Techie of the Fortnight: Bradley Stevens
Sam Burleigh: Last time I talked to you, I was lying on the floor at our mutual friend’s house and you were drawing tattoos on me for my Ninja from Die Antwoord costume. What have you been up to since then? We were sophomores then, right?
Bradley Stevens I forgot about that! That was funny. I was a sophomore, yeah. I’ve been doing biology and a minor in chemistry.
Sam: You do research on campus, right? Could you tell me about that?
Bradley: Yes, I do research with Dr. Watkins. I work on the soil microbiome project. We look at the soil microbiome of medical cannabis plants, which is very much like the human gut biome. I study its contents, see how it changes over time, and how that affects the plants health. We look at the microbiome of plants to see if we could potentially influence it, to see if we can make sick plants healthy. I am helping do all the molecular biology for that, like DNA extractions. We’re doing DNA sequencing to determine what bacteria was there. And now, since I’m moving into grad school, I’m going to be looking at the terpene profiles of the medial cannabis coltivirus. Because of closet cultivation, we don’t really know what's happening with it. We actually know less about it now than when cannabis first began being cultivated.
Sam: Closet cultivation?
Bradley: Yeah, where people literally grow it in their closet. Illegally. There used to be species with low THCs and high CBDs, and another used to have high THCs and low CBDs, and those strains were crossbred. You’ve probably heard of indicas and sativas before? We can’t really make that distinction any more, because at the genetic level they’re all the same because of all the crossbreeding to try and increase the THC. So what I’m going to do is look at the terpene profile, which are molecules other than THC and CBD that the plant produces as a way of identifying different strains.That’s the end goal of my master’s project. The second project is to connect the phytobiome -- so not only the microbiome in the coil, but the fungus and bacteria that lives in and on the plant -- to see if that influences the terpene profile.
Sam: Are you hoping to put something on the market from this?
Bradley: I don’t think this research would put anything on the market, but it would establish a ground zero, or a baseline to move forward from. There’s so little research on this. We’re starting the talk that needs to happen, basically. Understanding the distinction between the coltivirus and studying the medicinal benefits.
Sam: Do you study the plants on campus?
Bradley: No, it’s a “controlled” plant. We work with a grower in Los Lunas. We go and do everything on site, and I can bring back anything that’s isn’t psychoactive. When go and get the terpenes, I have to completely disrupt the THC molecule before I can bring it back on campus. We can bring soil back, because it’s just dirt. We can do DNA extractions from that.
Sam: How did you get into this research project?
Bradley: From shadowing a grad student. It was originally her master’s project, but when she left I picked it up. I had been volunteering in Dr. Watkin’s lab at the time to see what research was like, and after she left I just asked if I could continue to work on it.
Sam: That seems to be the way to do it. Volunteer first.
Bradley: I think that’s a great way to do it.
Sam: What do you hope to do after you graduate?
Bradley: I would like to get a PhD, but I’m not sure where yet. I don’t think I’d like to be in academia, I’d like to work in a national lab or industry.
Sam: Did you always know what you wanted to study?
Bradley: No! I came in thinking I wanted to go to med school, but as i started getting into my research that began to appeal to me more. I didn’t even know that was a possibility.
Sam: If you had any advice for freshmen, what would it be? Let’s go with general advice first, and then advice on getting into research.
Bradley: Something that helped me when I came to Tech was not being afraid to be wrong or ask questions. Everybody comes here the top of their class only to find a huge reality check. You can still be smart, but it’s ok to ask questions and speak up in class and be wrong. You won’t be looked down upon, and the question you have is probably shared by others. They’re just not saying anything.
If someone wants to get into research, I would definitely recommend they learn about who they want to work for first. Then, ask if they can volunteer or shadow somebody and start attending lab meetings. But definitely look it up first. I wouldn’t recommend going up to someone and asking if you can join the research without knowing what they do. You should have a little bit of an idea of what you want to do. And if you don’t, shop around! If one person doesn’t work out for you, they’ll be fine. They won't hold it against you. At least in the biology department. I don’t know about other places...