D. André Green: Big dreams, goals, success

January 27, 2020
Contact: Mike Wood mwoodmw@umich.edu

At 10 years old, André knew he wanted to be a scientist, but living in a small town in rural Louisiana he didn’t have any role models to show him how to do that. Despite the odds being stacked against him, he has earned degrees from some of the nation’s top universities and is now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan studying monarch butterfly migration through their DNA. André’s story will inspire anyone to dream big and conquer big goals.

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Mike Wood: Welcome back to another episode of Michigan News Beyond the Headlines. I’m Mike Wood. I’m a video producer here at Michigan News and I also run the Michigan News Studio, which is where we are now. Earlier this year, I produced a video with a guy that studies monarch butterflies and their DNA. That guy is Andre Green. He’s an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, here at the University of Michigan. And he’s here with us today. Hi, Andre.

Andre Green: Hi, Mike. How’s it going?

Wood: Good, I know a lot of people study monarchs, but how many scientists are looking at their DNA?

Green: So there are less than a handful of us that I know of, and I mean, I know them personally. It’s the kind of— that small group of us who are using these genetic approaches to understand monarchs. But what’s really nice, though, is that we do have a community of people who have very diverse backgrounds in biology, because we will need all of these different perspectives to bring, to bear, to understand— the migratory cycle, kind of human impact on the migratory cycle, and just on migration and biology more broadly.

Wood: Ok, speaking of that migration, what is the basic lifecycle of a monarch butterfly? I know they make a migration every spring. They end up in my yard. But then what?

Green: Once your milkweed has come up in your backyard in Michigan, the newly arrived monarchs will lay their eggs. The females will lay their eggs onto your milkweed. And for two to three generations, this will be repeated— whenever a new adult arises, it will live for about five to seven weeks in the spring and summer, just continually reproducing. And that will continue until fall, in which it’s time for the new cycle to begin. So what that means then, is that no single monarch that migrates to Mexico has ever been there before because there has been these intervening generations, which means that there must be some program that the monarch has that tells it exactly where to go because it ends up in the exact same places every year.

Wood: So that’s crazy.

Green: Remarkable. Absolutely.

Wood: So—you know, what do you do in your research? How do you try to get to these answers of like “First of all, how does this butterfly that, you know, has a couple of generations that just lived in my yard, died after five weeks, produced another one— died”. Why all of a sudden in the fall does this butterfly know, “I gotta go south and I’m going to this specific place I’ve never been before”? So it’s in the genes or how do you— what’s the theory?

Green: Exactly, that’s the major mystery, because you can think of monarchs as being these two very different phenotypes, and spring and summer, you have your constantly reproductive monarch. But in fall, you have the same bug, the same genome—but it makes this incredible flight to this place it’s never been before. So what I’m interested in figuring out is what components of the genome, what stretches of DNA are responding to these different environments, providing the instructions. So we know that it’s the interaction between the DNA and the environment. And I’m interested in figuring out what pieces of DNA are relevant.

Wood: How does one go about that? I mean, if you look at the gene expressions from a non migrating monarch, like if you went to Guam or somewhere, they don’t migrate. If you look at the DNA, would it be similar to the spring and summer monarchs that don’t migrate out of my backyard?

Green: Aha! So that is—

Wood: Or do we not know this?

Green: That is one of the million-dollar questions right now. And exactly one of the experiments that I’m conducting this season.

Wood: Well, here at Michigan News, we recently did a story on your research. We sent it out to the media. You were also featured or the story was featured on U of M’s main home page. What’s been the response?

Green: That’s actually been pretty fun. People have kind of been stopping me while I’ve been walking on campus and— or they’ll give me this slightly long stare because they’re like hmmn— “Have I seen that person before?”. And then we’ll get to chat for a second or two about monarchs. So it’s actually been-

Wood: Oh that’s cool!

Green: -really nice to be able to kind of chat with folks about your work, because normally I feel like as scientists, we don’t exactly expect to be able to engage with the public very much about our specific kind of piece of the puzzle.

Wood: Oh that’s cool.

