Mark Edward Siddall’s 30 years of work in the study of the biodiversity of parasites has taken him around the world and to the heights of academia. His groundbreaking work on the malaria-like blood parasites found in certain species of fish gained traction in scientific circles and brought him a degree of notoriety while he was still working on his doctorate in parasitology at the University of Toronto, an accreditation he earned in 1994.
Upon entering the professional world, Mark set to work doing what he loved; field analysis of life forms found in different habitats around the globe. In Madagascar, he studied leeches. In Chesapeake Bay, he helped determine the threat to that region’s oyster population. In Bermuda, he gained valuable insights into the bioluminescent mating habits of the Bermuda fireworm.
Mark Edward Siddall received his first research grants from the National Science Foundation while at the University of Michigan as a Michigan Society Fellow, which gave him the credentials needed to obtain a position at the American Museum of Natural History. His proudest achievement during his tenure at the Natural History Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics was to assist in the transformation and modernization of that institution’s genomics program to include next-generation DNA sequencing (NGS). He left the museum in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, to help his 5 year old child navigate through remote kindergarten learning.
Calling himself a radical ‘STEMinist’, Mark remains terrifically proud of the 21 years he spent mentoring young scientists, viewing it as replacing himself in academia and at the museum more than a dozen times over with exciting, vibrant new scientific talent.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
What I’m doing now in terms of writing about science, speaking about science, and engaging in public translation of science is something that started when I was asked to present at the World Science Festival, at TED, and at the EG Conference and Idea City in Toronto. I realized that I have a talent for communicating science to lay people with diverse backgrounds from the ages of five to 95, and that I do it in a way that is easily accessible and free of condescension. That role, which I took upon myself, expanded when I produced award-winning exhibitions like The Power of Poison, and the one that I’m most proud of, Countdown to Zero, which highlighted efforts towards disease eradication. That one I did in collaboration with former President Jimmy Carter.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Right now, my typical day involves quite a bit of keeping abreast of what’s going on with research in different sectors. In the epidemiological space, there’s quite a lot to process in terms of the pandemic, but also what’s happening in developing countries. I’m deeply concerned about the well-being of people in developing countries from Madagascar to Bolivia, having been to those places myself. I also keep abreast in advances in genomic technology.
Oddly enough, because I’m an amateur cook, one of the things I’ve been passionate about for some time is how the intersection of science and society can improve the way that we get protein into people. This is terrifically important in the developing world, because malnutrition is not about the lack of things to eat, it’s about the lack of protein. Unless there’s a famine, there are usually plenty of starches, like rice, sorghum, and potatoes, but it’s a lack of protein that really exacerbates malnutrition. Interestingly enough, it’s trying to get animal protein into people that does all sorts of bad things. It uses up enormous amounts of land, of energy, of water, and it produces enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses. Furthermore, for developing countries, it puts incredible pressure on fisheries and wildlife. If we had ways of getting high-quality protein into people, we could solve a lot of problems very quickly. I’ve been very interested in what people are doing in terms of using crickets as alternative food sources. More recently, I’ve been intrigued by what companies like Impossible Foods have been able to do with plant-based products that taste much more like what meat-eating people want to eat.
On the activity side, I’ve been doing a lot of writing, a little bit of blogging, and I’ve been working on a book that relates to some of the things I’ve learned in academia over the years.
I’ve got a five year-old boy, and he entered kindergarten in September of 2020. I decided that his education was priority number one and that it was important that I set aside a few things and be his home instructor while he’s engaged in remote learning. I’m still involved in his education, but in New York City, kids are now in blended learning—part time in-person, and part-time remote. But back in September, the schools were in lockdown. My son needed me. I willingly left my career of 21 years and devoted myself to the education of my son.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The way I try to bring ideas to life for a reader or an audience, or even someone that I’m just having a conversation with about a scientific topic is to find a way to make the scientific idea a story so that there is a narrative associated with it. Then I try to find a way to make that story personal.
