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Michael Becker // Photo by Katie Chalmers-Brooks

Meet Grad Student Michael Becker

Vanier scholar and heavy metal fan Michael Becker is one of the roughly 3,800 students enrolled in the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. Students like him come from around the world to study here and UM Today is getting to know some of them on a more personal, candid, level.

PhD Student: Michael Becker
Studying in: Biological Sciences
Advisor: Mark Belmonte


UM Today: Are you from here?
Michael Becker: Yeah. I was born like five minutes away in Victoria hospital. I’m from just south of Winnipeg, a town called Ile des Chenes.

Is your family still there?
Yeah. I moved to the city though when I was 18.

What did you want to be as a kid?
I’ve always been a polymath of sorts. Everything I touch I’m interested in. So when I was kid I was really into astronomy so the first thing I did when internet became a thing was try to send emails to NASA. And even now I will still TA astronomy once in awhile. I’m still interested in it.

Also when I was a kid, for a while, I wanted to be in law. Watching Law and Order it seemed exciting. So I considered law.

Then when I came to university, like half the undergrads in Science, I was thinking Medicine. But as I mentioned, I am a kind of polymath and in Medicine I’ve felt you’re kind of restricted in what you can do. You’re very focused on one area. I’ve always been more of a generalist than a specialist and that’s sort of how I got into where I am now.

What is it you do? What’s your research?
Well, if I was talking to my grandparents who don’t know much about DNA, I’d just say I try to make plants healthier and disease-free. Essentially, there are a lot of diseases that afflict canola, the most profitable crop here in Manitoba. My goal is to figure out how the plant protects itself against these diseases, focusing primarily on a disease called blackleg. So if I was a cocktail party I’d say I make canola all-around healthier.

So how did you decide to make the leap to plant science and genetics?
Well, my undergrad was in microbiology. And while I was in my undergrad one of my profs gave a really interesting lecture on Plant Cell Biology and I loved it. So I said, ‘Hey, can I do some research in your lab?’

At first I told him I would work full-time for part-time pay because I just wanted to get my foot in the door. But I ended up getting a scholarship that paid for a full-time summer position in the lab. So I did that, finished my undergrad, and I really liked the research so I transferred over into plant systems.

Are you from a farming background?
My dad grew up on a farm, but he got a job with CN Rail when he was 15 and has worked there since. He was a train mechanic for a while but now he does the majority of parts ordering. My mom is an accountant. My brother works for CP running trains and my sister is an accountant. So I’m kind of the black sheep of the family.

In our marketing campaign you’d be a trailblazer or rebel.
Yeah. I just need a sash.

I can see if we can get you one you can wear out to dinner. Anyway, are you happy with plants, or do you wish you went the astronomy route?
I really like what I’m doing. A reason I decided to stay with the professor I’m with is he gives me a very loose leash to do what I want, well… within reason. If I come to him with an experiment I want to try, if we have the funding for it, he’ll let me do it. And so far it’s really worked out well for me. I’m able to integrate a lot of different methods and disciplines into my research.

When you were looking at places to do your master’s or PhD, did you look at other universities? How did you end up staying here?
I talked to a lot of different professors here and I sent a few emails to professors at other universities about their research. What it ended up coming down to was that I was most interested in the research going on right here, and I could get my hands on a lot of cool pieces of equipment that I couldn’t get anywhere else. For instance, my supervisor Mark Belmonte has a laser microdissector, which is this really nifty piece of equipment that I can use freely during my research. Essentially, with it I use a high-powered laser to dissect out individual infected cells of different plant tissues.

I also really like the project I am working on here and I get a lot of freedom to design my own experiments. So I figured, hey, if I really like it here and it’s working, why leave? If you enjoy what you’re doing and feel invested in it, things come easy and you do really well – so I stayed here at the U of M.

Has professor Belmonte given you any good advice?
Yeah, I would say the best advice was “don’t reinvent the wheel”. Be creative but don’t redo everything from scratch – put your own spin on things that already exist. If I need to use a program for something and one is freely available that can almost do what I need, I can modify it, and that makes more sense than making one from scratch. Even when I’m writing, choose a paper that really works, and try to recreate the same style in your own words. So don’t reinvent the wheel, that’s the best single piece if advice he’s given me. It really helps to keep me focused and keeps me from wasting time.

Do you have any hobbies?
Yeah, a few. I like chess. I used to play a lot with my brother growing up. I’m not professional or anything, I just find it relaxing. I went to a chess tournament recently and got destroyed. Even this 14 year old kid beat me, but it was still fun. I try to play a couple of games a week.

I’m also stage director of a Fringe play this year. I did it last year for a friend and this year he asked me again if I could help him out. I said sure because it was a neat experience and definitely something quite new for me.

What’s the play called?
It’s called Who Killed the Apple Bottoms? — P.S. the werewolf did it. Last year it was It Ends With a Bang.

You have to try and do things on the side, not related to research. I know the Dean of Biological Sciences travels with her husband to look at solar eclipses around the World. You need to do things outside of science, because it is so very easy to lose yourself in research. So yeah, that’s why I try to keep up with things like chess and Fringe, and also the usual stuff – music, and staying current on movies and TV.

Do you listen to any particular type of music when you’re entering data?
I generally do weird themes. Sometimes I like to just make random playlists where they have one arbitrary thing in common. For example, one time, I made a playlist that just had just songs that had ‘Do Do Do’ in them from all different genres and decades. Lately, I have been in a classical mood – I was giving a friend’s son a ride to school and the radio was set to the classical station and it’s all I have been listening to in the lab since. Before that I was listening to a lot of metal, which is probable one of my favourite genres. I try to make it out to metal concerts when I can.

Oh yeah. The mosh pit. Just being able to get out that energy after spending so much time in the lab.

What are some metal shows you’ve been to?
I went on a road trip to Rock on the Range in Ohio last year with some friends, saw Five Finger Death Punch and Avenged Sevenfold along with dozens of other bands. I saw Slayer and Megadeth when they were here together and I saw Rammstein too– that was a really interesting show, by far the most pyrotechnics I have ever seen.

What’s the best part of your PhD job?
I think the best part of my job is that it constantly challenges me, forcing me to find new solutions to complex problems. I’m always learning. Of the many jobs I have worked in my life it one of the few that I haven’t found immediately boring. Teaching is also a huge perk. I have been able to give a few lectures and found the experience quite exhilarating.

Do you have any regrets?
At this moment, no, not really. I have had my fair share of failures during my time here, but you really do learn more from mistakes than anything else. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

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