Green: That’s been a nice kind of— addition to having, kind of the story out. So thank you guys for that.

Wood: Oh, no problem. I know it was in Popular Science, a huge publication. They did their own story. Are you getting feedback like from family or old friends, you haven’t heard from or anything?

Green: Absolutely, and I think it was the popular science article in particular that I’ve had a few folks from home reach out saying like, “Oh, I remember reading this as a kid, and now I know someone who kind of was featured in one of the stories”. So yeah, that’s been pretty cool.

Wood: So where did you grow up?

Green: I grew up in rural Louisiana, a place called Opelousas. It’s two and a half hours west of New Orleans. It’s a small town, primarily African-American.

Wood: So were you thinking of college or science—I mean, were you kind of a science nerd when you were a kid? Or a bookworm?

Green: Absolutely, so one of the probably biggest influences on me were that we had lots of science fairs and elementary school. I think starting around fourth grade, and I have an older sister. She’s two years older than me, and she did her science project in fourth grade. I was in second grade. But I remember being so excited about her project that it was kind of torture for me to wait the additional two years so that I could do my own project. So, yeah, science fairs were really kind of what initially drew me in growing up in a rural area. So I spent a lot of time outside, but then kind of more formalizing that into kind of, “Let’s conduct experiments”, “Let’s analyze data”. And in my kind of nine year old self. I was always interested in going to college. My sister was a really big influence on me because she at twelve years old—twelve years old, in Opelousas, Louisiana had these ideas about, “Yeah, I want to be an archaeologist”. It’s just kind of really, really out there. So, she wanted to be an archaeologist—I was doing these science projects. I was like, well, “I want to be a scientist”. And I asked her, because she was already researching colleges at twelve years old.

Wood: Wow.

Green: Meghan—Meghan is my sister. Where do people go if they want to be scientists? And she’s like, “Well, people go to M.I.T. to be the best scientists”. And I was like, oh well, okay. That’s what I want to do then. So I kind of— my ten year old self set a plan at that point.

Wood: So where did you go to college?

Green: So I went to M.I.T. for college. And because no one around me really knew specifically, “Okay, well, how exactly does one do that?”. Because we didn’t really know anyone who had gone to schools like this before. So, I kind of put into my head, well, I’m just gonna do the very best that I could do and we’ll see what happens. And it worked out pretty well.

Wood: So you’re coming from relatively small town in Louisiana and all of a sudden you’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Green: Yes.

Wood: What was that like? Was it— I mean, had you guys traveled much or I mean-

Green: Talk about culture shock. So, no, we hadn’t traveled very much. I’d never been on a plane before going to college. Now, one of the really— kind of transformative experiences before I got to college was that, I spent most of my schooling in the public schools in Opelousas, except for my last two years of high school. Lots of schools in the South have math, science and arts schools where it’s mostly students who will tend to come from rural areas. So this presents kind of a better academic opportunity. What was most beneficial to me about that experience was getting me ready for the social transition that was about to happen. Because Opelousas is primarily African-American. That’s what the schooling reflected. This math and science school, I was one of three African-American men in the class.

Wood: Out of how many students?

Green: Out of—there were 150 students?

Wood: Wow.

Green: It was in stark contrast to what I was used to up until that point and just kind of getting used to that. And so, when I did go to M.I.T., although it’s still a major transition moving to Boston, Cambridge, it’s it’s a whole different world, to say the least. But it wasn’t as much

Wood: Wasn’t quite as jarring?

Green: Yeah, absolutely.

Wood: Wow. After you got your undergrad at M.I.T., then, what did you do after that?

Green: I knew that I was still interested in doing research and therefore I knew I was interested in going to graduate school. And I decided to do the molecular and cellular biology program at Harvard.

Wood: So you—come from rural Louisiana. All of a sudden, you’re at M.I.T. You knock that off and-

Green: And I decided I wasn’t done.

Wood: Yeah, so then you go across the street to Harvard. What—did you ever sit back and go, wow, “This is really cool, or this is really overwhelming, or oh, what am I doing”?

