NEB Podcast Episode #4 -
Interview with Sabah Ul-Hasan: What does symbiosis in science mean?

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Interviewer: Lydia Morrison, Technical Writer and Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc. 
Interviewee: Sabah Ul-Hasan, Ph.D. Candidate, University of California, Merced, CA

Sabah Ul-Hasan went by she/her at the time of these recordings but now goes by they/them and has approved of this disclosure.

Thanks for joining me for this episode of Lessons From Lab in Life. I'm your host, Lydia Morrison, and I hope that our podcast offers you some new perspective. Today's lesson focuses on developing symbiotic relationships in science. I'm joined by Sabah Ul Hasan, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Merced, who regularly celebrates the symbiosis between scientists and local community members through their work with The Biota Project.

So, you might be thinking, what is symbiosis again? The definition of symbiosis is the interaction between two organisms, buy we really want to focus on mutual symbiosis, a mutually beneficial relationship between two organisms.

Thanks so much for being here, Sabah.

Thanks for having me.


So, Sabah, we've spoken before and in those conversations we covered a lot of ground, but I wanted to start today with something I was thinking about recently, which is, that I think to really understand someone's motivation, you have to really understand where they came from. So, can you tell our listeners a bit about where you grew up and how that's impacted your decisions?

Yeah, so I am originally from Salt Lake City and I'm a first-generation American. My mom is from India, my father's from Pakistan. So, that's influenced a lot of my interest just educationally and motivation for trying to make the most of any opportunity that's provided to me and then being in Salt Lake City, the area that I grew up, is viewed as undesirable by the rest of the Salt Lake community and how it's structure, so there is kind of a highway nearby and there's a factory also nearby, and then whenever it rains, it's a little bit smelly, there's mosquitoes. So, that's what I would say had an influence on my interests to be really involved in communities throughout my life in whatever I do as a scientist to just keep that outreach component going.


What type of educational outreach works well for you in communicating with an audience?

A lot of things that I've noticed have been easier for me, personally to present, is really again, looking at presentations as opportunities for discussion and storytelling, like you're just having a conversation with the audience.


Yeah. I think the concept of storytelling in communicating science to the general public is really important and often helps illuminate a lot of the concepts. Could you tell us a little bit more about the Biota Project, which is a really great example of how storytelling can help communicate science?

The Biota Project, we kind of came to this idea through myself and a good friend, J. Abubo, who is a filmmaker based in Salt Lake City, and so we have this kind of similar interest. We're both kind of queer women of color with the one layer of her being in film and me being in science and being underrepresented members in those aspects of study, and the other layer of wanting to really be a part of any community that we have either benefited from in our upbringing or are currently a part of and talking a lot and having maybe a little bit of a existential life-crisis moment where we're like, well, what are we doing with our lives? At that point in time I was doing my masters in New Hampshire. I was doing a lot of experiments and I was like, well, what do these experiments really mean? What are they contributing to in the greater aspect of things?

And that's kind of how the Biota Project started to come together and we started talking to people about this concept of symbiosis and there's kind of three main categories of symbiosis in nature. You have mutualism, where two parties benefit each other. Parasitism, where one is kind of harming the other, and then, commensalism, where you have one party neither being harmed or helped, and the other one is benefiting in that process and really focusing on mutualism as an example to follow as societies or as communities and having these examples in nature to talk about of when we see a bee pollinating a flower and how the flower benefits from that and how the bee benefits from that, or you know, a tape worm in a human, and what's going on in that interaction and then transferring that to community.

So with Salt Lake City, the city itself was expanding and how that was kind of encroaching on the environment of the Great Salt Lake and how maybe instead that could be transferred into a way where the city could also benefit from the environment of the Great Salt Lake in something more along the lines of ecotourism and some of the science that was happening with the Great Salt Lake and how the Great Salt Lake has actually benefited the city. To have the Biota Project be this science communication organization that's functioning by telling these stories of transforming undesirable places or overlooked placed, into desirable and appreciated places, whether that's with the community or with scientists or both.


Here’s a brief clip from the pilot episode of The Biota Project, in which the team explores the vernal pools of central California.

