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An Interview with Matt Williams-Spooner, Ph.D.

Dr. Williams-Spooner is an evolutionary neuroscientist and an accomplished writer on Medium.

Image courtesy of Matt Williams-Spooner, Ph.D.

One of my leadership goals as a writer and editor is to introduce influential writers and leaders to my audience via interviews starting in 2019. Recently I joined Medium Friendship, and when I asked the early adopters of the program, I found that these avid readers expect curated content and visibility to the work of influential writers.

To fulfill my objectives, I’ll persist in curating impactful and eloquent content, introducing its writers to my audience.

In this post, I’ll share an interview I had the pleasure of conducting with Matt Williams-Spooner, Ph.D, a recent addition to Medium’s writing community but certainly not a newcomer to the world of writing. Matt’s stories consistently stand out and are often chosen for broader distribution due to their profound impact, rich information, and practical insights.

Matt's distinctive writing style captivates the reader, effortlessly conveying his tacit knowledge in a conversational tone. As I am a reader and curator of multiple publications, Matt’s content stands out to me because he skillfully distills extensive scientific information, making it exceptionally accessible to readers.

This brief interview provides a glimpse into Matt’s background, making it easier for you to connect with him on a personal level.

Tell us a bit about your background, Matt.

I’m an evolutionary neurobiologist who wants to share information about biology, evolution, and complex systems.

Researchers have produced an enormous body of evidence and information, but too little of it makes its way back to the public that actually funds the research in the first place. Science can be a big, intimidating jungle, and I want to help people learn about the natural world and their place in it.

Before science, I worked a lot of regular jobs in retail and hospitality, and I’m from a working-class family in Sydney, Australia.

While I was studying at a university in Sydney, I decided to take a break and volunteered for a human rights NGO in northern Thailand.

The organization was called DEPDC/GMS, and it uses education, life skills training, and community outreach to prevent human/child trafficking.

What are your hobbies?

I’ve always loved sport, and right now I play a lot of tennis. I’m a big reader, and obviously, writing is sort of a hobby — at least, that’s how it started.

My fiancée and I are lucky to live near the beach, so we like to go on coastal walks and head to the beach whenever we can.

We also both love traveling and are big fans of music. Quite a few of our friends make music and host events, so there’s always a lot going on. I also plan to start a podcast soon, which I’m very excited about. It’s going to be called Wisdom of the Crowd, named after a phenomenon in the social science literature.

What are the top three books that affected your life?

Power, Sex & Suicide by evolutionary biochemist Nick Lane really helped me to understand the forces that drive evolution and make life on Earth the way it is.

How Emotions Are Made by psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett is a masterpiece for anyone trying to understand the brain and mind and will soon be regarded as a seminal book for the science of emotions.

The recent book Burn by anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Herman Pontzer is a must-read for anyone interested in managing their weight and staying healthy.

Tell us a bit about your science background.

My journey to science was a bit circuitous. I was always intimidated by science during high school. It seemed like the sort of thing that smart kids did, and I thought I was too dumb, so I avoided it as much as possible and focused on humanities subjects like history.

I went to university wanting to become a psychologist, but I quickly found out that being a psychologist is more formulaic and regimented than I expected, and I realized that becoming a clinician wasn’t for me.

Fortunately, and pretty ironically, I’d studied a lot of science at university by this point and had developed a surprising passion for it.

I then changed my plans and became a behavioral neuroscientist, focusing on evolution and the molecular and cell biology of learning and memory. This also introduced me to systems/population thinking and complex systems science, which have become some of my favorite topics.

What is your typical approach to scientific work with some examples like lab work, literature reviews, research, etc?

I was really fortunate to do my PhD in a lab with great mentors. My supervisors are very methodical in their approach. They take small but meaningful bites out of a problem, trusting that if you keep making progress, eventually, you’ll be able to draw interesting conclusions. This has been a very successful approach for me as well, and I’ve been fortunate to make some interesting discoveries.

