Archive for Featured Scientists

Solving the Two-Body Problem

Married couples pursuing two careers face many obstacles.  When both partners work in academia, the situation can look downright bleak.  Due to their limited geographical mobility, some academic couples endure “commuter marriages,” living apart for years in different cities.  Results are varied: some have a stroke of luck and land appointments near each other, sometimes even in the same department.  For other couples, one person leaves academia to take a more flexible job and live with their spouse.  In some cases, the couple eventually breaks up under the strain of work and isolation.

Academics are extremely bright people and highly skilled at solving problems.  So why is the “two-body problem” so frequent and so intractable?  Since Ph.D. programs typically absorb most of people’s twenties or early thirties, many meet their future spouses while they are students.  From a purely logical standpoint, one could simplify the two-body problem by marrying outside of academia.  But that’s easier said than done.  Students spend most of their time with other students.  They have common values and common goals.  They have similar intellects and thirst for knowledge.  They simply make a good match.  Unfortunately, given the dearth of job openings in academia, they face a daunting challenge.

Fortunately, they don’t have to do it alone.  The American Scientific Affiliation has dozens of members with spouses in academia. Together, we can share our experiences, exchange advice, and laugh about our shared frustrations.  In the rest of this article, we will explore the experiences of one couple– ASA member Kristen Tolson and her husband Joel.  If you are interested in sharing your dual academic career story, please write in our comment box below.  We can be a great resource for each other!

credit: Macmillan Publishers Ltd, Nature Medicine 2006

First, let’s introduce Kristen.  She is currently a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR and works with Dr. Patrick Chappell in the department of biomedical sciences.  Her research investigates the human body’s regulation of sex hormones that cause ovulation in women, sperm production in men, and development during puberty.  The hormone that controls these activities, called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), is released in a rhythmic, episodic pattern from the brain, but it is not yet clear what controls the timing of this activity.  Proper functioning of this hormone is critical since it impacts human growth and fertility, and a breakdown in hormone regulation may also lead to diseases such prostate and breast cancer.  Kristen is part of an exciting research field, and the discoveries from the Chappell lab may contribute to improvements in an essential aspect of human health.

In June of 2004, when Kristen attended her friend’s graduation ceremony at California State University-Chico, she met Joel, and they felt a connection immediately.  However, Kristen already had plans to move to Dallas to start her Ph.D. program at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.  Was it worth dating for only two months before she left? Joel insisted that it was, and after that short period, they began their long-distance relationship. Joel stayed behind in Chico and began working towards a master’s degree in History.  After the first year of his program, they got engaged.  One year later, in June 2006, just after Joel received his master’s degree in Chico, they got married. Joel moved to Dallas, and for the first time since they started dating, they were living in the same city.

Kristen and Joel

Since Kristen had several more years of graduate school remaining, Joel worked in administration in the Clinical Sciences department at her school and studied Latin in preparation for doctoral studies in his field.  In spring 2010, just as Kristen was wrapping up, Joel was fielding offers from graduate schools.  Kristen was committed to moving wherever Joel would be, so she waited to apply for postdoc positions until it was clear what Ph.D. program he would enter.  It took until April for the University of Oregon to offer him a suitable fellowship, so Kristen had little time to line up a postdoc near Eugene, OR.  Fortunately, she landed a research position at Oregon State University, in Corvallis.

Though they are grateful to be living together, their situation is still far from ideal.  In addition to two hours of driving each day between Eugene and Corvallis, Kristen teaches online courses in the evenings to supplement their meager graduate student and postdoc salaries.  Although they live in the same house, their time together is brief.  Further complicating the matter is that Kristen’s research position is funded by federal stimulus money and guaranteed for only one year.

How will Kristen manage her work-life balance?  She maintains, “I love science, but not more than my marriage.”  If funding does not come through for her current position, she is open to other possibilities.  She could continue working in a laboratory, but she can also imagine working full-time at an online university.  The latter option is especially appealing as she and Joel think about having kids, since at an online program, her commute time to work would be zero.  Confident that their marriage is their top priority, Kristen and Joel have been flexible with their career development, thus easing the tension that would arise if each of them were to pursue only their “best” job options.  In doing so, the two-body problem continues to challenge but not consume them.

Think It’s Cold Outside? How Do Insects Survive the Winter?

Julie's research subjects, southern ground crickets (Allonemobius socius)

For most of her life, Julie Reynolds has been fascinated by insects, and when she went off to college, she thought they would make a great subject of study.  Julie majored in biological sciences at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and focused on ecology.  Her undergraduate research examined the effects of microgravity stressors on crustaceans, and through these studies she became fascinated with the ability of animals to adapt to extreme environments.

