Fellows Feature: Yoav Ram

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Yoav Ram (http://www.yoavram.com) is a CEHG postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Marcus W. Feldman. He is a graduate of Tel-Aviv University (PhD, Theoretical & Computational Biology). His research uses mathematical models and computer simulations to study the evolution of the genetic system, including the evolution of the rates of mutation, recombination, and mis-segregation and their dependence on stress and fitness.

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

I grew up in Herzliya, a suburb of Tel-Aviv, and lived most of my life in the Israeli coastal plain between Tel-Aviv and Haifa, except for a couple of years I lived in Kibbutz Lotan, the southern Arava Valley, working in permaculture. I have three kids, ages 6, 3 and 6 months: my first son was born when I finished my undergraduate degree in Math and Biology; my baby daughter was born on my 33rd birthday, a couple of months after submitting my PhD thesis.

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

I wanted to be a scientist since I was very young: I remember reading encyclopedias, and trying to figure if the horizon was straight or curved when I was 7 or 8. My grandfather was a chemical engineer (he even published in Nature in 1944!!) and a huge influence. In middle school, I was interested in astronomy and astrophysics after reading Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” In the army, I learned math, stats, and programming, and afterwards it was clear to me that I wanted to do quantitative research. I gravitated towards studying Biology while experiencing nature in Nepal and reading Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene.” I took an “Intro to Evolution” course in my first year as an undergrad (taught by Prof. Lotem), and my mind was blown. The day after the final exam, I started a research project with Prof. Lilach Hadany. That was almost nine years ago…

Can you tell us about your current research and what you hope to achieve with it? Why is your research important? 

During my PhD, I used mathematical models and computer simulations to study the evolution of stress-induced mutagenesis – when individuals under stress increase their mutation rates. This is a common phenomenon in bacteria, and evidence suggests that it is also common in many eukaryote species, from yeast to human cancer cells. I was able to show that stress-induced mutagenesis can be favored by natural selection due to the beneficial mutations it generates, both in changing and constant environments, and that it increases the rate of complex adaptation without jeopardizing the population mean fitness – therefore breaking the evolutionary trade-off between adaptability and adaptedness. These results have important consequences for various aspects of biology, because mutation is such a fundamental force in evolution. But ultimately, I think that my research contributes to our changing understanding of mutation, and specifically, that mutation is more likely to occur in maladapted individuals – exactly the individuals that stand the most to gain from mutating.

Over the past two years, I focused on a different project, which gave me an opportunity to do experiments and learn new technical skills. Many microbiologists find that measuring microbial growth in a mixed culture is laborious and expensive, and even more so in non-model organisms. To mitigate this problem, I developed Curveball, a new method for predicting microbial growth in a mixed culture solely from growth curve data. I also validated this new method using experiments with bacteria. I hope that Curveball will be used by microbiologists and evolutionary biologists and that it will help bridge the gap between theoretical and experimental evolutionary biology.

Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success? 

I worked for almost nine years at the Hadany Lab in Tel-Aviv University. Prof. Lilach Hadany is an amazing advisor and an inspiring researcher. It has been a daily privilege to study and work in the supportive and challenging environment she provided. The lab is very diverse, combining both experimentalists and theoreticians with different skill sets, working on a large variety of problems. A good example is the set of organisms being studied in the lab: bacteria, yeast, ants, plants – including cacti, tomatoes, and flowers – and digital organisms.

What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?

My main scientific interest is developing models for describing and predicting evolutionary dynamics. My goal is to have my own lab in Israel, combining mathematical and computer modeling with microbial experimental evolution. I want to continue studying the evolution of the processes that generate genetic variance. In addition, I want to better understand the relationships between ecology and evolution.

CEHG’s core values include “interdisciplinary research” and “collaboration.” Can you speak to the ways your work has embodied these values? How do these values align with your own approach to science?

I’m an interdisciplinary and DIY type of person, in both my personal and work life. I am interested in the integration between theoretical and experimental evolutionary biology and I believe that such integration requires interdisciplinary research and collaboration between “wet” and “dry” biology.

The Hadany Lab is a good environment for collaborations between “dry” and “wet” biologists. I had the chance to sit through many “wet biology” seminars and helped on several “wet” projects by doing statistical analysis, dynamic modeling, and image analysis. In addition, my main research project during the past two years – on predicting results of competition experiments – was an opportunity to combine math, stats, programming, and microbiology, and to “get my hands dirty” doing experiments with bacteria and yeast.

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

  1. “Don’t ever let somebody tell you you can’t do something” (The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006).

  2. Work-life balance is important: most people can’t work 24/7 (but see (1)), and reading fiction when you should be reading papers or taking a walk when you should be in front of a computer is OK.

  3. If you don’t know what Impostor syndrome is, then read about it.

  4. If you see a mathematical result that you don’t understand, try to derive it on your own before looking for the original derivation. It builds intuition and skill and sometimes can lead to new findings.

Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research and why. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science?

I like cooking, hiking, home-improvement (I used to build mud huts and I like working with wood), playing with my kids, and watching NBA (I’m a Lakers fan). 

 

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