Sabah Ul Hasan!: The big theme with Biota is that we are trying to highlight ecosystems that people are maybe underrating, and I think a lot of people, who are even from California, might not know about Merced or the Merced vernal pools. I definitely didn’t until I came here, and so, it’s been really insightful to learn all the things that are going on here, just in our backyard.

When we first visited the Merced vernal pools, it was November and everything was brown. It was really beautiful, but it was quiet. And we didn’t see the vibrant habitat that the researchers had described, at least, not at first.

Jason Sexton,UC Merced: This campus if very unique in that it’s positioned right next to this amazing Vernal Pools and Grasslands Reserve, which is, acres, but beyond that, it is nestled right in the center of California, which is a biodiversity hotspot for the world. And so, it’s a really great place to do ecology and evolutionary research.


So, in previous conversations, you and I have discussed the value of human interaction. Can you tell us why you think human interaction is so important in our increasingly digital world?

As a scientist, we put a lot of weight and value into being objective, but then we need to recognize that, as humans, objectivity doesn't exist and I think this is something that, as scientists, sometimes we turn a blind eye because we're so quick to say, oh, this is how we do things in an objective way, but that doesn't really exist. I think a good example, a recent example of that, is some of the recent phylogenetic papers where there's a lot more microbial diversity being represented and the caveat to that is, well, why are all of these microbial phylogenies being represented, and it's because well, as humans we're going to probably be more focused on things that we see right away, which are plants and animals.

And now with the advent of next generation sequencing in the last decade or so, we've been able to really expand our understanding of microbial biodiversity and that has also led us to see things that were previously unseen to us and that's a bias, as humans, that we were looking and focusing a lot on things that we were able to easily see and now we're starting to be able to incorporate microbial biodiversity and other layers for understanding evolution and ecology, just in the science world. And then stepping back and recognizing that term, objective, is actually quite subjective depending on what field we're in, what we're doing, who we are, where we're from... and so that human interaction, I think, is really critical for trying to strengthen that term, objective, as much as possible, because the more that we can understand different context and different perspectives, the more that we are able to really see, okay, how can we be as objective as possible with being the subjective people that we are as humans?


And how do you think that sort of thinking has elevated your personal empathy and impacted how you communicate your science to others?

I think sometimes it's easy to get caught up in our experiences, and as someone who is an underrepresented minority in the sciences, there's always more things for me to learn. I think we can also transfer that to ourselves as scientists. There's certain stages in the scientific career, like, when people complete their Ph.D. or when they receive an award, like, distinguished professorship or the Nobel Prize and to always recognize that it is a continuous learning experience and that there's always more to be gained from any direction, there are students that work with me who do not have a bachelor's degree yet and they contribute so much to my understanding of science and really making the science stronger and being, I think, being able to be open to that without the judgment or the association of, okay, you're from this university or you have these credentials. I think that really has made me a much better scientist and strengthening my ability to include people that are specifically not scientists and have them take on leadership roles. Without these experiences, I think I'd be quite limited.


NEB was lucky to have the opportunity to honor your work at the 2016 Passion In Science Awards and you won for science mentorship and advocacy, and I might add that you were the only non-faculty winner in that category, which has probably got to feel pretty good. I wondered if you could tell us a bit more about the impact that award has had on your career?

What I would really like to say is it was really humbling and we felt super honored and also that I was going as a representation of our team and our group and so that award really goes to everybody in our group. I do recall there were individuals from a faculty level all the way through undergraduate level and I thought that was really fantastic from NEB's side, because that's also something that the Biota Project really feels passionate about, is that no matter what stage you are in your career, what your interests are, you can really contribute to something in the scientific community. Your question of how this has benefited, I guess, my career personally, I think it really was reaffirmation or affirming and validating what we were doing, because it really carries us far. I mean, we had the general public's interest onboard and we were having difficultly trying to also bring in the scientific community's support and so these recognitions were really valuable for that, so you know, it's really good just to have these connections and to have met so many really fantastic people at the event itself. It has really just been an inspiring experience for me and how to do a better job myself as a scientist. I would say, all around with the Biota Project, with myself, with our team, with people that I met there, it really helps in all aspects.


That is so nice to hear. It was certainly our hope to help build relationships within the broader scientific community. Do you have any last thoughts for us, Sabah, in terms of what symbiosis has really brought to your science career and to your perspective on sharing and communicating science with the community around you?