Excited by these studies, Julie entered a master’s program in entomology at Penn State University.  However, this department was not a good fit.  Most of her colleagues conducted applied research, which basically amounts to pest control.  Though Julie wanted to better understand the lives of insects, her department largely focused on how to kill them!

After completing her master’s degree, Julie searched for a Ph.D. program that emphasized basic research and interdisciplinary studies.  She found her niche in the biological sciences department at Louisiana State University.   Her doctoral research investigated diapause, a form of dormancy that helps insects and other animals “escape” harsh winter temperatures or periods of drought.  Similar in some ways to hibernation patterns in mammals, insect diapause also displays unique characteristics: in particular, it can occur long before insects reach full maturity, even within embryos.

Insects struggle to survive the winter, even in the southern United States

One of Julie’s recent study subjects was Allonemobius socius, better known as the southern ground cricket.  Since these crickets have a short lifespan and only produce one or two generations per year, surviving the winter is a serious obstacle.   The species A. socius has solved this problem by laying a certain percentage of eggs that enter diapause, halting their development until environmental conditions are conducive to survival.  In certain populations, if a female matures during periods of long daylight (late spring and summer), it will primarily lay eggs that develop immediately.  Females reproducing in shorter daylight conditions of autumn will produce more embryos bound for diapause.  Only when days become longer again, when survival conditions improve, will these embryos complete their development.

 

In the past fifteen years, many studies have assessed the environmental triggers and physiological effects of insect dormancy, but Julie’s research is noteworthy in that it analyzes diapause on a molecular level, measuring changes in specific mRNAs and proteins.  Also, studying diapause in embryos (instead of larvae, pupae, or adults) is rare given the difficulty of extracting RNA when so little tissue is present.

A. socius embroys

What did Julie discover through her innovative research?  As is often the case, not what she expected!  Approximately 4-5 days after the eggs are laid, the embryos entering diapause cease their development.  In many vertebrate and invertebrate species, this stage is marked by a dramatic drop in metabolic activities, which conserves resources while the embryo is dormant.  But in the case of A. socius, the metabolic rate remains constant, quite to the surprise of the investigators.  Subsequent investigation revealed that the energy savings actually occur later than expected.  In non-diapause embryos, the metabolic rate increases after the first 5 days, whereas in diapause embryos, it remains the same.  Only over the course of a full 15 days of normal embryonic development do the dormant embryos display a comparatively lower metabolic rate.

Julie has found that insects serve as excellent models for studying biochemical pathways.  One reason, as she pointed out, is that “no one gets upset when my crickets die!”  But her research has also shown that the details of molecular activities are highly species-specific, and that one must be careful not to over-generalize when comparing the biochemistry between species.

Julie Reynolds with her family

Julie joined the American Scientific Affiliation in 2010 after she heard that her friend Steve Hall was elected as an ASA fellow.  She was already a member of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network and was looking for opportunities to connect with other Christians in her field.  After encountering so few believers in her undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs, she was delighted to find several practicing Christians in her department at Ohio State University, where she is completing her post-doc.

If you can identify with Julie’s story, and you are a Christian graduate student or post-doc, the ASA would love to hear from you!   We are a community of those who love God and practice science with integrity.  Fostering these relationships is vital to developing an integrated sense of our personal and professional identities.  Our membership is extensive, so through involvement in the ASA, there is a good chance that you’ll meet others at your university, perhaps even in your own department!

What Do We Know About the Origin of Life?

photo credit: NASA / Jenny Mottar

Famous scientists love to speculate about the ultimate questions of life in our universe.  According to quantum physicist Steven Weinberg, “The final laws of nature, the book of rules that govern all natural phenomena are utterly impersonal and quite without any special role for life.”  The renowned paleontologist Steven Jay Gould claimed that “any replay would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken.”  Other scientists though, noting the remarkable fine-tuning of our universe, have come to different conclusions: “Far from its myriad of products being fortuitous and accidental, evolution is remarkably predictable” (Conway Morris, 2010).  What are we to make of these statements?  For such big questions, must we be content with the opinions of scientists who make reasoned arguments that extend far beyond their main fields of research?

