Fellows Feature: Sebastien Boyer


Sebastien Boyer is a CEHG postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Gavin Sherlock. He is a graduate of the University of Grenoble (MS, Physics) and earned his PhD  in the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Physics at the University Grenoble (Physics for Life Sciences). His research focuses on yeast population (as a model organism) evolving in changing environments and, more particularly, on the effect of time scale and the randomness of those changes on adaptation. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally? 

I am a French physicist interested in various problems found in biology and, more particularly these days, evolution. I was born and raised on a French island, named Reunion Island. It’s a tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, known for it’s multi-ethnicity, world class waves, volcano and unique landscape. I spent most of my college time in Grenoble (Mainland France), and did a year exchange in Hong Kong.

I used to swim on a team for 17 years, but nowadays I am swimming and playing Water Polo for fun, here at Stanford. I used to travel a lot, from Mongolia to Tanzania through Norway (for example), and I am now very eager to discover California and the U.S., generally speaking.

Why did you become a scientist? Did you want to be a scientist as a child? 

I am a big fan of science fiction and have been since I was a child. As a child, I wanted to be an explorer, crossing the galaxies in fancy spaceships to discover new planets and life forms. This somehow led me to physics: quantum mechanics and relativity were, for me, real world science fiction.

In Hong Kong, I had the chance to attend a talk of Bob Austin’s about antibiotics resistance, and he was talking like a physicist: individuals were hopping from one point to another in a more or less rugged fitness landscape. Sometimes they were randomly diffusing, and other times, they were driven toward an optimal. I realized that physicists might have relevant things to say about biology and evolution.

From there, I did a PhD in the field of protein evolution and, to some extant, immunology. For a postdoc, I wanted to go from the bottom up and work with eukaryote to get into the genetics of evolution and not only its statistics. I got interested in the work of the Sherlock lab because the barcoding technology they developed actually allows you to have access to the statistics and genetics of evolving yeast populations.

Can you tell us about your current research and what you want to achieve with it? You could start by listing 3 words you think best represent or embody your research.

Evolution, changing environments, yeast.

I am interested in the influence of changes in the selective environment that a population (of yeast, as a model organism) can encounter. More specifically, I am interested in the influence of the time scales on those changes (long enough to trigger adaptation in the different environments or shorter than that).

Similarly, I also look at the effects of predictable changes vs random changes on the evolution of those populations. I want to see the effects of those changes in terms of dynamics, statistics and genetics. For example, I would like to see the emergence of different genetic strategies from different types of environmental changes. My work is mainly experimental, even though I have been coding (python) quite a lot so far, for future sequencing analysis. I also coded an algorithm reproducing in silico the experiment I had in mind; it helped me a lot to design it actually.

In nature, environments are changing and populations have to cope with that. Understanding to what extent a population adapted to one environment can adapt to another one is crucial. Questions about a changing environment, the time scale of the changes or its degree of randomness are, for example, directly linked to antibiotic resistance for bacteria or drug resistance in cancer.

Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success? What is it like working with your current lab advisor and his/her lab? 

My mother for teaching me how to read, and my father for introducing me to science fiction. My math teacher in “prepa” (cram school for engineering school) for teaching me, the hard way, two really important life/academic lessons : 1) You can and will fail and there is nothing to be afraid of there; 2) When faced with a difficult problem, think hard but don’t get stuck. Instead, get started, even if your first action seems useless; for example, just rewrite what is known about the problem. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The lab is used to working with physicists through collaboration with the Fisher and Petrov labs. I took some time to actually build this project. Gavin gave me this time and was really enthusiastic about the ideas I was bringing. It’s really nice to be trusted that way in the development of a new project. Even though I am alone in this project, I have the help of Lucas Herissant for experimental expertise and Jamie Blundell and Atish Agarwala for the theoretical counterpart.

What are your future plans? 

I would like to get a tenure position in a university somewhere in Asia or Oceania, still working in evolution and probably expanding my research horizons into other fields of biophysics, like neuroscience for example.

Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus? CEHG’s core values include “interdisciplinary research” and “collaboration.” How do these values align with your own approach to science?

CEHG is one of the main promotors of interdisciplinarity in the field of genetics and genomics on Stanford campus. It acts like a hub, giving the opportunity for experts from different fields to interact.

Often, during my PhD, we ended up talking about our research with the same small group of people, all physicists, although our research could influence or be influenced by other fields like immunology, protein design etc… We were lacking a community that would bring us together, and that is really what CEHG does I think.

As a physicist and evolutionary biologist who wants to explore evolution in the framework of genetics, it is obvious how my values align with those of CEHG.

What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you? 

Just go for it. By working in an interdisciplinary environment, you never stop to learn and can get introduced to problems and experiments you never though of. One week, I learn in a journal club that some neurons are activated into a spatial pattern, and the week after, I am listening to an awesome talk about multicellular emergence. Science needs more and more interactions between specialists from different fields and people who can actually make the links between those different communities.




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