For me, being a part of this Biota Project has really given me a better perspective where I can relay it through different platforms, like Twitter and Instagram, and even just writing grant proposals and papers. One example is, I made a science Instagram, kind of as a result of some of the members on our team, one of them that was involved with a kind of social media marketing individual, and I learned a lot about that. I learned how if you post this kind of thing, you're not going to get many followers, or kind of the social structure of social media and how to make things more accessible to people just in short pieces or through pictures or through video clips. I would say that there's still a connotation that doing science communication outreach is viewed as an extracurricular and, again, I think that culture is changing where it's becoming more viewed as it should be an integral part and when we look at kind of history in society, we see a lot of scientists who have made big breakthroughs, having to be really critical science communicators, like Galileo is a good example. Darwin is a good example. Goodall is another good example.

These are all individuals who, they were really passionate about the science that they were doing, but also being sure to have conversations with the community or shed light on what they were doing and how this goes back into the symbiosis aspect of it, with just keeping this mutualism with the people that surround us, whether it's in our labs or at our institutions, or in our communities, or in our work. If you're listening to this as a scientist, be unafraid and just try it out. Try science communication in whatever form that works best for you and you'll be really surprised with how much it will enhance your work as a scientist and to not view science communication or outreach as a distraction, but as a critical aspect as our careers as scientists to share knowledge and grow from the people who surround us.


Absolutely, and thank you for being part of the extended NEB family community and thank you for continuing to share your stories of science and of symbiosis with everybody through the Biota Project.

Thank you. I don't know if it's all right for me to ask, but I had one question for you all, if that's okay?


Oh, sure.

So, my question for you all is, what have been your experiences in this process? It was mentioned when we visited in last year, that everybody at NEB has a chance to decide who the awardees are and seeing all these applications and what people are doing and what have you really enjoyed about this process as people working at the company?


Well, it's definitely enlightening to see how varied scientists have made their careers, whether it be communicating through videos, whether they be focusing on water scarcity throughout the globe or fostering successful laboratory research in third world or developing countries, there really is so much passion for science in the scientific community at large, that it's honoring to even be able to celebrate that. From a day-to-day perspective, I would say, funnily enough, that after the first day of presentations when the Passion In Science winners came and presented all the work that they've been doing, you know, I walked out of it and I looked over at my coworker and I said, what are we doing with our lives? Which I think is sort of that's-

A lot. You're doing a lot.


Well, I think that speaks to sort of the existential crisis that you mentioned in graduate school, which I experienced in my own graduate school, the sort of like, what am I doing here? What is my work going to mean, ultimately, anyway? What are my goals? What am I trying to achieve with this? Why am I going to devote six years of my life to this? Where is this going to take me, ultimately? I think hosting the Passion In Science award winners has probably prompted a reflective moment for many of us here at NEB. And hopefully it also prompted others to feel as I felt, that as part of the greater scientific community, we do get to be a part of, and to support, the amazing and inspiring work that scientists are performing all over the world.

And I would say for all of us as well, just to see companies starting to say, we really want to support and celebrate science communication efforts. There's just so much creativity and innovation happening. It's just been fantastic and thank you all for being a source of one of these sparks for inspiration for us.


Well, thank you for doing what you do and thank you for being so passionate about science and about symbiosis in the community.

Of course.


If you'd like to learn more about our Passion In Science Award® winners from 2016, as well as those from 2014, check with the transcript from this podcast, which contains a link to all the information about our winners, so you can learn a little bit more about these inspiring individuals and their projects.

Thanks for listening today. Hey, did you know that New England Biolabs has a cutting edge research department, dedicated to driving scientific break throughs? If you want to hear about our scientists commitment to publication-worthy discoveries, tune in to our next episode, when I will interview Tom Evans, Executive Director of Research at NEB.

Content is covered by patents, trademarks and/or copyrights owned or controlled by New England Biolabs, Inc. For more information, please email us at The use of these products may require you to obtain additional third party intellectual property rights for certain applications.



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About your host:


Lydia Morrison
NEB Marketing Communications Writer

Lydia is a scientist by training and a communicator by nature, and has a knack for asking one too many questions.

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