I found that different types of memory are both similar and different in the molecular mechanisms that help to store them in the brain. I also showed that a protein molecule often implicated in learning, the NMDA receptor is activated by surprising events in the environment.

More recently, I used transgenic lines of rats to study what happens to memory when we selectively delete neurons in a part of the brain known as the amygdala and how dopamine neurons influence how the brain learns about different sorts of events.

What key topics excite you in the science world and why?

The answer depends on how closely you’re looking at a problem. At a high level, like a bird’s eye view, I think evolution, bioenergetics/metabolism, and systems/population thinking are essential. They provide an invaluable framework within which to organize your thoughts and allow you to ask interesting questions with meaningful answers.

At a mid-range level, I’m very interested in health and quality of life. This includes topics like weight loss and exercise, loneliness and happiness, and the psychology and neuroscience of mental health.

At a low level, in the world of cells and molecules, I’m very excited about the biochemistry of metabolism. This is a really intersectional topic, which requires a deep understanding of many different areas, like how constraints from physics and chemistry influence life and the molecular processes that support health at the microscopic and even nanoscopic levels.

Ideally, all of these different levels should also connect to each other so that you’re always making progress no matter what level of analysis your thinking is currently focused on.

We’re currently in a period of convergence, where all of the things I mentioned are making meaningful connections that we didn’t know much about until fairly recently. To me, that makes these topics even more exciting and means that we’re getting closer to important answers on big topics like health and disease.

How do you maintain a work-life balance, and what are the key principles to keep yourself healthy?

To be honest, science isn’t good for your work-life balance. If you’re going to get into science, you should be prepared for lots of unpaid overtime, which is baked into the international culture of science. That’s especially true in North America and in the USA most of all.

Intermittent fasting is my main strategy for maintaining a healthy weight. Research suggests that staying healthy is mostly about staying active, so I make sure that I have an average daily step count of at least 10,000. My average for this year is over 11,000, and my goal for next year is to average at least 12,000 steps per day. I also goo to the gym when I can, but nothing too serious. I don’t even drink protein shakes or anything like that before or after a workout, although maybe I should.

From my reading of the literature, the other key factors for health are getting enough sleep and having positive relationships with people you can rely on in an emergency. We’re an obligate social species, meaning we need each other to survive and thrive. If we forget that life for humans is a team sport and find ourselves socially isolated and lonely, that’s a recipe for disease and death.

What do you recommend to aspiring scientists?

Science is a lot of fun, and it’s always exciting to make discoveries, but the research world is a tough gig. Funding agencies are only getting stingier, especially in my home country of Australia, and the pressure on researchers has never been more intense.

If you want to get into science, I’d say you need to have tough skin, as a lot of the job involves failures and hard work without the guarantee of a useful result at the end.

You’ll need to read and write a lot, and you’ll be harshly (and sometimes unfairly) criticized by other scientists. But if you can handle the hard times, the good times are really special.

Why did you join Medium?

The founder of the organization, Sompop Jantraka, has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, and I had the privilege to spend a lot of time living with him and his family.

When you meet such amazing people and have a chance to learn from them, they’re always going to change the way you see and approach life.

That was the case for me, and I’d like to think that sharing information on Medium through my articles has the same spirit of giving people knowledge to inform and improve their lives.

What are your values as a writer?

It may sound a bit corny, but I believe in values like freedom, democracy, and equality.

Those terms have all become stalking horses for various ideological battles nowadays, but there was a time when everyone understood that access to a free flow of information was essential to a free and open society. If we didn’t have a free flow of information, science couldn’t function, and society is much the same.

I’m just a very small node in a vast network, but if enough people share their knowledge with enough people, it creates a virtuous feedback loop that benefits everyone.

How do you connect with your readers?

I’ve always tried to write as if I was speaking to someone.

I also try to find topics that lots of people care about and provide a breakdown of what we know so that people can make informed choices.

The world has changed a lot in the last few hundred years, and we need information now more than ever, so I try to connect with readers by helping them navigate our complex modern world.

