Can a PhD Student Use Yeast to Help Us Understand Cancer?

One thing I’ve learned in my bachelor’s so far is that presentations always end up a bit of a sweaty palm experience for me; “Even with such an elegant command of the English language?” I hear you all exclaim. I think it’s probably just the Brit inside me, but the fear of making a fool of myself is always there, at least until the words start spilling out. That being said, during a bachelor’s programme there usually isn’t a lot of pressure, given that most people are looking at their phones instead of you; I can’t even begin to explain the kind of confidence boost you get from your assessor staring down at the floor as you’re halfway through your pitch. Of course, not everything revolves around me – my life just shattered before my very eyes – and some people really do possess an innate ability to present ideas in an enchanting way. One such person is Vakil Takhaveev, a Siberian PhD student in molecular biology at the University of Groningen (RUG).

The prize winning pitch

While I can’t comment on the moistness of his hands, with his presentation skills he managed to impress the judges as part of the 3 Minute Thesis competition – the first edition of which ran at the RUG this year – so much so that he was crowned the winner. Through his pitch, he essentially crammed the content of his entire PhD – or, at least so far – into a mere three minutes. He explains how when he looks at yeast under UV light, fluorescence is observed, though it oscillates and comes in cycles. This means that it goes from very bright, to very dim and back again. This is what he calls the cycles of metabolism, and he wants to known what happens inside the cell to cause these oscillations. When I asked him why he wanted to know this, out came a particularly honest answer: scientific curiosity.

Metabolic cycles

Of course his work could also provide some benefit to society, but this isn’t what drives him. As the metabolic cycles are related to cell division, by understanding why they occur, we could understand more about diseases such as cancer and what causes them to develop. So why does looking at yeast help us to come to conclusions about our own species? Both our mammalian cells and yeast are eukaryotes – a specific type of cell – and therefore the chemistry going on inside is quite similar, though admittedly more complex in our own cells. In fact, he told me that all phenomena found in yeast cells were found in human cells, excluding some fungi specific stuff that yeast has. In addition, yeast divides every 2 hours, whereas for our cells it’s every 24: it would take a considerably larger amount of time to study human cells for this reason.

Livin’ la Vida Loca

In theory this would mean his PhD would take 12 times longer to finish, leaving him little room to pursue his dreams if that were to be the case. Through his work he would like to travel all over the world and work with a more diverse set of organisms, even being so fancy as to use the word exotic. In the lab right now, there a few model organisms we use – such as yeast or E. coli – but he has his suspicions that the molecular biology is completely different in the millions of species that exist that we haven’t examined yet. As a scientist, his curiosity leads him to want to explore the this untapped vein of knowledge.

Achievements

Right now he is still hard at work on his PhD and also on removing his slavic accent he told me. Personally I’m a huge fan of any accent – as I think they make any language more interesting – but as he would like to move to an English speaking country, I can understand his desire to perfect the pronunciation for fear of coming across as a Hollywood movie villain.

At the same time, this is something for the future and right now he claims that it would be too optimistic to assume he’ll figure out everything he wants to during his time at the RUG. However, given his absolute thirst for knowledge, I’m betting he’ll end up making some kind of contribution to science. Perhaps he’ll be the one to finally provide us with more knowledge on cancer, or perhaps he’ll be allowed to one day satisfy his curiosity of examining different organisms; either way, winning the competition is the first step in the right direction. With all said and done, my words are just that: words. If you’d like to see the man himself in action, check out the video here. In my humble opinion you should, not only because he’s very passionate about his work, but because honestly, he’s just a really nice guy.

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.