Alumni Shout Out: Dr. David Chiasson

This interview, conducted by Russell Wyeth, originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of The Beacon.

The Beacon regularly features interviews with StFX University Alumni on the topic of their relationships with StFXAUT members who challenged, inspired, or helped in some way. This issue’s interview is with Dr. David Chiasson (BSc ‘01):

Dr. David Chiasson; photo courtesy of University of Munich (LMU) website

The Beacon: You recently visited Antigonish during Homecoming 2016. How often have you been back since you graduated?

David Chiasson: I grew up in Antigonish County, so I’ve visited Antigonish at least once every two years since graduation in 2001. Now that we have two children, we are trying to get back as often as we can.

The Beacon: What’s something that has strikingly changed since your time here?

David Chiasson: The Campus! The transformation of the infrastructure is overwhelming. There are so many beautiful buildings it’s difficult to point to one. On my latest visit I was impressed with the new School of Nursing facilities in the renovated Mount Saint Bernard residence.

The Beacon: Anything that seems to have hardly changed at all?

David Chiasson: The people. It is a pleasure to come back to campus and meet up with former professors and colleagues as if I just left (even though it has been 15 years!).

The Beacon: Why did you choose StFX for your undergraduate degree?

David Chiasson: I chose StFX based upon its reputation and location. Having grown up in Antigonish, it was an easy decision to choose the top undergraduate university in Canada.

The Beacon: At that time, what did you imagine you might do after you graduated?

David Chiasson: After getting a taste for research in the Department of Biology, becoming a professor was my new career.

The Beacon: You’re now living and working in Germany – can you lead us along the path from Antigonish to Munich?

David Chiasson: Following graduation from StFX in 2001, I did an MSc at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON working on plant-pathogen interactions. After taking a few years off to pursue an alternative career building Timber Frame houses, I completed a PhD at the University of Adelaide in Australia working on the legume-rhizobia nitrogen fixation symbiosis. I then moved to Munich, Germany to continue with postdoctoral research. I am now serving as an interim professor at LMU in Munich, and I am hoping to return to Canada in the near future.

The Beacon: During your time at X was there any particular person (or people) who was (were) particularly inspiring or helpful? Someone that influenced your career path?

David Chiasson: I worked with David Garbary, Tony Miller, Moira Galway, and Randy Lauff, who were instrumental in whetting my appetite for experimental research. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a summer in South Korea during my honours degree with Dr. Garbary.

The Beacon: What were the research projects that you worked on at StFX? [audience is broad – not necessarily scientists]

David Chiasson: I worked on a project that focused on a symbiosis between brown algae (kelp) and small filamentous red algae. We found that the kelp exuded tannic compounds into the ocean which protected the red alga from harmful UV radiation in shallow waters. In return, the red alga served as a host for germinating kelp spores. Having the work published in an international journal was instrumental in securing subsequent funding for my doctorate degree.

The Beacon: What about now, in Germany?

David Chiasson: My research now focuses on the symbiotic relationship between legume plant roots and nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria (rhizobia). Legumes thrive in the absence of nitrogen fertilizer due to their ability to associate with rhizobia. Since nitrogen fertilizer production consumes a large amount of fossil fuels and pollutes the environment, legumes are an essential component of sustainable agriculture.

The Beacon: Having been around the world now with research, are there any key skills or ways of thinking about or doing science that you learned in the Biology Department that you still make use of today?

David Chiasson: My time in the Biology Department instilled a curiosity about nature, especially plants and their interaction with the environment. The diversity of courses offered enabled us to observe organisms in their natural setting as well in a controlled laboratory atmosphere. Most of all it was the infectious enthusiasm of the professors and instructors that propelled me into academia.