Sur Herrera Paredes is a CEHG post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Hunter Fraser. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on understanding the genetic basis and evolutionary consequences of host-microbe interactions.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?
I was born and grew up in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. I went to college at the Cuernavaca campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where I enrolled in the Genomics program. That program was one of the first in the world that attempted to integrate computational and quantitative skill with the biological sciences, and it emphasized direct research experience. At the time, I worked on bacteriophage genome analysis and I got generally interested in what genomics can tell us about interactions between organisms.
After graduating college, I came to the US to work in a lab studying the root microbiome at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I ended up staying there for my PhD in Bioinformatics & Computational Biology. During my PhD, I continued to work on plant-microbe interactions in the root and rhizosphere, trying to understand both the host genetic elements that control root colonization by bacteria and the effect that bacterial strains and/or consortia have on plant phenotypes.
From my work on plant-microbe interactions, I got interested in evolutionary questions regarding microbial adaptation to the host. It was that interest which drove me to the Fraser lab at Stanford, where I currently work.
How did you first become interested in genetics and science? Did you always want to be a scientist?
I always was attracted to research. There are many academics in my family, all of them work in social sciences and the humanities. I grew up reading and listening to mostly discussions about philosophy, political science and literature. I think that growing in that environment taught me how to approach and dissect complex problems where the unknowns greatly outnumber the certainties we may have. It also taught me to always question those certainties.
I probably would have been a social scientist, but, when I was twelve, I read Darwin’s autobiography, and when I was thirteen, I learned about Mendel’s experiments at school. I was fascinated by the fact that so many aspects of biology could be explained by so few and simple principles, but what really surprised me was that both scientists achieved their contribution through completely different approaches: Darwin through observation, and Mendel through experimentation.
I wanted to study genetics since then, and I was very lucky that UNAM created a genomics undergraduate program as I was starting high school. I really didn’t understand the difference between genetics and genomics at the time; I probably just thought they sounded similar, but as it turned out, it was one of the best decisions I have made since the UNAM’s program put me in direct contact with the bleeding edge of modern biological research, which led me to pursue a PhD and ultimately to my current work at Stanford.
Can you tell us about your current research and what you hope to achieve with it?
In general, I am interested in biological mechanisms that link processes happening at multiple scales. As such, I find that inter-kingdom interactions are a unique opportunity to integrate the study of molecular processes with their implications for ecological and evolutionary scales. At the Fraser lab, I focus on characterizing the evolutionary processes that govern host-microbe interactions and microbe-microbe interactions within a host, and the role of these interactions on host health.
For one project, we are focusing on the role of microbial genetic variation within the human host. While the abundance of bacterial species and genes has been extensively studied in the human host, little is known about the evolutionary forces that shape bacterial genomes within hosts. I am leveraging bacterial genetic variation, inferred from metagenomic sequence data, in order to identify bacterial genes and pathways that are under positive selection in the human host. Furthermore, we want to know how bacterial genetic variants influence host health.
Besides bacteria, the human microbiome also includes microbes from other kingdoms (archaea and fungi). Specifically, bacteria-fungi interactions are relevant in the context of opportunistic infections, but almost nothing is known regarding bacteria-fungi communication and interaction among commensals in the human microbiota. Using yeast as a model, and a method developed at the Fraser lab that allows for high-throughput massive-parallel precision genome editing, I am investigating how yeast genetic variants associated with the human host influence the interaction of yeast with the bacterial human microbiota. Our goal is to identify novel genetic components of the molecular communication between yeast and bacteria, and to characterize the evolutionary forces that shape the evolution of those interactions.
Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success?
Many people have have been essential for my professional success. It would be impossible to name them all, but I think that my family and their support has been essential. Also, all my lab mates, co-authors and collaborators have enriched my academic performance. And finally, my mentors over the years: Guillermo Dávila Ramos, my undergraduate mentor who let me work on a project I proposed, and that he knew nothing about; Jeff Dangl and Corbin Jones, my PhD co-advisors, who continuously pushed me to do the best science possible; and Hunter Fraser, my post-doctoral mentor for the last year, who has supported me in what is a novel direction for his lab.
What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you?
I think that the most important things are that you enjoy what you do, and that you find people that you enjoy working with. There are many possible paths to achieving whatever goals, so one has to be open minded and work hard to achieve those goals, and working hard is much easier if you are having a good time.
What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?
I am influenced by my family of academics, but I see myself staying in academia and performing basic research for a long time. I would like to lead my own independent research group in a university setting that gives me the opportunity to participate in the training of the next generation of scientists. I would like to be in a place where there is high potential for many cross-disciplinary interactions, and with a strong commitment to basic research and cultural diversity.
Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?
I think CEHG is a fantastic organization for Stanford. One of the challenges at a big university is how to ensure that there is a forum to create synergistic interactions between different research groups. I think CEHG fulfills that role and it further helps to foster interaction between junior and senior researchers.
Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research and why. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science?
My hobbies have changed over the years. Since I did my PhD in a “plant lab,” I have been trying to learn how to germinate different types of plants. I enjoy literature; recently I have been focusing on Latin American literature, and English classics. I also like reading philosophy. I also enjoy biking and am learning how to fix my bike myself. I used to play a lot of chess when I was a kid; I left it for years but, thanks to two lab mates, I’m picking it up again.