04 A Series of Fortunate Events
Allow me to introduce you to Dr Travis Hodges, postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia! In this episode, we dive into the topic of mentorship, spotlighting and celebrating the incredible undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral advisors that Dr Hodges has worked for at the University of Manitoba, Brock University, and UBC, respectively. We also discuss his first career hopes, the university class that changed his life, and how he began studying adolescent stress for his Master's and PhD. I am certain you'll enjoy our laughter-filled conversation as we explore the series of fortunate events that led Dr Hodges to present day.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Travis Hodges: One of her friends came—a bunch of her friends were there—and I was singing some Missy Elliott as it was playing. It was the song 'For My People', I remember specifically. As I was singing it, her friend—who I'd never met before—said, 'Travis, who sings this?' And I was like, 'Missy Elliott.' She's like, 'Let's keep it that way.' Ooh! It shook me to my core forever. For years, I remember this!
Her Royal Science jingle
Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. We are coming to you from the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and today we'll be speaking to one of the happiest people I know, Dr Travis Hodges. He is a postdoctoral fellow at UBC studying the sex-specific neural underpinnings of negative cognitive bias pessimism in depression. Hopefully, I got that all right. If not, he will correct me! <Chuckle> He studies under Dr Liisa Galea, who's also the head of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience at UBC. Now, given that you and I have spoken about your absolutely phenomenal mentors, I thought today's topic could be about the importance of mentorship in STEM, but let's start from the very beginning—what's your story?
TH: I'll start in a bit of high school because, for some reason and I don't know why, I took a course in psychology in high school. Before that course, I wanted to be an artist.
AB: That's awesome!
TH: I wanted to draw, mostly charcoal drawings. I used to love drawing a lot. I still do, but I haven't done it in quite some time. I wanted to go the art route, but then I took a psychology course in high school and really loved it. And so, on the way into undergraduate, I knew right away. For some reason I took that psychology course and was like, 'I want to do psychiatry!' I don't know what TV show I saw, and I was like, 'Psychiatry is the thing for me! I wanna work with humans,' which never—
AB: You should never work with humans!
TH: Nope! So, went in thinking, 'Psychiatry, psychiatry, psychiatry!' Did my first year: took chemistry, biology, physics, and a psychology course all at once, and linear algebra for fun on the side. Did that fun round and then, through that psychology course, I learned what psychiatry was actually going to be.
AB: What did you think it was?
TH: I don't know what I had in my head.
AB: You're just like, 'I like the way it sounds'? <Laugh>
TH: Something about prescribing drugs! I was like, 'Oh I could do this!' <Laugh> 'I can prescribe some treatments to people.'
AB: What TV show did you watch this on?
TH: I do not know; Passions? <Laugh> No, Passions did not have anything [to do with it]. I love Passions by the way!
AB: Do you really? I didn't know that!
TH: <Sings Passions theme song>
AB: <Extended laugh>
TH: Not Passions—some TV show, but then I took that psychology course, they cleared my mind. I knew what psychiatry was, and I knew what psychology would entail. And then, I started taking all the psychology courses after that.
TH: But that soon also switched because at the beginning again, I was like, 'I'm going to work with humans. It's gonna be great. I'm going to maybe measure their behaviours,' things like that. And then, in my second year I took a course with who would soon become my honours thesis supervisor, Dr L James Shapiro, who is still at University of Manitoba. The course was Ethology.
AB: Describe what that is.
TH: It was all about the study of animal behaviour and recording animal behaviour. What the course ended up being... What I did not know was it was going to be was a series of great events, series of field trips.
TH: Which, yeah, no other university course [had] you go on a field trip. Well... Even though the field trip was to the dump.
TH: But... Let's begin! [At] the beginning of the course, one of the first things you have to do is take some flies. You catch them in the wild—
AB: Like houseflies?
TH: Any fly you can find. Catch 'em, breed them, and then monitor the behaviour of the babies and of the fly parents. You do that as one part of the course, so, normal. A second thing you get to do, they take you to the animal facility and you get to watch budgies [parakeets].
AB: What are budgies?
TH: Very cute little birds!
AB: Are they songbirds?
