Rising from the yeast, settling in the West

Although he’s been teaching on and off since 2005, Summer 2018 marks the first semester that yeast geneticist Jesper Johansen has had the chance to teach at UFV. Originally from Europe, he attended the University of Southern Denmark until 2008 to pursue his bachelor’s degree and Master of Biophysics, and later completed his PhD in yeast compensatory endocytosis from Simon Fraser University in 2017. Jesper’s well-versed in working internationally with yeast, and was able to sit down with The Cascade to give us insight into his thoughts and experiences.

What attracted you to work with yeast specifically? Did you ever veer in another direction during your career?

Technically my start was not as a geneticist or anything like that. I’m a biophysicist by training originally, and what I really wanted to study was how certain lipids affect cellular processes. The only lab that did that kind of research was a yeast lab. I happened to stumble upon yeast just from the project that I wanted to do, and as time progressed I started learning more and more about yeast and learning more about its inherent genetic capabilities. I wanted to continue working with yeast just because of its simplicity and the things you can achieve in a relatively short time.

How did you become interested in teaching?

I’ve been interested in teaching since day one. I worked at an elementary school teaching before coming here, and before then even during my undergraduate degree I was working as a tutor and a mentor. I have taught at SFU in the past, taught at University of Southern Denmark when I was there, even a couple guest lectures at UBC. It’s always been an ingrained part of what I think the responsibility of the research community is: to pass on the knowledge to upcoming generations. What I find the most rewarding is helping people get to the point where they can decipher the difficulties in a given problem, break it down to small pieces, then start solving it as they go along. That’s ultimately how you end up working in a lab.

How do you find STEM education in Denmark versus in Canada?

In Denmark, you’re literally not qualified for anything if you leave with a bachelor’s degree. Pretty much everyone who gets into a bachelor’s program has the notion that they’re getting a master’s. Tuition is free in Europe in general, so that means that the universities set the bar a lot higher for incoming students. I’ve been to finals where 86 per cent of the class failed, and that’s considered normal because you’re here on basically the government’s time. You were expected to produce, and only the top of the top were accepted in a specific year to end up getting a particular degree. The rest of the people are better used elsewhere in the workforce so they can maintain the free tuition system. Here, it’s more of a corporate model where students end up being the consumers that come and pay for their degree.

I remember you mentioned you had met Kary Mullis, 1993 Nobel Prize winner and inventor of the polymerase chain reaction. What was he like?

Colourful and drunk. He fancies himself a world-renowned surfer and kind of a playboy character. It’s always a good time when he’s around. It’s just a question of when that good time ends, which is usually very late if you’re with Kary. A long time ago Kary Mullis kind of abandoned the scientific pursuit for publications. He was more focused on making a ton of money off his PCR idea. It went okay for him. PCR is an important technique, but it wasn’t patentable. Problem is that if you want the Nobel Prize you have to publish it, and as soon as it’s published then the technique’s out there.

If you could give one golden rule about lab safety what would it be?

Do as I say not as I do. I think that’s the golden rule. Nah — think before you do. It’s common sense what we do in the lab. Don’t drink it, don’t wash yourself in it, don’t roll in it, don’t stab yourself. It’s all quite logical if you value self-preservation. I mean, that rule is also a subject to change though. My old boss in Denmark used to mouth pipette azide. If you go back and look at some old chemistry papers there’ll be a taste section. Back in the day it was encouraged that you would sample whatever you synthesized. In some cases it would be a very short career.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.