A year in the city of light with UO’s Jessica Green

Jessica Green, associate professor of biology and co-director of the UO’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution, recently returned from a year in France working on research funded by her 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship Award and serving as a Blaise Pascal International Research Chair.

For almost 20 years, the Ile-de-France region and the French state have jointly organized the Blaise Pascal International Research Chairs to bring renowned scientists and scholars to the region. Named for the French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal who was one of the first inventors of the mechanical calculator, the program has hosted 85 chairs since 1996 — including four Nobel Prize winners. The program is open to researchers in the quantitative sciences, life sciences, applied sciences, and human and social sciences.

During her year abroad, Green worked alongside French researchers in Paris, presented lectures at several institutions and collaborated on a new graphic novel, Noli timere, based on her research into microbiomes. We caught up with Green shortly after her return to the University of Oregon to learn more about her experiences in France and her current research projects.

 

Tell us about your experience as the Blaise Pascal International Research Chair. Who were you working with? What lectures did you present?

Dr. Hélène Morlon, a former University of Oregon postdoctoral scholar, hosted my position. During my time in Hélène’s group, she was promoted from a research position in the Center of Applied Mathematics at École Polytechnique to the Institute of Biology at École Normal Superieure. This afforded me the opportunity to foster connections with scientists at both institutions.  

As a part of my Pascal award I gave 10 lectures, which you can watch online. Some of these were affiliated with courses at both institutions, and some were departmental and conference seminars. Throughout this process I met a diverse body of scientists based in Paris, which was wonderful.

 

Tell us about your experiences working with Hélène Morlon. Why do you enjoy working with her? What was the focus of your research together this year?

If I were to fully share the reasons I enjoy working with Hélène, I would be asking you to read a book! Hélène is one of the most vibrant, generous, and talented researchers I know. During my time in Paris, we worked together in many different ways.

For example, she is serving as the cultural expert on Noli timere, the first chapter of my graphic novel, which is based in Paris. Another example of our research partnership is based on my newly awarded grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to study the evolution, ecology and function of microbial communities associated with sea grasses.

Hélène’s lab is a world leader in developing mechanistic, mathematical models of biological diversification; she was just awarded a prestigious early career investigator award for her work from the European Research Council. We spent time identifying a research plan that would enable our labs to collaborate in the coming years on developing models of co-evolution for seagrasses and other host-microbiome systems.

 

In addition to your research, you spent the year working on your new graphic novel, Noli timere. Who did you work with to create it? What is it about?

The novel is still in development right now—I have learned that co-creating a graphic novel is a very time-consuming, albeit rewarding, activity. Our creative team includes award winning scriptwriter and director Anita Doron. Anita and I were both in the 2010 TED Fellowship class, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate. Anita moved to France while I was there on sabbatical, in part so we could work closely together on the book.

Our lead illustrator and inker is Steve Green, my partner on the Tiny Shiny, a short science-art book about a series of microbe characters. Our lead colorist is French artist Anael Seghezzi and our letterist is French artist Romain Maille. Anita, Steve and I met Anael and Romain at the 2014 Angouleme International Comics Festival.

To give you a preview, Noli timere is a multi-character science-fiction fantasy graphic novel, taking us around the world while turning the convention of a deadly contagion plot on its head. Our main characters become infected with a bacteria arriving Paris by wind from a mysterious and distant location. Soon, they begin experiencing curious symptoms as their perceptions of themselves and the world around them shifts profoundly. The title, Noli timere, translates in English to “do not be afraid,” which fits our story well. It invites the reader to flip their perspective and embrace microbes as an essential part of themselves & humanity.

 

You seem interested in finding new ways of communicating the discoveries from your research. Why is that important to you?

I feel invigorated when in conversation with a diverse group of stakeholders. Regularly communicating with people outside of my research area has a number of positive outcomes. It forces me to explain my work without jargon, and that process alone gives me clarity. Some of the best ideas come from individuals that are outside my field; they have a fresh perspective and often ask questions that challenge my assumptions. I’ve been fortunate to work with many talented people.

 

What will you take away from your time in France? What did you learn from your residency?

It was life changing to be in the lab group of my first post-doctoral researcher, Hélène. That experience was simply awesome, seeing her flourish in a leadership role. In addition to the professional experiences I gained in France, I had a really positive family experience. My children have been involved in our Eugene-based French educational immersion programs since 2007. Having the opportunity to be enrolled in the French public schools in downtown Paris was transformative for them both. I think we all enjoyed our stay in Paris immensely, and I look forward to continuing my collaborations with my colleagues in France.