Here’s a good example: A research team and I figured out the light-producing bioluminescent pathway of the Bermuda fireworm. It was by doing what we call RNA-sequencing. If I characterized it that way, it wouldn’t be very compelling. But if I told you that Christopher Columbus was on his first voyage and was about a day away from landing at Hispaniola, and he and his crew saw these lights moving up and down in the ocean water, and we now know these were the lights of bioluminescent fireworms—that would be interesting. Further, if I told you that we know that’s true because the date on which he wrote about it in his journal was three days after the full moon and probably about 55 minutes after sunset, and that these worms actually perform their bioluminescent sexual displays at that precise moment every month in the summer—that would be even more interesting. We know that’s what happened, and it has since been well-documented.
The way I got to study these worms and to analyze their genomics is another funny story. When my wife was pregnant with my son, I took her on a ‘babymoon’ to Bermuda. It was in October of 2015, and it was our last chance to travel before she wouldn’t be able to anymore due to her pregnancy. I went out to a place I knew these worms inhabited on the third night after the full moon at 55 minutes after sunset, and sure enough, dozens of them came up under water. So, they’re swimming in these tight, beautiful, bioluminescent blue circles under a full moon, and I plucked them out of the water, and then I used them to do all the genomic work that I published just a few years later. That’s the story of how we figured it out. So, why do the fireworms do it? They do it because they’re trying to solve the same problem that I had apparently already solved; finding a mate. Only they’re doing it in a vast sea by shining their lights in a way that enables them to find each other.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I am excited by what people have been able to accomplish in terms of characterizing biodiversity indirectly in forests and in aquatic freshwater marine environments. Instead of going out and having to fish all the time to figure out which species are there and how many of them there are, which, by definition, is destructive sampling, we now have ways of actually figuring that out by sampling DNA that exists in the water.
Some of the work that I was lucky enough to be involved in—and this was something that I didn’t anticipate when I started working on leeches— in a forest in Madagascar called the Lost Forest of Crystal Mountain. What I was able to do was go to that forest and just walk through it with bare legs collecting all of these leeches as they wandered around the forest floor. I didn’t even have to go looking for them; they were looking for me. I’d pick them off my legs and take them back to the lab and look at the DNA inside their guts.
I can tell you all the frogs, snakes, and birds that are in that forest, none of which I ever saw with my own eyes. I didn’t have to. I could see them in the leech DNA. This is an example of one of these great new analytical methods called Environmental DNA that are emerging, enabling biologists to determine what life forms are present in a given area through indirect sampling. One of the things we’re not sure about yet is how precise they are, and whether or not they can tell us not only which species are present, but how many of them are present. That’s a little bit more difficult. If I find the DNA of a bamboo lemur in a leech, I know the bamboo lemur exists in the place where I found the leech, but that doesn’t tell me how many bamboo lemurs there are. Everybody is working on that problem.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I have a creative outlet. I don’t think anybody can stay productive unless they have a separate creative outlet, or at least a creative outlet related to their work. For me, that’s playing in the kitchen and experimenting with food. It’s still experimenting, but with molecular gastronomy. By having something else to do that’s creative, it helps me be creative as a scientist.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Loyalty and integrity are the only things that you need to worry about. Even if something goes wrong, you know you can look at yourself in the mirror because you were never dishonest and you never betrayed anyone.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
There is no evidence of life outside of our planet. In fact, there is no evidence that life originated more than once on our planet, where we seem to think conditions are so well-suited to foster life. As any reasonable scientist would have to conclude, there is no reason from an evidentiary standpoint to believe life exists anywhere else in the universe but here.
There are zero degrees of freedom on life. When you’re dealing with something statistically, what you want to know is how many times you’ve seen a particular phenomenon. If you only see something once, it could be a mistake of observation, so you always subtract one. You never count just one. You have to see something at least twice to see a frequency associated with it. You can’t have a frequency if it only occurs once. Statistics and probabilities are all about frequencies, so you can’t have a probability if something doesn’t exist more than once. Let’s say you roll a die and get a six. What does that tell you? Nothing. Maybe all the sides are six. Maybe the die is weighted. You have to roll the die a bunch of times to figure out whether or not each of the different sides is going to come up with equal frequency. That tells you whether the die is loaded or not loaded and what’s on the separate sides.
