Michael Boyle

The Brainiac
Former Pace University student, Michael Boyle

Michael Boyle ’13 grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey. As a middle schooler, he was a fan of Nip/Tuck, the television drama about hot shot plastic surgeons. The profession and the lifestyle appealed to him, and he set his sights on a future as a plastic surgeon.

At Pace University, Boyle majored in biology and he discovered a love for genetics and scientific research. From there, his trajectory took a different course. Today, he is an evolutionary biologist working on his PhD at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he works in the lab of the world-famous pioneer in Neanderthal genome research Svante Pääbo.

The Pääbo Lab is renowned for its breakthrough research in human evolution. In 2010, an international team led by Pääbo was the first to sequence the complete Neanderthal genome. Sourced from 38,000-year-old DNA samples taken from bones discovered at Vindija Cave in Croatia, the three-billion-letter sequence brings new insight to our understanding of human evolution. In 2015, Boyle was selected by Pääbo to join his group of researchers.

The lab’s work is changing our understanding of human evolution. The focus of a lab is to answer a broad scientific question, and each member of the lab group approaches the question from a different angle. In particular, Boyle is interested in exploring how the human brain is special. What is it about the human brain that gives us humans the capacity to play a violin, to solve algebra equations or the organ’s ability to understand itself? Boyle chatted with Dyson Digital Digest about the brain, his time at Pace, and what it's like being an expat.

The Science of the Human Brain

The human brain has a greater number of neurons in the cerebral cortex than is expected by chance. Neurons are computing cells of the brain. The cerebral cortex is important for planning, decision-making, and memory, among other things. I’m interested in investigating the molecular mechanisms behind why there are so many neurons and how these cells communicate with one another in hopes of better understanding how the human brain functions. I approach this question from a genetic perspective. In the Pääbo Lab, we compare genomes of humans and apes to identify the sites that differ between them. We can determine when these mutations likely arose by seeing if they were shared with the Neanderthals and Denisovans, archaic hominins that migrated out of Africa and resided in Eurasia for a couple hundred thousand years before modern humans arrived.

My project focuses on non-coding DNA (areas responsible for turning on or off genes), whereas other people in the group study coding DNA (areas that become protein). When we combine the non-coding DNA results with the coding DNA results, it gives the Pääbo Lab a more comprehensive picture of the underlying molecular biology.

It’s a very collaborative effort! We all meet as a group on Thursdays and discuss the progress we’ve made during the week. These meetings allow us to get feedback on our personal projects. Over time, Pääbo connects the results from the individual projects to advance our understanding of human evolution.

The Pace Experience

Although growing up I wanted to be a surgeon, I was drawn to the idea of going into scientific research while at Pace. I was exposed to many exciting research methods in my courses there. Cellular and Molecular Biology was my favorite course. We learned about how genes interact in living organisms to bring about an action. There are many interactions happening at the cellular level, and these processes are so regulated…it can become really complicated. However, our professor, Dr. Greg Lampard, made a complex topic understandable.

He challenged us in the laboratory. The lab course revolved around learning the techniques of genetic cloning and designing experiments with yeast to test if the experiments would result in a successfully cloned gene. My group was given the gene STE7, which stands for “sterile 7” because it plays a role in mating, and mutations in it cause yeast to become sterile. We then showed in an experiment that the yeast could mate and were not sterile, which demonstrated that we successfully cloned STE7 despite there being no copy of the gene in the genome.

I was hooked on research from this point on! I learned so much from Dr. Lampard in such a short time, and his challenging course left me wanting to read more and more about molecular biology. I credit him for setting me on the path towards becoming a researcher and for inspiring me to study the process of gene regulation.

The Biology Department at Pace University is a very special place. The professors, like Drs. Marcy Kelly and Daniel Strahs, truly care about teaching students and making sure they understand the material. I’ll never forget when Dr. Kelly had us sing “I Love Microbiology and I Know It” to the tune of “Sexy and I Know It” to help us memorize the names of different bacteria. Since it’s a small department, it felt like a little family. We spent many hours in the Biology lounge hanging out between classes. I’m still best friends with my STE7 crew.

Lessons from the Expat Life

I’m very grateful for the things I learned academically, but I find the knowledge I gained from living abroad to be the most valuable thing on my journey so far.

When you grow up in a country, some things seem normal because it’s the way things are and one assumes that’s how it is everywhere else. For example, when I moved to Europe I was shocked to learn that many of my European friends paid nothing for college. The cost was covered by their taxes. Some even took time off after graduating to travel and figure out what they wanted to do with their life. That just isn’t possible for the many US students who take out loans to attend college and then must start paying them back soon after graduating. When you live in different countries, it gives you something to compare with. I’ve grown so much as a person questioning such things I had assumed to be the norm, and I try to share this awareness with others.

Another difference I’ve observed is how the refugee crisis was dealt with in Germany versus the US. In Germany, refugees were welcomed by the government and by many of the people. A refugee camp was set up right next to the lab where I work. Many people from the Institute began brainstorming on how we could integrate the refugees into society and make them feel welcome. We started a CrossFit group with them. I helped coordinate and participate in the weekly trainings. Despite language barriers, we were able to work in teams to complete the “Workout of the Day.” After having talked with several refugees and hearing the horrors of war they faced and their struggle to escape in order to find asylum, it’s sad to know that our government is not trying to help solve the problem.

What’s Next?

Good question. At the moment, I’m toying with the idea of spending a few months in the Uganda rainforest to study chimps and gorillas in the wild, then a few months in Indonesia to study orangutans. I find apes so fascinating! It’s a long way to go before I finish the PhD, though, so who knows what will happen.

Eventually, I think I want to become a professor so I can teach others and share with them my passion for biology.

