New Faculty Profile: C. Brandon Ogbunu

This profile is part of a series of New Faculty Profiles that highlight and introduce up-and-coming PIs in SSE. We invite highlighted faculty to discuss their research, describe how SSE has impacted their career, and share any tips or stories they may have for other researchers.

C. Brandon Ogbunu
Assistant Professor
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Brown University
Start date: July 2018

PhD: Yale University; Advisor: Paul E. Turner.
Postdoc Harvard University/Broad Institute; Advisor: Daniel L. Hartl.

About the department:

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University. I am also affiliated with the Center for Computational Molecular Biology, and carry trainer status in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biotechnology.

About the research:

I am broadly interested in evolutionary complex systems, often in the context of disease. My research aims to disentangle the complex interactions underlying disease phenomena across scales, ranging from the higher-order epistasis operating in drug resistance at the molecular level, to the many forces that craft epidemics at the population level.

What has been the biggest challenge as a new PI so far?

Coming to the realization that you can't work with everyone, and that you have to grow at a certain pace. At first, everything seems interesting, and everyone appears like a potentially great collaborator, but there's only so many hours in a day.

What has been the biggest surprise so far about being a new PI?

I've been surprised by the generosity of my senior colleagues, by how fast fields progress, and how tremendously talented so many young people are.

How have you prepared to be a PI?

I've been lucky to have been mentored by advisors who were excellent scientists, and kind people. I've tried to follow their basic template, much of it very basic professional advice: be respectful, be punctual, be gracious. Work hard, publish, and put love into your trainees.

How do you/will you approach mentoring new lab members?

The most important initial lessons are not about science, but about being a good colleague, being transparent and collaborative. With those in place, I like to craft individual plans based on interests and personality. I like to keep it practical -- let's learn by analyzing a data set or building a model.

Are you recruiting? If so, how do you/ will you choose new lab members?

I am always looking for kind, smart, collaborative people. My lab is question-driven more than organism-driven, which makes it easier for me to accommodate a wide range of personalities and talents. But a very important intangible to me is open-mindedness and a central belief that everyone should be able to participate in this scientific enterprise. Supporting diversity isn't a political stance that I adopt in my lab, but rather, is the guiding vision for how I aim to do this job.

I'm the son of a woman who would have been a better scientist than I, had she been given the same opportunities. I am looking for students and trainees like my mother.

When and why did you become a SSE member?

I've been a member since I was a postdoctoral fellow. It was the organization that appeared to have the broadest reach, and had an impressive array of activities and initiatives.

What does becoming a SSE member mean to you or your career?

It has greatly increased my professional reach and broadened my scientific family. It has also exposed me to a number of issues and discussions that I would not have been otherwise privy to.

Do you have a funny story to share from an Evolution Meeting?

I had the wrong computer adapter during the Portland meeting (2017), which delayed my presentation, shrinking my time from about 15 minutes to 5 minutes. Amazingly, not only did I squeeze my entire talk into 5 minutes, I had friends in the audience who told me that it was one of my better seminars! This taught me the power of communication: when efficient, you really can explain a lot in a little bit of time.

When was your first Evolution Meeting, and how did it affect your career?

I believe my first Evolution meeting was in Portland (2017). There I met a colleague named Rafael F. Guerrero who would become one of my closest collaborators.

Do you remember your first publication in Evolution or Evolution Letters (acceptance or rejection)?

I do. It was an evolution experiment that was conducted by a postdoctoral fellow in the Turner Lab (Yale), and published in 2014. It was very exciting work, and a dream come true to publish a manuscript in Evolution. Even more, that work has formed the foundation for a lot of my current research.

If you could meet one other SSE member for the first time, who would it be and why?

Richard Lewontin. I used to see him in the hallway during my postdoc, but never had the courage to say hello. I've long admired him.

Besides research, how do you promote science?

I've been lucky to be involved in outreach in many arenas. Most recently I was featured on the Emmy-Award-Winning web series "Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings." This show was a spinoff of the PBS series "Finding Your Roots," but featured middle school students. The central idea was to use the exploration of self--the genetic, genealogical and intentional--to increase participation and interest in STEM fields. I was the course instructor, and was amazed by the depth of the questions that they asked and how much they learned in such a short time.

Do you teach evolution? What is the hardest concept to teach?

I have taught evolution. I think that the challenge--and fun--is in bridging the molecular to the macro.

Do you teach evolution? What concept blows students’ minds?

Many peculiarities of human evolution tend to fascinate students, such as sexual selection, human diversity, and the evolution of disease.

How do you think evolutionary research benefits society?

Evolution is the one biological field that is equipped to offer ultimate explanations for complex phenomenon. Evolution is also an algorithm which can be applied in other paradigms. As we observed with the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (given to several applications of evolutionary reasoning in chemistry and chemical biology), evolutionary reasoning can help any number of scientists solve complex problems.

Do you have a time management tip to share?

When you first sit down at the start of a work day, take 10 minutes to go through notes, organize your mind. Similarly, at the end of a workday: go through what you accomplished, jot down any residual ideas.

What book should every evolutionary biologist read?

I was introduced to Stephen Jay Gould in college. Without him, I wouldn't be in this profession, and I read everything he's ever written. More than any single idea, Gould taught me that writing is a powerful tool. And he made concepts in evolution so delightfully fun to read.

What one piece of advice would you give to a starting graduate student?

Read a lot, and read broadly. Be respectful of your senior colleagues, and generally focus on being helpful and courteous. Professionalism continues to be underrated as a professional tip. In a collaborative world, your colleagues really appreciate gracious, decent people.

Get feedback on your writing! Use writing centers and tutors.

And please -- learn statistics.

What one piece of advice would you give to a postdoc?

Realize early that you're on your own. Revel in the independence. Get coffee with everyone in the lab next door, whether they study what you study or not. You have no idea which ideas will change your career. Be modest -- you *feel* close to being a professor, but you have a long way to go (mentally & emotionally, even if not intellectually).

How was your first faculty meeting?

As with many at my stage, I sat tall in my chair, but was deathly afraid to speak.

Did you ever have something go wrong in a talk?

Yes! Embarrassing typos. Missing notes. I think it’s best to just remember that it’s just a conversation. Have a conversation with the audience.

Do you remember making any mistakes as a trainee; how did you recover?

I had entire projects collapse and fail. As sad as I was about this, this is what taught me that science really is a "hustle" -- you have to be crafty, creative and dynamic.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

I'm a former boxing instructor, and boxing journalist. I used to be a data consultant for UNICEF (child health and infectious disease).

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

exercise, reading science-fiction, listening to hip-hop.







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