 

Fortunately, the field of astrobiology has developed methodical and quantitative approaches to these questions.  This discipline formulates testable hypotheses relating to the origins of life, how it has evolved from its earliest stages, and the relative contributions of chance versus necessity in shaping its fundamental properties.  Explaining the nature of the cosmos is not just a task for physicists—since life has been present for almost one-third of the existence of the universe, biology is not a minor detail.  Moreover, life has a dramatic impact on the physical world, radically changing both our atmosphere and the geology of our planet.  Astrobiologists aim to situate physics, chemistry, and biology in a larger context that enables us to better understand how life emerged on this planet and how it might look elsewhere in our vast universe.

Steve and his wife Claudia, enjoying life together in Hawaii

One of these scientists is ASA member Stephen Freeland, currently managing a research team at the University of Hawaii NASA Astrobiology Institute under the leadership of Dr. Karen Meech.  Since astrobiology is highly interdisciplinary, Steve’s broad academic background is well-suited for this field: a bachelor’s degree in zoology from Oxford, a master’s in biological computation from York University, and a doctorate in genetics from Cambridge.   Research questions, not academic disciplines, have driven Steve’s studies, and he has found astrobiology conducive to his primary interests: “To what degree is life on Earth a result of chance?  Also, could the development of life be a repeatable process that takes place elsewhere in the universe?”

 

Steve’s current research explores the evolution of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—that are essential to life on our planet.  Almost universally, regardless of which species one investigates, an organism’s genes code for precisely 20 different amino acids.  These same 20 are assembled into countless different proteins that enable various life-forms to grow and thrive, whether in a boiling pool of acid or a frozen arctic wasteland. Given the remarkable diversity of life that exists, this fundamental uniformity is a remarkable fact and compelling evidence for a shared historical lineage. But astrobiologists are also eager to understand why genetic material codes for a precise set of 20 amino acids, not fewer or more (aside from a few unusual species that have evolved more recently to code for 22). For example, from simulations of a pre-biological world and careful analyses of meteorites, current evidence suggests that many other amino acids were available to the origin of life on Earth, and indeed throughout the galaxy.  Apparently the earliest life forms coded for only half of the current “alphabet” of 20 amino acids, a small sub-set of what was available.  Biological evolution then created the rest of its own alphabet, ignoring many of the amino acids already produced by the non-living universe.

 

Is the resulting set of 20 largely the result of chance (as Stephen Jay Gould’s argument implied), or is it an optimal set of building blocks for carbon-based life forms?   If life has arisen elsewhere, would it employ different amino acids from the ones we observe here?   To what extent do the laws of physics and chemistry restrict alternatives, pointing life in a particular direction?  Knowing answers to such questions is important for astrobiologists as they search for evidence of life outside our planet.  This knowledge would also be of immense value to synthetic biologists as they create genes coding for new proteins never observed in nature.

Beyond Steve’s exciting research field, his personal background is also noteworthy.  As someone who explores the origin of life, he is very attentive to the question of God.  His father was a Methodist minister, and as Steve grew, his curiosity propelled him to examine other faith traditions.  In his teenage years, he was briefly involved with a fundamentalist Protestant community, and as an adult, he is now a practicing Anglican.  Though public perception suggests that science and Christianity are incompatible, Steve’s actual experience has been different: in his research, he has encountered a fair number of other believers, often by bumping into them at church!

In academia, like most other career fields, the vast majority of conversations between scientists are strictly professional.  But in getting to know some of his colleagues more personally, Steve estimates that about three-quarters of them have some interest in spiritual issues, and they are aware of his convictions.  On the other hand, Steve’s undergrads perceived him quite differently.  Because he has primarily taught courses in ecology, evolution, and genetics, many students simply assumed that Steve could not possibly be a Christian.  Fortunately, while teaching at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), he was assigned a course entitled “Science versus religion: the battlefield of evolution.” From the start, he rejected the assumption that science and religion are inherently opposed.  As Steve taught from 2003 to 2009, he renamed the syllabus “Questions are the Answers” and reshaped its contents accordingly.   This change reflected his growing conviction that only by encouraging students to take an inquiry-based approach would they formulate the kind of questions that can enrich and shape their understanding both of God and nature.

When asked about the greatest objections to Christianity in a scientific world, Steve responded that it is not the question of life’s origins, but the problem of evil that is most challenging.  Accounting for moral and natural evil in our world has engaged Judeo-Christian scholars through history, not just since the advent of modern science.  As Steve strives for greater understanding in both his professional and personal journey, he is confident that continuing to ask questions is the key to unlocking life’s mysteries.

