don’t scramble now to develop new drugs.  I wanted to get involved by studying the process of antibiotic resistance, and hopefully figuring out better ways to develop new drugs, or to use the ones that already exist.

3. What do you think are the most important things that scientists can do to engage with society and the public?

Science requires highly detailed and specialized knowledge, and deals in conclusions that are confusing and ambiguous.  Society, on the other hand, prefers talking points and direct statements.  I think that this dichotomy is the basis of the PR problems that scientists have.  The solution, as I see it, is a much stronger effort from within the scientific community to reach out, using both social media and old-fashioned events such as public lectures and café hours.  There’s a great facebook page I follow called “I fucking love science” -- it sends me interesting or funny snippets from real scientific discoveries every day.  That’s perfect.

4. What do you enjoy most and least about your research?

My research involves interesting biology and problem solving, but it also involves a lot of data munging -- scrounging through different databases, cleaning and filtering data, and reorganizing it so I can re-compare the data in new ways.  That part isn’t so fun.

The part that I find the most satisfying is the crafting of a paper, integrating many different types of results into a nice story.  But then there are those unique moments when I truly discover something, or something works out way better than expected -- the eureka moments.  These moments happen extraordinarily rarely, but when they do, there’s a feeling to which practically nothing else can compare.

5. How do you keep up-to-date with what is happening in your field?

We have a weekly lab meeting to discuss papers, and my fellow lab members pass around papers that are interesting or topical.  I also read papers that are relevant to the work that I’m doing, and keep a list of journals in a feed reader that I occasionally scan for interesting topics.

6. Do you belong to any scholarly or scientific societies – why/why not?

I’m a member of the Biomedical Engineering Society.  I went to their conference this year, so I figured I’d join.

7. What is your biggest challenge as a researcher?

The data I work with is complicated, and the biology is complicated, and the questions are sometimes complicated.  It’s a challenge just to keep it all straight.

8. What are your ambitions for the future; where do you see yourself in 5-10 years’ time?

I want to be involved in science communication or policy.  I see these areas as the most critical for improving the standing of science in our society, and I think that society must embrace science if we’re to rise to the many challenges we face in the world today.

Matthew is a member of Wiley Advisors, a program for early career researchers and professionals to serve as a voice for their communities. For more information, please visit Wiley Advisors online or on twitter @WileyAdvisors.

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