TH: I don't know what the budgies do. I feel like they're a little bit tropical.
AB: Oh, are they? Okay!
TH: But they have some in the facility there, you sit in a room and usually they make a lot of noise, but when a bunch of humans start sitting with them, they do not make any sound. They're watching you stare at them.
We would do this for weeks and weeks on end where we'd all go down to the animal facility and just sit there, staring at them, they'd sit there staring at us, and we'd be trying to record their behaviour. But if you make any sound, they would stop what they're doing, look at you, and be like, 'Why are you doing this?' But it taught us that they would soon—not soon, weeks later—habituate to the amount of people in the room. And then, you could start recording the actual behaviours that they would be performing normally. Or you [could] just get a camera and record their behaviours when you're not in the room! <Laugh>
AB: I think that probably be the most ideal <laugh> but I understand the lesson that they were trying to get to!
TH: <Laugh> Yes, there was a lesson! He would definitely not stay around for... Dr Shapiro would leave and we'd just be there in the room, like, 'Why are we doing this?' Lots of fun though! So, that was one thing. We did flies. We did budgies. Third thing was Canada geese. We would watch the geese as they would come to the man-made lakes that were all around Winnipeg. You'd sit by a man-made lake, you'd see the geese come in for four months, so for the whole semester. You would go out, watch the geese, count how many geese are in the man-made lake, watch their behaviors, study their behaviors, and mark them all down.
TH: By the end of November, there would be hundreds, hundreds of geese that I'd be counting. Of course, not accurately counting; that'd be really hard. I'd make a circle with my hand over my eyes and just be like, 'This is 10.' <Laugh> And I would just multiply that across the lake. No one was gonna be watching me doing it!
AB: <Laugh> No one's gonna verify?
TH: No, [it was] pretty accurate. <Sarcastically> I'm sure it was accurate. Fourth thing was trip to the dump. We went to the dump as a group, saw a bunch of birds, wildlife, recorded their behaviours at the dump, which was my first time going to a dump.
AB: Yeah, I can imagine that's not a place you frequent!
TH: It's like, no one knows where the dumps are! I knew where it was then, and got to watch the animals. The smell to me, I was like, 'I guess this is what I'm in for,' which nowadays, nothing phases me! <Laugh>
AB: So, did you go into the class knowing that the field trips were going to be a part of this?
AB: No? You just signed up?
TH: I just saw a course that was 'Animal Behaviour.' And I was like, 'Okay, I'm interested in non-human animal behaviour. I'm interested in that.'
TH: It turned out to be really fun! At the end of the course, though, you have to make—I don't know if this course still exists, this second-year course—a 40-page-ish paper on all of the behaviours you've recorded, all the methods you've used, what your findings were, even if there were none. That course got me really interested in animal behaviour, non-human animal behaviour. So, [I] did my honour's thesis with Dr James Shapiro, and did it with ducklings.
AB: Oh, so cute!
TH: My little mallards, my little domestic mallards. I had 107 eggs. I got to incubate them. I got to every day—for 20 something days—spray them with water to simulate their mother coming from the water and sitting onto them.
AB: Wow! <Laugh>
TH: Yeah, I got really into it!
AB: That's legit!
TH: I looked into them every day with a little flashlight to make sure that they were doing well. And they did! So careful not to drop them, because I knew a little body would fall out and I'd be like, 'Oh, no!' And I could not eat eggs for months and months because of this procedure.
AB: I can imagine 'cause you have this loving attachment to these little creatures!
TH: My little babies! And when they're born, it smells like fried eggs, so I could not eat eggs. My mom would be like, 'Want some fried eggs?' And I'd be like, 'Nope, no, no, no. None of that!' But I loved them. So [that] they would not imprint on me, I could only see them in the dark during my study. I'd come into a dark room with a little red light attached to my head, so all they saw, which I'm sure scarred them for life, [was] a red light coming into the room and a blue glove reaching for them. They'd be gathered in the corner like 'Ah!' <Laugh> And just grab them in a box!
