Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Mark Greenwood
Mark Greenwood is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Pulin Li’s lab studying hormone signaling. We sat down with Mark to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
I'm interested in hormones, and right now I’m working on a particular property of hormone signaling, the oscillation. Hormone concentrations go up and down in the bloodstream over time, and we really don't have a good understanding of why they're doing that or what effect they have on cells. It might be important because most cells in our body are seeing these oscillations in some form. My project is trying to understand how cells interpret these oscillations and exactly what effect they have on physiology.
What are possible applications for your research?
Medicine uses hormone replacement as a therapy for things like the side effects of menopause or growth defects. Usually, in our bodies, the levels of these hormones fluctuate in a very tightly controlled way. However, when we give a therapy, we just give a high single dose—so cells are being exposed to a very different pattern of hormones. One potential application of my research is to understand more exactly what these therapies are doing, and if there is a better way to administer hormones.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be?
Growing up in the UK, I used to love sport and being outdoors – tennis, skiing, and cycling were a few favorites. At first I wanted to be a professional athlete but quickly realized I lacked the talent. Later I decided I could be a sports performance scientist instead. Someone who follows cyclists around the world and plans their training to optimize their performance. I thought that would be a really cool job to have.
Do you still play a lot of sports?
I play soccer regularly. I play with a group of postdocs at MIT, which is really fun and was a great way to meet people when I first arrived. It was a good way to find a community. One thing I really like about playing soccer in the US is it's very relaxed. Everyone just kind of turns up, and finds a team, so you end up playing with a bunch of people you might not have met before. It’s a bit less competitive than what I was used to in the UK.
What are your other hobbies?
During the pandemic, I got interested in learning about wine. Once you start learning about the science, tradition, and culture behind wine, you begin to taste the same things you learn about. It’s satisfying to connect the two. For example, two identical grapes grown in California and France taste completely different because the weather, soils, and growing methods are all different.
Do you collect anything?
I collect maps. Anywhere I travel, I find a map. I have city maps, ski maps, and hiking maps from all over the world. My favorite is from a hiking trip to Norway I went on when I was 19. I hiked through this beautiful remote area for four days. It rained for four days straight and the map is now water damaged, but everytime I look at it takes me back there.
When did you decide you wanted a career in research?
I think it was during my first research internship as an undergraduate student. I was tasked with developing a camera system for time lapse imaging of plants. However, the unpredictable growth direction of the seedlings was causing problems. We reasoned that the experiment might work better with an aquatic plant, as we could control their position more easily. This led to me sneaking into a local golf course to harvest pond weed. It was exciting, and then extremely satisfying to see our wacky idea actually work when back in the lab. I think I got hooked on the feeling I get from finding solutions to problems like these.
What's your favorite part about day-to-day life in the lab?
I like the diversity of what we do in academic science. I tend to get a little bit bored if I have to sit at a computer all day but I also get a bit bored if I’m in the lab using a pipette for eight hours straight. Thankfully, it's very rare that I have to do one or the other. Usually, I'm jumping in between analyzing data, doing experiments, and talking to people. I think that's good for my brain and keeps me happy.
What have been the challenges of moving to a different continent for your science career?
It can be hard. My wife and I like living in the US, but the first year especially was frustrating because you have to figure a lot of things out. Things like paying taxes or driving a car that took minimal brain power in our home country now require more thinking. There’s also a lot more travel now, to stay in touch with family, and keeping up with visas is a constant chore. I will say, I’m very thankful to my lab mates for putting up with all my questions and moaning as we made the move. They were extremely welcoming. I feel like I have a community here, and that’s been great.
What’s your favorite meal to cook?
I’ve been learning to cook Indonesian food from my wife, who comes from Bali. It contains a lot of spices that were unfamiliar to me, and it's been fun to learn how to use them. My favorite recipe and the one I've been practicing recently is beef rendang. The coconut milk has to caramelize on the beef, so it needs just the right amount of milk and a slow, long cook to caramelize it right. I'm still practicing getting it right.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I'd like to be in academia, running my own research group. Geographically, we'd like to be closer to family in the future, which probably means leaving the US either for Europe or south-east Asia.
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