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Bryan Lynn sitting outside

Creativity, research and activism intersect for Martin-O’Neill fellow

By Grace Peterman
Bryan K. Lynn, Integrative Biology Ph.D. candidate and 2020-21 Martin-O’Neill fellow

Do individual bacteria “get along”? Can their relationships teach us anything about ourselves, as humans? Bryan K. Lynn is determined to find out. The Integrative Biology Ph.D. candidate won the 2020-21 Larry W. Martin & Joyce B. O’Neill Endowed Fellowship for his work using mathematical modeling to investigate the evolution of cooperation, using bacteria as his subjects.

Lynn’s path to this research topic was anything but conventional. He felt indifferent to education early on and decided to study pastry-making more or less for the fun of it: “If I have to go to college, I’ll go to college to make cookies,” he jokes of his thought process. And he excelled at that, training at Le Cordon Bleu, honing his ability to decorate cakes in mere minutes, enjoying the precision of the process (and its sweet products). But in time he wanted a fresh challenge, something that allowed him to follow his own recipe.   

Always naturally gifted at mathematics, Lynn decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. There he happened into a game theory class – “I just took it because I liked the professor,” he admits – that changed the course of his career. Something about the idea that viruses and bacteria operated by a strategic, mathematical system that could be modeled hooked his curiosity and brought him to Oregon State in 2018.

Bryan Lynn holding a donut
Bryan Lynn was a pastry chef before getting interested in evolutionary game theory

Do bacteria all get along?

Lynn’s advisors, mathematics and integrative biology professor Patrick De Leenheer and Martin Schuster, professor of microbiology, helped him apply his interest in game theory to practical research questions. Using a chemostat, a type of reactor that replicates the balance of a natural ecosystem, Lynn observes hundreds of generations of bacteria to develop mathematical models that define and predict their community dynamics. Some individual bacteria produce a digestive enzyme that benefits the whole group; some don’t, yet still reap the benefits of living in a group with those that do. If enough bacteria cease to produce the enzyme, the whole community collapses. Thus, a group of bacteria with more uncooperative members is less virulent. This finding could be crucial in the fight against highly antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Lynn’s work with the chemostat also applies to models of sustainable development. When too many individuals (be they bacteria or human) only look out for their own interests and use communal resources indiscriminately, those resources dry up, and everyone is worse off. We see this effect, known as the Tragedy of the Commons, in use of global natural resources like clean air, fresh water, and forests. Developing stronger computational models to define when cooperation happens, and how much of it we need to keep our systems functioning, can help us build a healthier planet and a more balanced global society.

An inclusive take on science

Outside of the lab, Lynn is committed to outreach and activism. Lynn is transgender, and when he came to Corvallis back in 2018, he was surprised by the city’s lack of queer spaces. He set about changing that, co-founding Oregon State’s first Out in STEM chapter, which grew to over 100 members in its first year. The club’s mission of visibility, empathy, and opportunity so resonated with students that even those from other disciplines were eager to join: “We’d get emails like, ‘I’m in economics. Can that count as STEM?’” he fondly recalls.

Out in STEM provides a space for LGBTQ+ students and faculty to network and hosts talks on topics that intersect STEM and LGBTQ+ identities (a platform cheekily called “inQUEERy”), which provides a chance for people in the Oregon State community to expand the way they look at science.

When it comes to an inclusive approach to biology, we still have a lot of work to do, says Lynn. Introductory classes typically emphasize the dominant human genotypes, depicting a clear dichotomy: XX (female) or XY (male). But other species show a wealth of diversity in what biological sex means. “The platypus has 10 sex chromosomes, and a parrot fish may change sex a few times over the course of its life,” he points out.

Furthermore, anatomical diagrams in textbooks are usually based on white, cis-gendered bodies. Collaborating with Senior Instructor Lori Kayes and others in the Department of Integrative Biology, Lynn advocates for inclusivity across these curricula.

A cake decorated to look like a chemostat
Lynn's winning entry in the 2021 Graduate Students’ Visualize Your Bibliography Competition 

Even with everything he has on his plate, Lynn still makes time to flex his pastry skills now and then. For the 2021 Graduate Students’ Visualize Your Bibliography Competition, he decorated a cake depicting his lab work: chemostat on one side, shelf of scientific sources on the other.

“When the bacterial population consists of only cooperating bacteria, the media will turn a bright blue color,” he explains. The cake itself is a reminder that cooperation is key to success, whether in creativity, research or activism. Bryan K. Lynn is gifted in all three, and we can’t wait to see what he bakes up next.