How Was Galileo Converted?

painting by Cristiano Banti (1857)

Do you believe that the sun is the center of our solar system?  Why?  Very few people have ever carried out the measurements necessary to determine that earth moves around the sun.  Most of us simply accept it by faith, backed by scientific authority.   But what would we believe if authorities told us that earth didn’t move?  That is the situation that Galileo found himself in 400 years ago.  Though Copernicus had already published his theory of a sun-centered universe, he only had some elegant mathematics but no physical laws to support him.  Few scholars took the heliocentric theory seriously.  What convinced Galileo?

Owen Gingerich in Yale's Beinecke Library, examining a first edition of Copernicus' De revolutionibus (1543)

Owen Gingerich, Professor emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, recently pinpointed the exact day and astronomical observation that transformed Galileo from a timid believer to a Copernican crusader.  The precision of this date is remarkable given that Galileo’s conversion happened 400 years ago at a turbulent time in European history, in which only fragmentary evidence remains.  Gingerich, in collaboration with Dutch colleague Albert van Helden, presented these findings at the Library of Congress during its celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger).

Galileo was not the first public champion of Copernicus.  In 1596, Johannes Kepler published The Sacred Mystery of the Cosmos, which explicitly argued for a sun-centered universe.  Galileo received two copies of the book and wrote a thank-you letter congratulating Kepler on his achievement.  Nevertheless, Galileo continued to teach geocentric theory to his students for the next 12 years.

Galileo's drawing of Earth's moon (source: National Library-- Florence, Italy)

But everything changed when Galileo started using the newly invented telescope in the fall of 1609.  By November he began producing images of the phases of the moon.  With the increased magnification of his instrument, he detected small patches of light beyond the dark edge of the moon.  Though scholars had long believed that the moon was perfectly spherical, Galileo concluded that the moon must have mountains.  Just like on Earth, the tops of mountains catch the first rays of sunlight each morning, briefly illuminating them while the rest of the landscape remains dark.  Through Galileo’s telescope, traditional theories about the heavens began to collapse.

Galileo's original notebook, depicting the relative positions of Jupiter's moons (National Library-- Florence)

But an even greater discovery awaited Galileo when he turned his attention to Jupiter.  With his telescope, he detected small stars next to Jupiter not visible to the naked eye.  But even more surprising, during subsequent nights, it appeared that they had moved!  Clearly these were not fixed stars like other heavenly bodies.  Also peculiar was that these stars remained in a nearly straight line, regardless of where they moved.  What could possibly produce this effect?

On the night of January 13, 1610, Galileo’s worldview changed forever. Using two different Galilean manuscripts from that night, Gingerich and Van Helden deduced that Galileo was at first puzzled, and then later realized that the little stars were actually in orbit around Jupiter.  That night, Galileo became an enthusiastic believer in the Copernican system, and he began aggressively promoting his views, even though it would put him at considerable personal risk.

Modern edition of Galileo's "Sidereus Nuncius" (University of Chicago Press)

Galileo knew that his discovery would become an international sensation, so two days later he started taking notes in Latin instead of Italian.  He quickly published Sidereus Nuncius, named Jupiter’s moons after his future patron Cosimo de Medici, and assured his place in the pantheon of scientific heroes.  Moreover, many historians have claimed that Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius was the first publication of truly modern scientific research, signaling a new era of human history.

That same year, Galileo marshaled additional evidence for a sun-centered universe.  With his telescope he observed that Venus went through phases much like our moon does.  That would only be possible if Venus orbited the sun, not the earth.  Nevertheless, Galileo’s convictions did not become mainstream until long after his death.  Since telescopes were rare and rudimentary in the early 17th century, critics questioned the quality and reliability of Galileo’s observations.  They also wondered, “If the earth is twirling around at high speed, why don’t people just fly off into space?”  Even now, if you were asked this question, would you be able to provide an adequate answer?

When examining such complicated events, we must recognize that scientific theories are rarely subject to indisputable proof.  Owen Gingerich, a highly accomplished astronomer himself, maintains that “scientific knowledge comes from building a coherent picture of complex phenomena.  In science, we don’t look for proofs; we rely on evidence and reason to create plausible explanations.”  If critics refuse to grant these well-reasoned arguments, there is no dissuading them.

Galileo’s conversion experience, bolstered by meticulous observations and clear logic, transformed our understanding of the cosmos.  He could not prove his findings to stubborn opponents, but he was vindicated 300 years later when astronomers with high-powered telescopes observed stellar parallax and confirmed the earth’s motion.  Those who lacked Galileo’s faith in the Copernican system, waiting for definitive proof, were left in the dustbin of history.

Modern images of Jupiter's moons, taken by NASA's satellite "Galileo"