Former Pace University student, Michael Boyle

Michael Boyle ’13 grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey. As a middle schooler, he was a fan of Nip/Tuck, the television drama about hot shot plastic surgeons. The profession and the lifestyle appealed to him, and he set his sights on a future as a plastic surgeon.

At Pace University, Boyle majored in biology and he discovered a love for genetics and scientific research. From there, his trajectory took a different course. Today, he is an evolutionary biologist working on his PhD at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he works in the lab of the world-famous pioneer in Neanderthal genome research Svante Pääbo.

The Pääbo Lab is renowned for its breakthrough research in human evolution. In 2010, an international team led by Pääbo was the first to sequence the complete Neanderthal genome. Sourced from 38,000-year-old DNA samples taken from bones discovered at Vindija Cave in Croatia, the three-billion-letter sequence brings new insight to our understanding of human evolution. In 2015, Boyle was selected by Pääbo to join his group of researchers.

The lab’s work is changing our understanding of human evolution. The focus of a lab is to answer a broad scientific question, and each member of the lab group approaches the question from a different angle. In particular, Boyle is interested in exploring how the human brain is special. What is it about the human brain that gives us humans the capacity to play a violin, to solve algebra equations or the organ’s ability to understand itself? Boyle chatted with Dyson Digital Digest about the brain, his time at Pace, and what it's like being an expat.

The Science of the Human Brain

The human brain has a greater number of neurons in the cerebral cortex than is expected by chance. Neurons are computing cells of the brain. The cerebral cortex is important for planning, decision-making, and memory, among other things. I’m interested in investigating the molecular mechanisms behind why there are so many neurons and how these cells communicate with one another in hopes of better understanding how the human brain functions. I approach this question from a genetic perspective. In the Pääbo Lab, we compare genomes of humans and apes to identify the sites that differ between them. We can determine when these mutations likely arose by seeing if they were shared with the Neanderthals and Denisovans, archaic hominins that migrated out of Africa and resided in Eurasia for a couple hundred thousand years before modern humans arrived.

My project focuses on non-coding DNA (areas responsible for turning on or off genes), whereas other people in the group study coding DNA (areas that become protein). When we combine the non-coding DNA results with the coding DNA results, it gives the Pääbo Lab a more comprehensive picture of the underlying molecular biology.

It’s a very collaborative effort! We all meet as a group on Thursdays and discuss the progress we’ve made during the week. These meetings allow us to get feedback on our personal projects. Over time, Pääbo connects the results from the individual projects to advance our understanding of human evolution.

The Pace Experience

Although growing up I wanted to be a surgeon, I was drawn to the idea of going into scientific research while at Pace. I was exposed to many exciting research methods in my courses there. Cellular and Molecular Biology was my favorite course. We learned about how genes interact in living organisms to bring about an action. There are many interactions happening at the cellular level, and these processes are so regulated…it can become really complicated. However, our professor, Dr. Greg Lampard, made a complex topic understandable.

He challenged us in the laboratory. The lab course revolved around learning the techniques of genetic cloning and designing experiments with yeast to test if the experiments would result in a successfully cloned gene. My group was given the gene STE7, which stands for “sterile 7” because it plays a role in mating, and mutations in it cause yeast to become sterile. We then showed in an experiment that the yeast could mate and were not sterile, which demonstrated that we successfully cloned STE7 despite there being no copy of the gene in the genome.

I was hooked on research from this point on! I learned so much from Dr. Lampard in such a short time, and his challenging course left me wanting to read more and more about molecular biology. I credit him for setting me on the path towards becoming a researcher and for inspiring me to study the process of gene regulation.

The Biology Department at Pace University is a very special place. The professors, like Drs. Marcy Kelly and Daniel Strahs, truly care about teaching students and making sure they understand the material. I’ll never forget when Dr. Kelly had us sing “I Love Microbiology and I Know It” to the tune of “Sexy and I Know It” to help us memorize the names of different bacteria. Since it’s a small department, it felt like a little family. We spent many hours in the Biology lounge hanging out between classes. I’m still best friends with my STE7 crew.

Lessons from the Expat Life

I’m very grateful for the things I learned academically, but I find the knowledge I gained from living abroad to be the most valuable thing on my journey so far.

When you grow up in a country, some things seem normal because it’s the way things are and one assumes that’s how it is everywhere else. For example, when I moved to Europe I was shocked to learn that many of my European friends paid nothing for college. The cost was covered by their taxes. Some even took time off after graduating to travel and figure out what they wanted to do with their life. That just isn’t possible for the many US students who take out loans to attend college and then must start paying them back soon after graduating. When you live in different countries, it gives you something to compare with. I’ve grown so much as a person questioning such things I had assumed to be the norm, and I try to share this awareness with others.

Another difference I’ve observed is how the refugee crisis was dealt with in Germany versus the US. In Germany, refugees were welcomed by the government and by many of the people. A refugee camp was set up right next to the lab where I work. Many people from the Institute began brainstorming on how we could integrate the refugees into society and make them feel welcome. We started a CrossFit group with them. I helped coordinate and participate in the weekly trainings. Despite language barriers, we were able to work in teams to complete the “Workout of the Day.” After having talked with several refugees and hearing the horrors of war they faced and their struggle to escape in order to find asylum, it’s sad to know that our government is not trying to help solve the problem.

What’s Next?

Good question. At the moment, I’m toying with the idea of spending a few months in the Uganda rainforest to study chimps and gorillas in the wild, then a few months in Indonesia to study orangutans. I find apes so fascinating! It’s a long way to go before I finish the PhD, though, so who knows what will happen.

Eventually, I think I want to become a professor so I can teach others and share with them my passion for biology.