SFU Undergrad Researcher: Aaron Lyons

Introducing Aaron Lyons of the Department of Physics!

2017-05-08 13.31.46

Name: Aaron Lyons
Major: Biological Physics
Year: Fourth
Supervisor: Dr. Nancy Forde of the Department of Physics

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: I’d like to continue doing research after I’m done school, but I’m as uncertain as anyone about where that might be. There are lots of biotech companies in Vancouver, but in my experience industry research can be a lot less rewarding than what I’m doing now.

Q: How did you get involved in research?
A: One of the previous PhD students in the lab that I’m working for had to leave Vancouver on fairly short notice, so her supervisor was shopping around for a student to take on some of the experiments that still needed to be done. It just so happened that I was taking a lab course with that supervisor at the time, and since she was happy with my work she offered me a position in the lab.

Q: What is your research about?
A: I study the mechanical properties of collagen using atomic force microscopy, or AFM. Collagens are long, thin proteins, so we can learn a lot about how flexible they are by just looking at the conformations the molecules adopt in the AFM images. It’s kind of like putting a few pieces of string in a box and shaking them, except the strings are 300 nm long proteins and the shaking is thermal fluctuation.

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
A: AFM can be incredibly sensitive to noise, so my typical days are actually nights. Unless I have a meeting or class to go to, I’ll get to the lab at 4 or 5 pm and do any sample preparation and instrument setup that needs to be done. I usually start AFM imaging around 6 pm, because that’s generally when
people stop slamming their doors and clambering down the hallways like elephants.

Q: What’s your favourite course that you have taken so far in your degree?
A: It would have to be Protein Structure and Function (MBB 423). The class is an odd mix of biology, chemistry and physics, but each field lends itself to a different aspect of the course in a really cool way.

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field?
A:
A friend who’s in liquor production
Has a still of astounding construction.
The alcohol boils,
Through an old magnet coil.
He says that it’s proof by induction.

Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: I guess I’d be a micropipette: versatile but in frequent need of calibration. I pride myself on being multidisciplinary, but it can take a lot of discipline on my part to pursue one project for an extended period of time.

Q: Who is your biggest science crush?
A: Maud Menten. Almost everyone that’s taken a biology course has heard about the Michaelis-Menten equation, but I don’t know how many people realize that Menten was Canadian. With 114 years of seperation, admiration is probably a better word, but she’s definitely someone who I would have liked to meet once.

Q: What’s the funniest thing in the lab that’s happened to you?
A: We had a shipment sent to us from Australia by some collaborators, and since the materials were heat sensitive they sent it to us in this futuristic-looking capsule filled with liquid nitrogen-soaked insulation. Since neither my supervisor nor I had ever seen anything like it, we started reading the instructions on how to open the capsule. It seemed simple: twist the cap off and pull on the handles to lift the container out. So we opened it up (at which point the liquid nitrogen started evaporating like crazy) and yanked on the handles – which proceeded to snap. At this point, the metal container had frozen to the sides of the capsule wall, and the heat-sensitive contents inside the container were rapidly approaching room temperature. Being pressed for time, we ended up chipping away at the ice and prying the container out with a set of barbeque tools from the physics kitchen, much to the amusement of the people watching our panicked frenzy. It was stressful at the time, but I look back on it and laugh now.

Q: What scares you the most in the lab or the field?
A: I know it’s silly, but I have an irrational fear of freak centrifuge accidents. I’ve probably centrifuged things thousands of times, but I always have this nagging feeling that the centrifuge will somehow launch itself across the room. Those things are scary.

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