Fellows Friday with Jessica Green

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Jessica Green wants people to understand the important role microbes play in every facet of our lives: climate change, building ecosystems, human health — even roller derby. This University of Oregon professor (also known by her derby name “Thumper Biscuit”) is using non-traditional tools — like art, animation, and film -– to help people visualize the invisible world.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Jessica asks:

Probiotics, like yogurt, are known to support healthy gut microbes.  How could we apply this idea to support a healthy house, subway, or office?

Click here to respond!

There is a lot of talk about why biodiversity is important. Why is microbial biodiversity so critical?

The more we learn about microbes, the more it’s going to inform us about plants and animals and how to preserve their function and their diversity. So much of the insight that’s been brought upon ecology and evolution has been from studying things that we can see. One reason why it’s important to understand what we can’t see is because microbes comprise the vast majority of all life on Earth. Almost all the diversity in the Tree of Life is comprised of microbes.

I often wonder, “What would Charles Darwin think if he had spent his entire career looking at the genomes of microbes?” And in fact, he sampled microbes on the Beagle. But during that time, microbiologists could only differentiate between different microbes by using a microscope and looking at the traits of those microbes. Now we can yank the genes out of microbes in any environment and study their diversity by looking at their genes.

Jessica (third from left) and crew collecting microbe samples off the Svalbard archipelago.

I think the study of microbes is slowly improving our understanding of how life works on Earth. For example, people are beginning to study biogeographic patterns — understanding variation from environment to environment — in and on the human body. From a microbial context, the region between your toes has been likened to a desert because it is less diverse than the crease of your arm, which is more like a tropical rainforest. We’re just beginning to understand how these various ecosystems of microbes in and on our body are affecting our immunity and our health.

Jessica collecting microbe samples in the Atacama desert.

As you study the ecosystems of buildings at your BioBE (Biology and the Built Environment) Center, what are you discovering?

Through the Center, we are finding a significant signature on the way that the design and operation of buildings impacts the diversity of microbes indoors. The results are surprising. And they’re important for two reasons.  First, the types of microbes that are inside buildings are likely linked to the health and well-being of the people that are occupying those buildings.  Second, the way that we design and operate buildings impacts the carbon footprint of that building.

For the first time in my career, the Center has given me a platform to explore issues that are relevant to human health and global climate change in tandem.

This idea of treating buildings as ecosystems is not new. People in the past have applied ecological principles to buildings. But this is really an emerging field where people are viewing buildings as microbial ecosystems – not just considering particular pathogens that we want to avoid, but rather thinking about buildings as harboring diverse communities of microbes that are interacting with one another and with humans.

Jessica viewing the rooftop mechanical ventilation system of the Providence Portland Medical Center.

With your interdisciplinary background, and the myriad ways to approach the study of climate change, why did you choose to focus on buildings?

One of the reasons I got focused on buildings is because when I came to the University of Oregon several years ago, a colleague in the biology department told me that one of the strongest programs on campus was the architecture program, which has an emphasis on sustainability.

Another reason is because it’s a new field. The study of microbial diversity has exploded in marine systems and terrestrial systems. Yet we know very little about the ecosystem that is surrounding us on a daily basis — humans in the developed world spend 90 percent of our lives indoors. Because it’s a new field, it seemed like an area where it would be possible to have a significant impact.

How has your BioBE work intertwined with your TED Fellowship?

The connections through TED have helped with several of the directions that the BioBE Center is going. There’s an animation company called XVIVO that has displayed its work prominently at TED. They’re now collaborating with the BioBE Center to create an animation to help people visualize microbial biodiversity in the built environment. Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo, another TED Fellow, will be doing the voice-over for the project.

In the animation, the viewer feels like they are hovering in the atmosphere above a city. The idea is, as the viewer, you are a microbe. And then you waft down into the city landscape and you’re in front of a building. As a microbe, there are at least three different ways in which you would enter a building. One is that you would land on a human or a dog or a cat or something that was going into the building. The second would be that you would go through a window. And the third is that you would go through the mechanical ventilation system. As a viewer, you experience these different ways of entering a building. Once you’re in the building, you discover it’s an apartment building. You have what we could imagine would be a view of that room, from the perspective of a microorganism.