AB: <Laugh> Basically what you're telling me is that for your undergrad you traumatised ducklings? That was your study? <Laugh>
TH: That's why I do stress research! <Laugh> It's all coming to me now. I'm like, 'Oh, this is why I do this!' In the same year that I was doing my thesis, I took a course on endocrinology, and through that course, I got to do some presentations on primary research articles, which I had not done too much of up to that point. I got really interested in the articles I was reading, and they did center around stress. From that moment I knew that I kind of wanted to do something with stress research.
I did the thing that all honours thesis students probably do—or some of them do, [the ones] that want to go into a Master's—which is find some researchers that research something that you're somewhat interested in. So, I found a bunch of stress researchers, read their work, and sent them emails being like, 'This is [the] part of your work that I love. I would love to work with you.' And I got an email back basically right away from who would soon become a Master's and PhD advisor, Dr Cheryl McCormick at Brock University.
TH: And in the email itself, she was like, 'I'll fly you over here. You can come see the lab and everything.' And I was like, 'Oh, well I'm gonna be there anyway. I have family in Toronto... I can just swing down and see the lab.' And so, that's what I did [and] got to meet with her. I feel like we connected very early on, and now at this point in time, we are basically the same human, which is what happens sometimes with your graduate advisors. You're like, 'I'm not gonna become like them!' It's just like your parents. You're like, 'I'm not gonna become like them!' And then you notice little things that you do with your new volunteers and students that you have, and you're like, 'Oh no, this happened. Why has this happened to me?' At the same time, you're like, 'Thank goodness this has happened to me!' <Laugh> I am a workhorse because <laugh> I worked with this wonderful person.
So [I] went there, got to meet who would soon become my lab family, all the other students in the lab at the time. They got to show me around the campus, loved it, and I ended up going right to Brock University for my Master's and stayed on for my PhD after. I did do my Master's, defended my Master's thesis, and then made the decision after that. I knew I wanted to stay in the research field, so I looked at what the job requirements were, and a lot of them were about four years lab experience or more lab experience to be a lab technician or something of the sort. And so, I was like, 'Well, I guess PhD is where it's at.'
The project for my Master's went very well which, again, is not a thing that happens too often. It was also very large in that we had to cut it to about a third of its size to only go for my Master's and the rest became a PhD project.
AB: Awesome, so you had a head start?
TH: Yeah, actually all those things kind of went together into [realising] a PhD would be a great thing to do. And I love the research; a lot of what Cheryl McCormick does is dealing with adolescent stress. Adolescent stress has now become a part of me, and so I like to integrate it into everything that I do, even what I do here at UBC.
AB: Would you mind describing a little bit of the work that you do now and kind how it kind of ties together?
TH: Yes. Well, at the beginning it did not really tie together 'cause I was coming specifically... I was very interested in the transmission of behavior and changes in the brain from parent to offspring, which is a lot of what my new supervisor does, Dr. Liisa Galea, which—actually side note, the way that I met Liisa was through Cheryl, my advisor! Liisa and Cheryl are friends. At the Society of Behavioral Neuroendocrinology Conferences, I got to meet Liisa through Cheryl and from that meeting I kind of knew that Liisa was a great person to work with. I wanted to work with Liisa right off the bat. And then later, when I was looking for a new an advisor for my postdoc, I sent an email to Liisa right away just saying <funny voice> 'Hey, I met you at conferences before...' This is the voice that the email went in. <Sarcastically> I sent a voicemail! <Laugh>
TH: No, it was email! I said, 'We met at conferences before, very interested in your research, wondering if you're looking for a postdoc,' and the email I got back was, 'Yes, come over!' And I was like, 'Wow, this happens! It is a thing that can occur!'
But very much thanks to Cheryl; she's always wanting her students to do very well. She's always pushing us all into different directions, but that pushing really helped in this case. She always set us up with people that she knew were great researchers and to get to know them a little bit. And then, that helped everyone in my lab to find where they ended up.
AB: Would you say that each of your mentors has had similar characteristics and that's why you've enjoyed working with them so much? Or was it that they were different, but they all had things that you either were aspiring towards or had characteristics that you meshed well with for own success? You've been very successful obviously, and you speak so highly of these individuals; what was it?
