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Privilege

At my 60th birthday party this summer, I made a few remarks about how fortunate I have been in my life:

Born to parents who nurtured me.

Born into a nation that values life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Born at a time and in a part of the world where science and public health greatly improved my chances of survival and good health. (Living to age 60 was once a rarity, and it still is in much of the world.)

Fortunate to have had a superb education, and to have met so many wonderful people along the way, including my wife.

Lucky to have three talented, interesting, and kind children, two loving and good sons-in-law, and now two healthy grandkids.

Fortunate to have a career where I get to study how the world works, and where I get to work with incredibly talented and motivated students and colleagues.

Today I was reminded of another aspect of privilege:

Privilege is getting to vote with no long lines and without intimidation. I was privileged today. I wish all Americans had that privilege.

It’s something we should all embrace.  Working to deny citizens their right to vote is wrong. It also threatens all of us today and future generations, and the freedoms and privileges that we sometimes take for granted.

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When We’re Sixty Four (Thousand)

From the E. coli in the LTEE to the People of the Lab

[To be sung along to this Beatles classic]

 

When we get older, losing our fimbriae,

Many years from now,

Will you still be sending us our thiamine,

Birthday greetings, Erlenmeyer wine?

If we were mutants, crazy and fit,

Would that make you snore?

Will you still feed us, will you still freeze us,

When we’re sixty-four?

 

You’ll be older too,

And if you say the word,

We’ll evolve with you.

 

We could be handy, helping your pubs,

When your grants are gone.

You can write a paper by the fireside,

Weekend days give no time to hide.

Colonies growing, dotting the plates,

Who could ask for more?

Will you still feed us, will you still freeze us,

When we’re sixty-four?

 

Every summer you can buy a freezer when the space gets tight,

If it’s not too dear.

Save our clonal mix,

Plus and minus progeny,

Ara One to Six.

 

Keeping the notebook, pipetting each drop,

Track trajectories.

Indicate precisely what you think will change.

Hypothesize, test, unlimited range.

Give us your data, sequence and store,

Evolving evermore.

Will you still feed us, will you still freeze us,

When we’re sixty-four?

 

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A Life Well Lived, Part II

This second tribute to my father was written by my son Daniel, who gave me permission to post it here.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

My dear Grandpa Gerry died yesterday at 91, at home near Seattle with Grandma Ann and three of my aunts by his side. He had a sharp and curious mind undimmed by age, and a kind and sympathetic ear despite his deafness. He enjoyed many years of good health, and I particularly remember his smile after he kept pace with my father during a long walk up a sand dune, in his late 70s.

Grandpa was born and raised in Washington, DC at a time when slabs of ice were delivered in horse-drawn carts, and kids could freely roam the White House grounds and all the embassies, sneak up into the Capitol dome, and surreptitiously feed bubblegum to monkeys through the bars at the National Zoo. I hope the statute of limitations on that particular incident has run out.

As a cryptographer in WW2, Grandpa encoded messages with geared machines weighing hundreds of pounds, surrounded by walls lined with dynamite, yet he also lived long enough to get the hang of touchscreens, to print out this XKCD cartoon and tape it to the side of his iMac, and most importantly to Skype with his great-grandchildren. He got a DNA profile done, and seemed kinda bummed to find out that he was probably not descended from Genghis Khan. In his career as a sociologist he studied religion and technology and critiqued totalitarian governments (topics as important as ever today), wrote several books, and figured out how to edit his own Wikipedia page. I remember more than once in recent years when I stayed up late talking about my life and work at Intel with Grandpa, only to find that he had woken up before me the next morning, brimming with new questions and ideas.

He was an old dog still learning new tricks. On October 30 we went to his favorite restaurant. I drove, but Grandpa pointed out all the shortcuts in the dark. When the waitress came by to take our drink orders, I expected he’d get his usual deer-in-the-headlights look and blurt out “Bud Light,” at which point I’d protest and order him something more interesting. But this time was different. Without missing a beat, Grandpa set down his menu, asked for a Mac and Jack Amber Ale, and turned to me silently with a twinkle in his eye.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