Green: Yeah, because M.I.T. is right along the Charles River that separates Cambridge from Boston. And there’s one of the common bridges called the Mass Ave. bridge that crosses between the two. And every time I cross the bridge, see the skyline, I was like, wow. Like, this is pretty amazing that I get to experience this, and I knew I wanted to go to M.I.T. for a long time, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. And, kind of making that walk over—seeing everything around me really kind of solidified it.

Wood: Very cool. And I know after Harvard you went on to the University of Chicago. Got your PhD., and now you’re here at the University of Michigan.

So you’ve told me before that you want your research to inspire young people, maybe young people of color. Not everyone saw, but that iconic picture of you looking at that butterfly in the U of M home page. I think in that one picture, it shows that not all scientists necessarily look alike or not all scientists need to look alike. And maybe a young African-American kid, girl or boy, might look at that and go, wow, there’s somebody that looks like me doing something that I’d like to do.

Green: I actually chose the monarch for a very specific reason. And it was exactly because it’s this very well-known insect. And there are actually lots of really robust programs that engage, particularly younger students. And this is their introduction to science, to the natural world in particular, and observing and recording. So really kind of getting their foot into the door. Now, how I study the monarch and being interested in their genomes, their DNA and how they able to make their migration—what it actually requires is some pretty sophisticated tools, some mathematical tools, statistics, computer programming, and those are the things that I’ve spent a lot of time kind of thinking about and developing. So the larger idea that I had was that you can use the monarch as the singular model— from studying it whenever you were younger just to get into science. But then, can we use that exact same model to teach these upper level concepts that you don’t have to use to study just biology? You can literally use them in any particular field building up skills in math and science and programming because those are gonna be universally useful. Now, one of the—kind of things that I recognize about lots of Monarch citizen science programs is that we can definitely do a better job of increasing the diversity of the people who participate. I mean, monarchs literally traverse the vast majority of the country, so there’s no reason that these programs shouldn’t reflect the vast majority of the country in terms of demographics.

Wood: Don’t you think it’s just cool, if you walk into a room where there’s, let’s say, a predominantly African-American audience of kids and you say, “Hi, I’m a DNA scientist”.

Green: Absolutely.

Wood: I think a lot of kids right there go, “Wow, I could do that, or he looks like me”.

Green: Absolutely. And because I mention about not really having any models about, “Well, sure, I want to go to M.I.T., but I’ve never seen anyone do that before— I have no idea about how to do that”. Having a model is just powerful in and of itself. I just wasn’t familiar with any African Americans in particular having jobs as like maybe a forester or studying in the sciences. It just wasn’t very common at all. So, being able to design programs that engage younger students, but also kind of prepare them is really attractive to me.

Wood: Sometimes it’s just a little—you know maybe you present one little program and one kid sees that and goes, “Wow”. You know, just like your sister saw the thing about archeology.

Green: Absolutely, that’s exactly.

Wood: You know, exposure is the key. Getting kids exposed to stuff that sparks that little bit of imagination, or plants a seed.

Green: That’s exactly it, and just being interested in kind of let’s bring this to areas, and maybe it just wasn’t thought to be brought before, or kind of into schools and Inner-City Detroit. Why can’t we— kind of encourage spending time outside and looking for butterflies? Monarchs are absolutely there. Yeah, I relish the idea of taking on that role and introducing those students to these types of environments because it’s important.

Wood: To learn more about Andre’s research, go to his Web site at greendeilab.com. Thanks for listening. If you liked what you heard, you can find Michigan News Beyond the Headlines wherever you get your podcasts, and remember to hit that subscribe button so you won’t miss an episode. If you’re listening to us on Apple podcast or i-Tunes, please leave us a review. We really appreciate the feedback. I’d like to thank the whole team here at Michigan News for their support of this podcast, including audio engineer Kirk Lawrence, Nicole Smith, Hans Anderson and Savannah Redlinger handled digital strategy and marketing. And we couldn’t do it without our fearless leaders. News director Laura Lessnau and associate news director, Bernie de Groat. Thanks for going beyond the headlines with Michigan News, I’m Mike Wood.