TH: I think it was a lot of luck at the beginning, 'cause I've seen some friends of mine go into labs and then not have a good fit with their professors, and it's hard to tell fit in the first year of being with a professor. You don't know if they're gonna stress you out when they get stressed. Are they gonna be a bit more irritated than you knew at the beginning? Luckily, Cheryl and I were ended up being quite similar in that we both love working in the lab, maybe too much! I know a lot of advisors don't appear in the lab randomly. Cheryl would all the time. We would be doing our own things in the lab with the animals, and all of a sudden, in the hallway you'd see her already dressed up, good to go. And she'd be like, 'Do you need any help?' And we're like, 'No!'
AB: <Laugh> 'No, we don't!'
TH: We're like, 'No, no, no, no, no.' As soon as she appears, someone drops something and things are just breaking and we're like, 'No, Cheryl. Leave.'
TH: And then she's like, <joyfully> 'Come on!' And when we'd set up experiments with her, she'd always be like, 'I'll help you do this.' And I'd be like, 'No, no, I have these undergrads that I'm training right now. I will take them.' She'd be like 'Really?' And I'm like, 'Yes, yes.' And I know this is exactly how I'm gonna be in the future! <Laugh> Luckily, we ended up having a very similar mindset when it came to a lot of things and that just happened, I'd say, by luck. And I think meeting Liisa... Liisa and I, we do have also have a lot of similarities, and that I kind of could see when I first met her at conferences; we shared a couple similarities. It was nice meeting them beforehand. That really, really helped me decide 'this is who I want to work with.' Well, for Liisa. 'This is who I wanna work with.' Cheryl was more good choice.
AB: Did you ever meet a professor that you considered working with that you then changed your mind about and went, 'Nope. That's not gonna work. Let's just wash our hands of this'?
TH: Yeah! Ummmm... Actually, you know what? Yes!
TH: There [were] some... So, I'm very... This probably also helps me find advisors: I'm very easygoing. They tell me things, I'm like, 'I'll do it.' Like, I love doing it. If anyone gets mad at me, 'cause people can get angry or irritated in situations, I just take it in and I'm like, 'Alright, I will just do great next time.' And I'm able to filter that in a way that I feel like not many people can, which I use to my advantage for sure. Probably got that from my mother, filtered out a lot of what she said into a lot of great things! <Laugh>.
TH: So, love you, Mom! <Chuckle> There are some advisors that I know other students find not great, that they have had bad times with, but [the advisors] would come to me and, for some reason, talk to me about things and be like, 'Oh, I like you.' But I think it's only because I respond in a way that’s like, 'Oh, you're fine. I can deal with [the] craziness that you're saying right now,' and just take it and be neutral about it, 'cause that's what I do. But there are a couple that I would not work with. I know it would be a horrible situation. Would I survive it? Yes. I think I could survive working with them.
AB: You'd survive anything!
TH: Yeah, I feel like I could survive working with them, but it would definitely be a much more harsh situation of working. And I know a lot of the labs [where] the students that go into them have a bad time and do wanna leave prematurely, which is a horrible thing. I think if you're having a bad time in a lab, try and find another one, please, 'cause there are good labs out there. You don't want this to structure how you're going to be for the rest of your life. And yeah, a lot of people have not great experiences going into labs.
AB: Have you found that [for] the moves that you've made—not major moves, but you're moving provinces at this point— going from Manitoba to Ontario and then to British Columbia—[there was] an adjustment period for you? You seem like you've adjusted phenomenally.
AB: What are the difficulties? What are the great things? A lot of people do stay stagnant. I found that especially about Vancouverites! People who are from Vancouver stay in Vancouver.