My son Daniel, me, and my father Gerry in 2012

My son Daniel, me, and my father Gerry in 2012

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A Life Well Lived

My father died peacefully at his home near Seattle this morning, before dawn, at 91 years of age. Gerhard Emmanuel Lenski, Jr. was born (1924) and raised in Washington, DC. His father went by Gerhard, and my father went by “Gerry” (pronounced like Gary) his whole life. My father did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Yale University, with his undergraduate years interrupted by three years of service with the US Army Air Forces during World War II, most of which was spent in England as a cryptographer at a joint USAAF-RAF airbase.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1950, my father joined the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, where he rose through the faculty ranks. In 1963, he moved to the University of North Carolina, where he was Alumni Distinguished Professor and served as department chair for several years. He retired in 1992. He wrote several important books including “The Religious Factor: A Sociological Study of Religion’s Impact on Politics, Economics, and Family Life” (1961), “Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification” (1966), “Ecological-Evolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications” (2005), and “Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology” (1970), now in its 12th edition (2014). He served as vice president of the American Sociological Association, and as president of the Southern Sociological Society. His honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association.

In 1948, my father married my mother, the former Jean Cappelmann, a poet, and they had 4 children. They were active together in working for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. They were married for 45 years before my mother passed away in 1994. In 1996, my father married the former Ann Blalock, who was a close family friend and whose late husband Hubert “Tad” Blalock, had been a colleague of my father’s at both the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina.

After moving to the Seattle area, my father enjoyed visiting northwest sites and cities including the Olympic National Park, Mount Baker, Portland (where my son lives), and Victoria; cheering on the Seahawks and Mariners; watching the ships on the Puget Sound; and talking with his children and grandchildren, always full of questions and ideas about technology and life.

My father was beloved by family and friends for his storytelling and humor – who can forget the story about the time he and a childhood friend gave their chewing gum to monkeys at the National Zoo? – as well as his deep knowledge of and appreciation for human history.

My father was fortunate to have lived a good and full life for 91 years, and I was very lucky to have him for almost six decades. I was also lucky to spend Thanksgiving with him, and we had the chance to share many stories that spanned his life—from baseball trivia to meeting his newest great-grandson in my father’s first-ever Skype.

Dad and Me on Dad's 90th

My father and me on his 90th birthday

ADDITION 1: Click here for a picture of my father from his days at UNC.

ADDITION 2: My son Daniel wrote a wonderful tribute to his Grandpa here.

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63,000 Strong

Ever wonder about those big numbers posted in a window in that tall building on the east side of Farm Lane, across from the entrance to the MSU Dairy Store?

Right now, the digits read 63000. That’s the number of generations in an experiment that’s been running in my lab for over a quarter century.

We call it the LTEE, which stands for the Long-Term Evolution Experiment. There are 12 populations of E. coli bacteria in the experiment, and they all started from the same strain.

Every day—weekends and holidays included—a member of my team takes 1% of the cells in each population and puts them in a flask with fresh food. Over the next 24 hours, the population grows 100-fold and then runs out of food. These dilutions and renewals go on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. I hope the experiment will continue long after I’m gone, so that someday someone can write “and century after century.”

Bacteria grow by binary fission: 1 cell makes 2 cells, 2 cells make 4, 4 make 8, etc. So the 100-fold growth in the fresh medium represents about 6.6 doublings, or generations, every day. (There’ve been some interruptions since the LTEE began in 1988, but not many.)

Now consider a bacterial cell that gets a mutation in its DNA that lets it acquire more food and grow a little faster. That cell will leave more descendants than its competitors—that’s adaptation by natural selection. Over time, the bacteria are becoming stronger and fitter in their flask-worlds.

By watching the 12 populations evolve, we can answer questions about the dynamics and repeatability of evolution in a group of organisms—bacteria—that are essential for life on Earth as well as important players in health and disease. We measure the growth rates of the bacteria, we sequence their DNA, and we see just how much evolution can achieve even in short order.

Oh, about the sign. Zachary Blount is a talented postdoc who works on this project, and he likes to have fun with science. He put up the window display which, if you look closely, has a picture of Charles Darwin on the left, “The E. coli Long-Term Evolution Experiment” over the number, and “Generations and Counting” to the right. Every 1,000 generations or so, Zack updates the sign.

63K window

[Photo credit: Zachary D. Blount]

Note:   This piece first appeared at eastlansing.org after an invitation from Alice Dreger to explain the numbers in the window to our community.

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A Wild Weekend

My wife Madeleine and I had a wild Memorial-day weekend.

