Ben Martin is a PhD candidate in The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of British Columbia. In addition to his time spent working under the supervision of Dr. LeAnn Howe, Ben also spent the majority of his graduate studies training as part of the Canadian men’s field hockey team. This has included his participation in the Pan Am, Commonwealth, and Olympic games. We sat down with Ben to talk to him about how he balanced graduate school with the extensive training and traveling required as a member of a national sports team.

What have you spent your time in graduate school studying?

I study histone acetylation and its role in transcription and gene activation. Histone acetylation is a conserved chemical modification involved in gene regulation in all eukaryotes. This modification is frequently misregulated in disease, and the enzymes mediating its deposition and removal are targets for therapeutics. Despite decades of research, there are still unanswered questions regarding the function of histone acetylation in gene activation, and this is what my research tackles. I’m trying to get at one of the oldest questions in chromatin biology: how are histone acetyltransferases targeted to actively transcribed regions of chromatin? Surprisingly, I’ve found that a lot of acetylation occurs as a consequence of the transcription process itself rather than being targeted upstream by a classic coactivator mechanism. The project is bringing a lot more nuance and implication to the function of histone acetylation.

Why did you decide to pursue studies in this area? Was it in any way influenced by your field hockey career?

The biggest reason is that I love the research. As an undergrad, I approached LeAnn to do a directed studies project because I’d read about her research and it sounded fascinating. And when I joined the lab, I really loved it.

Later, when I was going through the process of choosing a lab to do grad studies in, I realised that it was also the perfect compliment to my career in field hockey. Your time is pretty flexible in grad school. As long as you get your experiments done, you often have the flexibility to set your own hours. It also really helped that the research we were doing used yeast as a model organism. Yeast experiments are short, and you can freeze strains really easily and revive them. So if you’re somebody who might be out of the country for weeks at a time, and 2-3 months total in the year, working with yeast is perfect.

I’m also very fortunate to have LeAnn as a supervisor.  She has been incredibly supportive of me, and given me so much freedom to travel for field hockey. I’m very, very lucky. There are not many supervisors that I could have done this with.

How did you balance field hockey – especially training for the Olympics – with grad school?

With great difficulty! For half a year prior to the Olympics, I had to go down to part time hours in the lab. Training became more intense, and I had to really focus on making the Olympic team, as there were so many good players on the squad at the time. I didn’t want to have any regrets in terms of whether I applied myself enough.

In general I tried really hard to work smart while I was in the lab though. You can work fewer hours if you do the best experiments. I think that every now and again I achieved that. Having said that, largely I just worked far too hard, and did so many unnecessary experiments. Truthfully, I balanced it by being lucky and having a great supervisor, and other amazing co-workers in the lab who helped me out from time to time.

Has your training as a scientist helped you in field hockey in any way? Or is the reverse true?

There are a lot of ups and downs in both science and field hockey, so having a second focus is helpful. If a massive experiment that I was putting all my hopes on doesn’t work again and again, being able to go away and play a game is helpful. Similarly, if things weren’t going well on the pitch, I could come and do a science experiment and forget about it for awhile, and that helped a lot

There are other similarities as well. As an athlete, you’re used to putting in hours that aren’t always enjoyable. Training at 6 am in 4 degree weather in strong wind and rain is a grind. But you’re doing it because you’ve got a bigger goal in mind – like the Olympics. In science it’s similar. Spending weeks troubleshooting an assay isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s helping to answer a bigger question. The sports background helped me there. It helped me see the bigger picture, and learn to be okay with going through the small picture parts.

Are there many competitive athletes in graduate programs?

There aren’t many, since it’s not easy to balance. Doing grad school is a lot of work, especially in science. Circumstances need to work out, and you need support from your supervisor and coaches. But it is doable. There were seven graduate students competing for Canada in Rio this past summer.

What’s next for you in your career?

I will be writing my thesis and hopefully defending this summer. I love research and want to continue with it, so my goal is to be a scientist. That means going away and finding a postdoc. I’d like to stay working on chromatin, but I’m still debating the questions that I want to explore. I might look at shifting towards a mammalian system though. It just opens up so many questions that you can’t ask necessarily ask in yeast.

In terms of field hockey, I still play for my club, but have retired from the national team. Playing for Canada was such a joy and an honour. I’ll miss putting on the jersey, and the time with the guys, but I’m looking forward to being a spectator now!

What advice would you give to other competitive athletes thinking of starting a graduate program in science?

I’d start off by making sure they really wanted to do it. It’s not for the faint of heart. You will be stretched very thin, for a long time. If you’re going to do it, think about what type of projects work well with leaving and returning. Talk it through with your potential supervisor, because they will have such a huge impact on you. Talk to coaches too. If either of those relationships are bad and not supportive it’s going to be really difficult. The other thing is to work really hard to get your own funding. Having my own funding helped a lot. It relieved guilt on my part, and it relieves the financial stress on the supervisor’s part.

And as I said earlier, work smart! Take time to plan and assess experiments! Even just improving 10 percent in this area can save you so much time.  You can waste so much time on experiments that aren’t well thought out, or didn’t have the right control, and then you have to repeat it. So take the time to sit down and really plan out what you want to do. It’s better to take 50% longer planning it out and doing it right then planning it poorly and having to repeat it multiple times!

Thank you very much for your time Ben!

To find out more about Ben, follow him on twitter at @bmart87 or @chromatinhaiku (in which he summarizes recent chromatin papers by haiku!).