TH: This is what I hear quite a bit! I feel like... So, in high school, I went on this trip. I was a part of this group called 'Students without Borders.' We raised a bunch of money for a little community in Mbour, Senegal; we raised money for ourselves to go down there and we built a community center down there. We opened up a free clinic while we were there. We brought some nurses with us and we opened up free clinic with a bunch of supplies. We gave a bunch of school supplies to kids and provided a bunch of glasses to places down there. And so, on that trip—and my mom hates me for this actually—I went and I had a great time. My friends that were with me in the group, we had a great time, meeting all the people there was great, but I was very okay with being there in that I would not talk as much to my mom while I was there. The other kids would go every day and be like, 'Hey mom, how's it going?' I'd be out somewhere, enjoying being in Africa, being in West Africa. I did not talk with them as much as I could. Early on, I was very okay with just being in another place and adjusting to that place, so when I was sending out to my Master's applications to different professors, I knew that I could go anywhere and I'd be fine. Going to Ontario was nice because I have a bunch of family in Ontario, and of course my mom loved it much more. My grandma loved it much more. Even though they're not in St. Catherine's, Ontario, they're an hour away so I can drive to them or they can come to me whenever I would need anything, which was never! <Laugh>
TH: But I would go up to them to visit them all the time, or when I had time... which was never.
AB: Telling the truth here!
TH: <Singsongy voice> Graduate studies! <Regular voice> I dunno, I'd go a couple times, but I think that having that family there was a nice way for me to adjust to being in Ontario. Even though they weren't right next to me, it was nice knowing that they were somewhat close by, but also the friends that I made... When I moved to go to Brock University in St Catherine's, my cohort of new Master's students became very close friends, which I think that in itself—and I study social experiences and the effects on the brain and effects on behavior—I feel like we kept each other alive. We kept each other happy. We would have gatherings together all the time. That helped me adjust, like nothing. And I came here to BC [and in] Liisa's lab, I feel like we're all friends now. I feel like that helps me adjust to places, just having a good community that you work with has helped me adjust in each of the places.
AB: Yeah! So, you obviously know at this point how important representation to me is, and that's one of the reasons why I decided to do this podcast.
AB: Have you felt represented throughout your life? We can talk about your own experiences as an undergrad or even earlier on, living in Winnipeg, and how you identify.
TH: That's a very good question. Living in Winnipeg, what is the common occurrence? I grew up in French immersion in high school, so in each grade, I'm sure if you look at all the pictures, especially in my school in particular, there'd be one or two people of colour. One or two Black people in each grade is what you'd commonly find.
AB: How big were the classes?
TH: The classes would be about 20-something, close to 30 students in each class. And I'd see similar pictures from some of my cousins that I have in Toronto. They'd be the two token black children in their classes growing up. That's how I grew up, which for me, I think it's a Winnipeg thing. Well, it definitely affected me quite a bit. It's a huge experience, a huge culture change. For me, my group of friends, who I still talk to now, made branching out to other cultures kind of easier for me in that way, because I was surrounded by other cultures growing up, so it was fine with me being one of the tokens, one of the two Black children into the [class]. The friends that I had around didn't run away from me or anything.
AB: I would hope not!
TH: We became very good friends, and so I think it actually helped them as well. Having this Black friend, I'm sure it's definitely helped them be more accepting of other cultures as they grew up. I mean, [they] would've been maybe more accepting if there was more than one of us! <Laugh>
I feel like the area of Winnipeg that we were in, there just wasn't too many people of colour in that area. Growing up, that was fine. I'll just say this so people know: my mom is from Jamaica and my dad—my biological dad who I have never met—is from Trinidad, so I am of Jamaican-Trinidadian descent. Mostly Jamaican at this point, 'cause that's what I grew up with. That was the family that I knew growing up. My stepdad is Ukrainian, so I love his family. I love the Ukrainian culture. I love eating all the foods when they come over. I talk about food so much. That's what I love so much.
AB: It's not a bad obsession to have. I'm not gonna hate on it!
TH: That's how you can share love throughout the world—the different dishes that people have. So yes, I love my stepdad very much. He comes with us... so, I've been to Jamaica quite often. He'd come with us to Jamaica and he is very... You know he is Canadian. He is white. He's balding. He's there with his little 'I love Jamaica' t-shirt, and he would always be trying to talk in an accent—
TH: —trying to talk in Patois with my family.
AB: Does he speak Patois?
