Wired Magazine has named St. Thomas graduate Sean Myles as one of the “27 must-follow feeds in the world of science” for his Twitter account, @foodimprover. He’s gained 2,500 followers but he remains humble about the acknowledgement.
“I wouldn’t consider the content I was posting as earth-shattering or mind-bending,” said Myles. “But it just goes to show how few academics are actually doing this and using it as a tool for informing the public.”
Born and raised in Fredericton, Myles sits as the Canada Research Chair in Agricultural Genetic Diversity and an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. His research revolves around the development of new genomic technologies and methods for accelerating crop improvement.
“Most people, as soon as they find out that I work in genetics and agriculture, they think that I’m making some kind of ‘Franken-food’ in the lab,” said Myles. “That’s not what we’re doing. We’re using genetic information to help, or sort of enhance, the breeder’s toolkit.”
Myles’ research is focused mainly on the breeding of apples but also investigates the genetics of grapes and marijuana among other species. Myles and his team collect and interpret genetic information to determine which “parents” of a certain specimen should be used for the pollination of a new breed of plant or fruit.
Before Myles began working as an agricultural geneticist, he graduated from STU with a major in English. He took science classes as electives through the University of New Brunswick.
“When I came out of my undergrad, I was interested in the humanities,” said Myles. “I read a lot about human evolution, language evolution and how that’s affected our day to day behaviour.”
Over time his interests led him into the study human genetics and genetic evolution. He pursued his love of science all the way to a Masters at Oxford and a Doctorate at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.
During his undergrad at STU, Myles also met the woman who would become his wife at the UNB library. They moved to Germany to pursue their educations. She was training to become a wine maker and they would spend their weekends cycling around vineyards. That’s when Myles began to wonder about the genetics of grapes.
“They’ve got all these different flavours and aromas,” said Myles. “I thought that would be a really neat thing to look at, so I started looking into it and kind of got hooked.”
Myles feels fortunate he has found his way back to the Maritimes through his work, which is something he said, “every Maritimer wants to do but few actually get the opportunity to.” He still holds fond memories of his time at STU.
“I always valued the class time,” said Myles. “I always recognized that this was a period of my life where I had the opportunity, the luxury and the privilege to sit and listen and talk openly and explore ideas in an unbiased way.”
Myles acknowledges his path may not have been a conventional one for a STU undergrad but says the faculty was always supportive and flexible with his education. He names Dr. Andrea Schutz and Dr. Tony Tremblay as being influential professors.
“The best thing to have during an undergrad is the ability to explore,” said Myles. “When people go into their undergrad they think ‘I’m taking sociology therefore I’m going to be a sociologist’ … Well I took English and now I’m a statistical geneticist. Don’t get too hooked up on what you’re major is. Go grab a class in chemistry every once in a while and see what it’s like.”