Tag Archives: Janis Antonovics

A Leap of Faith, Part 1

I did my graduate work at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in what was then called the Department of Zoology. I had several important and formative experiences during those years: clear advice from my advisor, Nelson Hairston (1917-2008), about the value of well-designed experiments in ecology; an eye-opening course on the integration of ecological and evolutionary perspectives, taught by Janis Antonovics (then at Duke University, just a few miles from UNC); an abysmal failure in my own attempt at an experiment with praying mantises; an enlightening collaboration with a fellow grad student, Phil Service; and a dissertation project on the effects of forest clearcutting and competition on beetles in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina.

Although that dissertation project was reasonably successful, I realized it was not a good fit to my skills and interests. Many of my fellow students were excellent naturalists with a love for the organisms they studied. While I enjoy being outdoors, I’m not a naturalist. Instead, I’m intrigued by the conceptual questions that biologists ask about the living world. And as my graduate work moved forward, I realized that questions about evolution, including especially the mechanisms and dynamics of evolution, interested me most. However, the beetles I was studying were not well-suited to those questions. So how could I pursue my interests?

While we were finishing our doctoral projects, Phil and I spent a lot of time discussing potential systems for studying evolution. As he moved on in his career, Phil chose to study evolution using fruit flies, a long-standing model system for studying genetics. I recalled an undergrad course I had taken, where we learned about elegant experiments done with microbes, including one by Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück that showed mutations happen at random, not in response to selection.

Meanwhile, the graduate students and faculty at UNC had a seminar in which we discussed recent papers in the field of ecology. One week we read a terrific paper by Lin Chao, Bruce Levin, and Frank Stewart titled “A complex community in a simple habitat: an experimental study with bacteria and phage.” I forget who chose that paper for our seminar, but I owe that person a debt of gratitude. 

Phages are viruses that infect bacteria, and the paper provided an elegant demonstration of the interplay of ecological and evolutionary processes on a time scale of a few weeks. It documented the coevolution of E. coli and a virus, called T7, that can infect and kill the bacteria. The authors showed that the bacteria evolved resistance, then the virus evolved the ability to infect the resistant cells, and finally the bacteria evolved resistance to the viruses with the extended host range. Moreover, they showed that virus-sensitive and virus-resistant host genotypes coexisted because the sensitive types were better competitors for the limiting resources in the environment. That paper and others by Bruce Levin cemented my interest in using microbes to study evolution in action.

In March of 1981, about a year before I defended my dissertation, I wrote Bruce to ask if he would consider me for a postdoctoral position in his lab. I admitted I had no experience working with microbes, but I proposed an experiment. His team’s work showed that bacteria that evolved resistance to phage were outcompeted by their sensitive progenitors when those viruses were not present. I wondered whether the tradeoff was an unavoidable metabolic cost, or whether bacteria could evolve compensatory changes that reduced the cost of resistance. My proposed experiment suggested a way to look for such compensatory changes.

Bruce invited me to visit his lab and give a talk at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, that spring. I remember him greeting me when I got off a bus at the town square and being surprised by just how young he looked. Although he was 40 years old and a full professor, Bruce could easily have passed for an undergrad. More importantly, I recall our intense discussions over the next two days with Bruce at a chalkboard, writing equations that described the growth of various interacting microbes, and using terms that I barely understood.

Despite my limited experience and knowledge of microbiology, Bruce offered me a postdoctoral position in his lab. I was thrilled, but also worried about doing research in a new field where I lacked experience and knowledge. Nonetheless, I took that leap of faith. And I’m so glad I did.

[Nelson Hairston after his retirement from UNC (left) and Bruce Levin in the mid-1980s (right).]



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Lenski Interview with The Molecular Ecologist

John Stanton-Geddes asked me some great questions for a series on “People Behind the Science” at The Molecular Ecologist blog.  He gave me permission to repost the interview here.

1) Did you always think you’d become an evolutionary biologist?

No!  I always enjoyed being outdoors (sports and hiking), but I didn’t have any particular interest in biology.  However, my mother (who dropped out of college when she married, but then co-authored a sociology textbook with my father) was very interested in biology.  She would give me articles she had read and enjoyed from Natural History and elsewhere.