TH: Oh, no! No, no, no. He tries. He'd be like, <Bad Jamaican Patois accent> 'Hey, mon.' And you're like, 'Ooh, that's my dad. That's my dad.' Definitely all the stores would look at us and up the prices 50%, like, 'You're not from here.' My mom luckily can turn on her accent off and on, like that. She moved to Winnipeg when she was around 17, 18, so she's lived in Winnipeg for a while, but she can switch her accent. If she's talking on the phone with her friend from Jamaica, that accent just comes out. When she's on a work call, the accent disappears and she becomes a whole new human.
AB: I understand that. People look at me weird when the different accents come out and I'm like, 'Don't you judge me!' <Laugh>
TH: I think it's a good thing. I enjoy it. She would get us those discounts in all the places. But yeah, that was my culture growing up.
In Winnipeg, we have our own little community center called the Afro-Caribbean Centre, and through that, we'd bring all the extended family in for Mother's Day teas, Christmas parties, where we'd come and celebrate everyone and gather together, so I had that growing up. And that would happen every so often, so there'd be an event every couple months. Even though I was surrounded by people that were not from Jamaica or not from my culture per se, we would get that little dose of culture every few months, which I think was really great, to see all the family and cousins. I love going back to Winnipeg and getting together with all my cousins, going to a movie together, or having everyone over for barbecue and things like that. That's why I love returning to Winnipeg all the time, 'cause all my family is there, the extended family.
AB: How often do you go back to Jamaica at this point?
TH: So, for Jamaica, one of the main reasons we used to go back pretty often, like every year—my great grandma lived to be 104 or 103—we would go back and visit with her. She has since passed away and it's been quite a few years, so the family is less... We don't go down there as often as we used to go, so I haven't been down there now for quite some time. There was a bit of weirdness there when it comes to homophobia and things.
AB: Oh, is it still fairly bad?
TH: Oh, yeah.
AB: Oh, no. That's awful. Is it outward, or...?
TH: You just don't say [it]. You keep that to yourself in Jamaica. So, there's that.
AB: How does that fit into your thoughts about going back to Jamaica? 'Cause obviously you are who you are, you can't change who you are when you go there; how do you reconcile that? Do you just like say, 'Okay, for this month that I'm in Jamaica, we're not gonna talk about it. I won't talk about it with my family'?
TH: That's what would be the case in my past times being there. I'd be like, 'We're just not gonna talk about this for this amount of time in Jamaica.' I feel like if you go to Jamaica [and] you go to the resorts, you're a bit better.
TH: We'd always stay with family, so you'd be deep in the center of bunch of the towns there, so a little worse off saying things like that. But if I was to go back, I'd have a good time. I do love Jamaica. It's a part of me. Even though I was born in Winnipeg, it is a part of me. But definitely [I] would just stay at the resort. Maybe not say too much about anything related to [being] homosexual.
AB: How was your reception in Winnipeg? Vancouver's pretty open, we are very accepting society.
AB: As is Toronto. I have no idea what the scene is like in Winnipeg at all. What is it like?
TH: It's hard for me to say, 'cause a lot of it was very closeted. When I grew up—and it was definitely because again, my family's Jamaican, love them very much—the older people in the family [are] not so good when it comes to people being homosexual. I was afraid to say anything all of my life until I basically left and went to Ontario, and then I was very open about it. [With] my new community of cohort and friends, I was like, 'I can say anything to these friends of mine in Ontario.' And from that, I opened up when I went back to Winnipeg, and my family was very accepting, which is good.
AB: I don't think there's really much else to say. I mean, we'll end by saying thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. This was a treat, not only for me. I'm sure everyone who listens to this is gonna love it so much, so just get ready for the outpouring of love, support, and kindness. You're awesome!
TH: This is amazing! No, I love this idea of a podcast.
AB: Thank you! I mean, it's going remotely well, so I think that's all we could ask for. <Laugh>
TH: Yes, I think it's very good to get people to know some of the research that's out there from some of the minorities that are out there as well. Yeah!
AB: Yeah, we're repping for more than ourselves and that's something that, you know, is a burden, but it's a blessing. I always felt like I didn't always just represent me. I represented people who look like me, [and] people who didn't but just identified with the fact that I was a minority. It feels good. I hope it feels good to you too.
TH: Yes! I like seeing some of the inspiration [from] other up and coming researchers in STEM that are visible minorities too!