Why did you join ILLUMINATION and how do you find it so far?

ILLUMINATION has a lot of interesting writers and reaches many people, so it was a no-brainer to try and join it. It’s been a great experience, and you always have helpful advice. It’s wonderful to have an accessible platform for people who want to share information.

Who are the top three writers you follow on ILLUMINATION?

There are lots of good writers on Medium and your publications, but I’ve really enjoyed the content from the following three lately.

Firstly, your content is always informative, and your satirical articles are good for a laugh.

Dr Emmanuel Ogamdi recently joined, and I really like his content on medicine, health, and science.

Mark Sanford, Ph.D. also writes important articles about loneliness, happiness, and health, all of which are topics I’m personally very interested in as well.

What are your top 5 stories to share with your audience and why?

I’ve been writing a lot about health and science lately, and I think a few of those articles have a lot of useful information.

1 — In “New Discoveries That Redefine Our View of Diet, Weight Gain, Exercise, and Health”, I write about how studies using doubly-labeled water have shown that we essentially burn the same amount of energy per day, no matter how much we exercise. This has lots of fascinating and important implications for managing our weight and health, and I run through all the key points.

2 — In “How Discovering Microbes Transformed Our Understanding of Life and Health”, I run through the history of how the Western world viewed health over the last 2,500 years or so. This teaches us a lot about how we view health today and gives some advice for living longer and healthier lives.

3 — In a companion article, “Recent Discoveries and Potential Breakthroughs in Microbiome Health,” I went further into microbiome science and explained what advice current research can offer for improving microbiome health, like our gut microbiome.

4 — I recently began writing about intermittent fasting. In the article “Which Type of Intermittent Fasting is Best for Weight Loss and Health?, I run through the different approaches to intermittent fasting. I cover recent meta-analyses that compare the benefits of weight loss and health and reach some practical conclusions about which type of intermittent fasting seems to be best.

5 — The last article I’ll mention is my most recent, “Can We Lose Fat and Gain Muscle At the Same Time?”. It picks up where the previous article about the types of intermittent fasting left off, and asks whether we can build muscle while we lose fat through intermittent fasting. I also cover meta-analyses on the topic, which outline how intermittent fasting affects muscle growth, strength, aerobic capacity, and athletic performance

I am also grateful that one of your editors Aiden (Illumination Gaming) featured some of my boosted stories.

What are the success factors for you as a writer on Medium?

If people gain something from your work, I feel like you’ve done your job. I don’t have specific numbers in mind or anything like that. I’m just focused on trying to write interesting and helpful content, and the rest will take care of itself. It’s always best to focus more on the process than the outcome — treating success less as a noun and more as a verb.

What do you recommend to the new writers?

As long as you’re constantly trying to get better, you’ll get there in the end.

Write as much as you can, learn from your audience and other writers, and try to keep an open mind.

Writing can be really hard, but if you’re struggling for inspiration or clarity, you’ll probably benefit from trying to write down your thoughts. If that doesn’t help, you may need to do more reading.

Thank you for introducing yourself so eloquently, Mat.

Thank you for reading this interview script. I hope you explore the profile of Matt Williams-Spooner, Ph.D., and enjoy his stories as much as I do. You may contact Matt on ILLUMINATION’s Slack workspace for collaboration.

I also introduced another neuroscientist recently. You may enjoy this introduction to Pernoste & Dahl.

You can find more interviews from my collection.

If you are an aspiring leader, I conducted research on leadership over the last four decades and summarized my findings in three articles that you may find helpful.

You may learn about my technology leadership curation plans for my publication, Technology Hits, on Medium.

To inform my new readers, I wrote numerous articles that might inform and inspire you. My topics include brain and cognitive function, significant health conditions, longevity, nutrition/food, valuable nutrients, ketogenic lifestyle, self-healing, weight management, writing/reading, and humor.

100+ Insightful Life Lessons from My Circles for the Last 50+ Years

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