I went to Oberlin College, where I thought that I might major in government.  But I disliked my first government class.  I also took a team-taught biology class for non-majors.  All of the instructors spoke on topics about which they cared deeply, and I was hooked!  I took more biology courses, and I was especially drawn to ecology because there were so many ideas and questions.  At that time, I wrongly viewed evolutionary biology as a more descriptive, old-fashioned field with fewer questions that one might still address.  (By the way, several other evolutionary biologists were at Oberlin when I was there including Deborah Gordon, Joe Graves, Kurt Schwenk, and Ruth Shaw. Not bad for a small school!)

I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where Nelson Hairston, Sr., was my advisor.  Nelson was interested in the interface of ecology and evolution, and that opened my eyes.  I was also influenced by Janis Antonovics, then at Duke University.  I took his Ecological Genetics course, and he served on my committee.  Janis had written a paper in which he argued that “The distinction between ‘ecological time’ and ‘evolutionary time’ is artificial and misleading.”  That really got me thinking.  I tried to develop a couple of field-based projects that would address evolutionary questions, but I didn’t know what I was doing and they failed.  In the end, my dissertation project was pure ecology.

By then, though, I knew I wanted to pursue evolutionary biology.  While we were finishing our doctoral projects, a fellow grad student Phil Service and I spent a lot of time discussing model systems for studying evolution.  For his postdoc, Phil chose to work with Drosophila.  I recalled an undergrad course in which we read about elegant experiments with microbes that addressed fundamental questions, such as one by Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück showing that mutations happen at random and not in response to selection.  Meanwhile, in a graduate seminar, we read a paper by Lin Chao and Bruce Levin on the coevolution of bacteria and viruses.  I wrote Bruce to ask if he might have an opening for a postdoc.  Lucky for me, Bruce knew Nelson and invited me for a visit.

2) You’ve described the theme of your research as “the tension between chance and necessity”. Can you comment on how chance and necessity have shaped your career?

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.”  In my long-term evolution experiment with E. coli, we can explore the tension between chance and necessity because we have replicate populations started with the same ancestor and evolving under identical conditions, and because we can replay evolution from different points along the way.  But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart the roles of chance and necessity with a sample size of one, which is the life that each of us has experienced, and without the ability to replay our own lives.  (On that last point, let me recommend Replay, a science-fiction novel by Ken Grimwood.)

I would say, though, that most people who have had some success in their adult lives also started out very lucky.  We were fortunate to be born at times and in places where we had food, familial love, education, and opportunity.

3) Reading your blog it’s clear that you are a student of the philosophy and history of science. Do you think we should include more history and philosophy in scientific training? Any advice on something we should all go out and read?

I do think that the history and philosophy of science deserve more emphasis in science and education than they usually receive.  But I didn’t have any formal education in those areas.  Instead, I became interested in these issues through teachers, mentors, colleagues, and my own explorations.

For something to read in this area, I suggest Darwin’s Century by Loren Eiseley.  (Originally published in 1958, it was republished in 2009 by Barnes & Noble.)  The book discusses the fascinating history of evolutionary thought in the decades before and after the publication of The Origin of Species.  I first read Darwin’s Century in a course at Oberlin taught by James Stewart.

4) If you were starting your career today, what would you study? 

If I were starting today, and at my present age, I might choose to study the history of science, especially evolutionary biology and its antecedents.

But if I were starting out young, as one usually does, I’d like things to unfold as they did.  It might be tempting to skip the rough patches, but dissatisfaction with my early research led me to make the switch to microbial evolution.  Would I have enjoyed this lab-based work as much, if I hadn’t discovered that I was not nearly as good at fieldwork as many of my peers?

5) How close have you come to giving up as a researcher and doing something completely different?

The job market was tough when I was a postdoc, and I had a growing family to support.  So after a slew of applications and rejections, and a period of uncertain funding, I started to think about other possibilities.  Luckily for me, things turned around before I had to make a switch.  (You can read more about it in my blog post, The Good Old Days.)

6) What’s the meaning of life?

I think that some understanding of evolution—at a basic level accessible to anyone with an open mind and a decent education—gives perspective about our place, both as individuals and as a species, in the grand sweep of time and space.  Recognizing the transience of my personal existence fills me with awe and respect for the continuity of life and ideas.  And belonging to a species that is profoundly altering the world that enabled the continuity of life reminds me of our responsibility for ensuring its future.


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