The point is not to ask why, the point is to try to understand what we see, and what we see is that all the evidence points to life originating once and once only. We have no evidence that life originated more than once on this planet. We have no evidence of life on any other planet. The universe has been around long enough that maybe we should have, at this point, had some extraterrestrials here, but there’s no evidence of that. All the evidence says that life exists solely here on Earth.
I’m not knocking NASA. I think a lot of the things they’re doing in terms of space exploration are terrific. But if we’re interested in life, we should probably make sure that we’re spending a ton of money trying to understand it here on Earth, where we know it exists. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend $10 billion looking for life on other planets and only $10 million looking for it here. We have our priorities a little out of whack.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Get up from your desk and walk around. Go outside and go for a walk. Look at a tree. Play with your kid. Read a book. I think we are in grave danger of sitting in front of our computer screens and working really, really, really hard, but becoming inefficient or less creative because the constant stream of emails and tweets and other social media designed to grab our attention are doing exactly that—monopolizing our attention and distracting us. We’re not allowing ourselves to let our minds wander and be creative.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I have always looked for talent in unusual places. Almost every single one of my mentees, my proteges, have landed tenure-track jobs, and almost every single one of them was not from Yale or Harvard. In fact, the only one that hasn’t landed a tenure-track job was from Yale and is now at Harvard! I’ve had people under my tutelage from places like Appalachian State, University of Texas-El Paso, and Humboldt State, places that are not associated with ‘ivory tower institutions.’ I think that being discerning while looking for talent in unusual places has served me very well.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In Bolivia in 1999, I was still a young scientist and we were on a mountainside at about 5,000 meters above sea level. The sun went down and fog rolled in. I was not the expedition lead, but the mistake I made was not speaking up forcefully enough and early enough to guarantee everyone’s safety. When the sun went down and the fog rolled in, dozens of people were stranded on a mountainside trying to find their way down. Everybody ended up okay. Nobody walked off a cliff, though a horse walked off a cliff and crashed into a boulder about three feet from me, and that was pretty terrifying. I promised myself I would never fail to speak up again.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
If I had an investor right now, I would create a company that specializes in metagenomics, which is the indirect characterization of different kinds of biodiversity using DNA sequencing technology—which is becoming incredibly cheap! Whether it’s frozen fish at a sushi restaurant, an aquaculture trying to stay on top of infections, a brewery tracking the evolutionary changes that inevitably happen in their yeast culture, or the need to do biodiversity modelling in coastal or forest environments, all of this can be accomplished with metagenomic DNA sequencing technology. Universities and the public sector are not well-positioned or well-financed enough to do this themselves.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
My Joule Sous Vide immersion circulator. I can cook anything with that. I can walk away from the kitchen and play with my son for as long as I want, and I’ll be able to make a perfect meal regardless. I also spent $100 on a trailer that I can attach to my bicycle so that I can tow my son around parks in New York City.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I am a huge fan of FileMaker Pro. It’s a databasing software that allows you to make relational databases in a very intuitive way. When you’re dealing with large data sets, you need software that can deal with them. Standard spreadsheets don’t cut it.
There was a case in the UK where an enormous amount of people’s records got lost because somebody tried to import those records into Excel and there’s a limit to the number of entries that program will accept. Excel is not a database. People treat it that way, but it’s not really as relational as it needs to be. FileMaker Pro is a databasing platform that is both powerful and intuitive and I’ve been using it since 1999. There’s a lot I know I can do with it.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I highly recommend Arguably by Christopher Hitchens. He liked to argue, and I think that’s the essence of science.
What is your favorite quote?
“There is no summit. There is only height.” I don’t know who said that, but I remember it from a short story I read in high school. I believe the name of the short story was Tigress My Fellow Traveller. The principle behind it is the idea that you’re doing something in order to achieve a summit, and once you’re done, you’re left with a sense of dissatisfaction. Because now what? Now what are you going to do? The way you should approach life is not to see a summit, just the height beyond you. Stop pretending you’re trying to get somewhere. It’s about the process. It’s about growth.
- Find a creative outlet to maintain and foster productivity in your work.
- Your best chance at innovation comes from being creative, from surrounding yourself with creative people, and having a framework of uncompromising loyalty and integrity.
- Metagenomics is a huge area of scientific interest and potential in the near future.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.