Late Saturday afternoon, a dog found a baby squirrel, perhaps 5 or 6 weeks old, and chased it through our fence. The poor squirrel appeared to be in shock—its back was wet; it had probably been mouthed by the dog—but otherwise unharmed. We tried putting the baby squirrel on a protected tree branch in hopes that its mother would come and rescue it, but that did not happen and it did not budge … and nighttime was approaching.

So we brought the squirrel inside, and placed him in a secure container with rags to keep warm overnight. We hoped he would survive.

Indeed, the next morning, little “Nutcase” was dry and warm and, while still scared, on close inspection he seemed healthy and acting much stronger. You can see me holding him in the picture below.

On Sunday, we found a local wildlife rescue shelter that already had 20 other baby squirrels. There’s evidently been a bumper crop of the little fellas this year. Rearing them with others of their species, and with appropriate food and shelter, gives the foundlings a better chance of surviving when they are released back into the wild. Good luck, little Nutcase!

That wasn’t the end, though, of our wild weekend. On Monday, as Madeleine helped our daughter clean a garden shed, they disturbed a mother deer mouse living in a lawn-care bag with seven nursing pups.

The bag had been moved outside the shed before the mice were discovered. Mama mouse ran and, along with one of the pups, she hid right next to the bag inside a dense roll of wire fencing, the type used to protect young trees from browsing deer. But mama mouse did not abandon her pups!

We moved the other six pups and the nesting material into a more suitable container back inside the shed. We also carried the roll of wire fencing, along with mama mouse and that one pup, back into the shed. The next challenge—and it took us a couple of hours—was to coax mama mouse and that pup out of the fencing and into the container with the other six pups.

Success! Mama mouse was reunited with all her babies, and she promptly set out to nurse them. We gave her some bits of fruit and nuts, and a jar lid with water, to help her get over her stress and back to her work raising her family.

It’s amazing how invested one gets in helping wildlife survive, especially after meeting them “in person.”

REL and Nutcase, May 2015

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Valuing Nature

Carl Zimmer has written an excellent piece in the New York Times about a very important study by Robert Costanza et al. on “Changes in the global value of ecosystem services” – in other words, how to place economic value on some of the critical functions that nature provides us for free, and how to quantify the economic fallout when these functions are degraded.

Of course, it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the esthetic aspects of natural ecosystems. And many people see it is a moral imperative to preserve these natural systems for future generations, regardless of their monetary worth.

The Costanza study, though, is based on the fact that natural ecosystems provide us with economic benefits by performing important services that, when diminished, have very real monetary costs in terms of the resulting damages and replacing the services with human-engineered solutions. Alas, many of these ecosystems and services are being rapidly and severely degraded.

Here are three of the several conclusions from Costanza et al., which I’ve taken verbatim from the highlights at the beginning of their article:

  • “Global loss of ecosystem services due to land use change is $US 4.3–20.2 trillion/yr.”
  • “Ecoservices contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as global GDP.”
  • “Ecosystem services are best considered public goods requiring new institutions.”

That last conclusion reminds me of a similar point that was made by the theologian Philip Hefner in his book The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture and Religion.  Hefner says “… in the situation to which biocultural evolution has brought us … the life not only of the human species, but of the entire planetary ecosystem is made to depend on a great wager going well. This wager is that the cultural systems of information that the co-creator [REL: that’s us humans] fashions will interface with the natural systems and with the global human culture so as to promote survival and a wholesome future.”  Hefner then says “… the wager is not going well. The cultural systems of information are not meshing adequately enough with other systems, and calamity is the prospect.” To prevent calamity, Hefner says we need “… revitalization of our mythic and ritual systems [REL: that is, our religious institutions], in tandem with scientific understandings, so as to reorganize the necessary information. This may help us to put our world together …”

I previously posted that, as a scientist, I could not accept Dr. Hefner’s fusion of science and religion. However, I agree with both Dr. Costanza and Dr. Hefner that our political, cultural, and religious institutions must support the natural ecosystems that provide vital services and valuable public goods to ourselves and to future generations.

Link to Carl Zimmer’s article in the New York Times

Link to paper by Robert Costanza et al. in the journal Global Environmental Change

Link to my response to Philip Hefner’s Theological Theory of the Created Co-Creator

[The image below is a photomosaic produced by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.]

NASA image of Earth

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