NAME: Ted Flynn
CURRENT TITLE: Research Scientist at the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago, with a joint appointment in the Biosciences Division at Argonne National Laboratory.
AREA OF EXPERTISE: I study geomicrobiology, a field that aims to understand the interactions between microbial life and the geosphere. Because microbes are found in almost every environment on earth, my research spans locations from the deep subsurface to soil, surface and groundwater, and even the human body!
YEARS EXPERIENCE: 11
EDUCATION: I began working in this field in 2004, when I started a PhD in the Geology Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I have been at Argonne since 2011 and am currently part of the Molecular Environmental Science Group.
What’s your job like?
My job is extremely interdisciplinary. Scientists in my research group come from a wide array of different backgrounds including geochemistry, microbiology, soil science, and x-ray physics. Because most of our research is funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), we apply our expertise towards specific problems of interest to DOE. Most of our effort goes towards laboratory and field experiments that explore the fundamental relationships between microbes, minerals, and the environment. I perform both laboratory and field work, collecting samples of different geological materials (e.g. soil, sediment, and water). My colleagues and I characterize both the chemical and microbiological composition of these samples. Much of our work involves extracting deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), sequencing it, and using a variety of bioinformatics tools to understand the different genes and genomes found in the environments we study.
What’s a typical day like?
My time is typically split between meetings, lab work, and writing. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of our work, most of our projects involve multiple institutions and require close coordination of effort. Writing is another critical part of my job. In order to secure funding, we must constantly communicate the science we do to funding officers, lab management, and other scientists through peer-reviewed journal articles, talks, and posters at scientific meetings. Striking a balance between these areas is one of the most challenging parts of my job.
I love opening a fresh dataset from a recent experiment to see whether or not it matches my hypothesis. Characterizing microbial communities using DNA-based methods requires patience, as there are many steps between taking a sample and the final sequencing. Sometimes several months can go by before you get the data from a specific experiment, so it feels a little like Christmas when you finally receive your data! I really enjoy processing the raw data and seeing the millions of seemingly random streams of A, G, T, and C coalesce into discrete taxa and functional genes. I also enjoy presenting my research to students and other scientists. It’s always exciting when you get together with other people in your field and to discuss your latest results. You never know when a conversation over drinks at a meeting will lead to an exciting new project!
The most challenging part of my job is dealing with rejection, particularly when it comes to grant applications. It can be very frustrating to spend weeks, months, and even years working on a paper or proposal only to have it rejected for lack of funds. Most funding agencies these days are facing significant budget shrinkage, so competition for these limited resources is always increasing. Persevering in the face of these challenges and maintaining belief in yourself and your colleagues is absolutely critical.
What’s your advice to students?
My advice to students is to always be open to new experiences and new knowledge. When you’re getting started in science, it is a good idea to say “Yes!” often. Go to seminars outside of your own area, even when you feel like you might be too busy. Some of the most exciting projects I’ve been a part of originated in meetings between researchers from completely different backgrounds. Go to lunch with seminar speakers and learn about what they do and how they got to be where they are. You never know when you might meet a new colleague, collaborator, future PhD or postdoc advisor!