I also met some people from AutoDesk at TED who do interesting work using building information models that may ultimately make it easier for people to visualize the kind of data that we’re collecting.

You are helping organize Think Weird Go Big 2, another TED Fellows collaboration. How will this second iteration differ from the first?

One thing my co-founder Eric Berlow, also a TED Fellow, has been working particularly hard on, is gaining donor support for Fellows who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the plane ticket to the Swall Institute.

But I think many of the attributes of Think Weird Go Big 2 are going to stay the same as last year, because it was so successful. We provide a venue for Fellows to share with one another a vision that they have. Everyone shares their ideas, and their perceived obstacles to achieving them. Then we help each other think of ways to overcome these perceived obstacles. In between sessions, there’s time for hiking, cooking, and having relaxed down time that gives us an opportunity to bond with each other.

We wanted to open it up to a new set of Fellows this year. What’s particularly fantastic is that the group of Fellows that came last year is reuniting independently this year on Whidbey Island. So a second workshop has fostered out of Think Weird Go Big 1.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

My advice is to listen.  Every day we receive feedback on our work, some positive and some negative.  There is always something to be learned.  Even if I don’t agree with the feedback, or if it initially makes me feel discouraged, I use it to improve my work.

You mentioned in your TEDWomen Fellows interview that one of your mentors and role models, Maria Pallavicini, said that having children can be central to success if you embrace it. Have you found this to be true?

I have found that it takes a lot of mindfulness to embrace family in a way that benefits you professionally. There’s a perception that family is taking time away from professional time. But I have learned from experience that spending time with my two sons and my husband — if I make time for it and live a more balanced lifestyle — makes me feel more creative, relaxed, inspired and efficient. Yet I think it’s particularly hard to live by that if you’re a person who is driven by professional accomplishments.

I’ve enjoyed raising my kids with a husband that is present at home. Fortunately, my family is very communicative with me about the value of spending time with them. [Laughs] So they’ve helped me lead a balanced lifestyle.

Perhaps part of that balance for you has been your involvement in roller derby?

Yes, in having a balanced lifestyle, one thing that is really important to me is having community. I first got involved in roller derby because we were new to Eugene, Oregon, and I really wanted to connect with a community of women. A friend of mine took me to an Emerald City Roller Girls tryout. Before I knew it, I was drafted on to a team. It was so fun having a way to engage with a community of women on a regular basis, and also during that time, do something that’s physically active and good for you.

I’m retired now, but I’m still very passionate about roller derby. In fact, I think I will be collaborating with TED Fellow Anita Doron, a filmmaker, on a film about roller derby. In collaboration with some undergraduates in my lab, we’ll be using roller derby as a ‘model’ full-contact sport to explore how touch influences microbe-sharing among humans.

What is it about roller derby that excites such passion in you?

Playing roller derby was one of the best experiences that I’ve had in my entire life. I think one of the reasons I liked it so much is because it is a community of women where you’re encouraging one another to take risks.

For example, I have stage fright. What I often did in roller derby is called “jamming.” That’s the position where you have a star on your helmet. You line up on the start line next to your opponent and race against her to score points for your team.  It’s easy to feel exposed as a jammer because people are commonly watching you, and blockers are constantly trying to hit you. Jamming over and over and over again, scrimmage after scrimmage, and practice after practice, gives you that fearlessness inside.  That quality makes it easier to try things that seem really frightening or impossible in a professional context or relationships — in any context.

I think playing roller derby changed my brain chemistry. And I think that I’ve seen that process happen with a lot of women. I love it because it is a sport that was put together for women, by women. It was an incredibly empowering experience. And it’s still benefiting me today.

Everyone in Roller Derby has a “derby name.” What’s yours?

[Laughs] I was enamored with the name “Thumper Muffin,” but that name was already taken. And I felt that since my two young boys came to a lot of the bouts and supported me during the derby career, I should keep it clean. So I changed “Thumper Muffin” to “Thumper Biscuit.”