My Top Ten Scientists
Julie E. Czerneda

SF author and biologist Julie E. Czerneda cites
ten living scientists who matter to her

 

 

I emphasize the “living” qualification for the obvious reason. The scientists I’ll introduce to you would join me in saying how we research, the questions we ask, above all the immense interwoven framework of information to which we try to add bits, arise from what’s been done by those not-living now. (Plus I’ve had a crush on Charles Darwin since forever and now I’ve an excuse to say so.)

To make my choice—only ten?!—I’ve elected to be very personal. The following, first group of scientists are part of my life.  Some are dear friends. Family.  (These I interviewed and I give you their responses.) Others have no idea who I am, but they have influenced my work as an author, even as a student. I’m delighted to acknowledge them here.

All give me hope for the future. Yup, science is personal.

My guiding questions to this first batch of scientists were:
                    What about your current work has you most excited…?
                    How might what you do could improve this planet…?
                    Anything more…?

Tuan Bui—(I can’t wait to see his fish tanks.)
“Serious spinal cord injuries in humans often leads to permanent loss of the use of many body parts. This is not the case for most vertebrate species where the spinal cord can simply heal and regenerate after the injury as is the case for fish and amphibians, or there the spinal cord below the site of injury can reconfigure itself so that the animal can still walk with the help of some sensory stimulation of the skin or the limbs. We’ve identified a group of spinal neurons that is critical for the recovery of walking in mice following spinal cord injury. Without these neurons, mice are unable to recover walking abilities following spinal cord injury, just as is the case for humans.
          “This group of neurons, which are named dI3 interneurons, are not exclusive to mice. They are found across vertebrates, including humans. Clearly, they are not being recruited in humans after spinal cord injury since recovery of walking function is so poor. So we hope that by understanding how dI3 interneurons drive changes in the spinal cord after a serious injury to allow mice to walk again, we can help discover drugs or improve current rehabilitation strategies to improve the recovery of walking in spinal cord injury patients.
          “The gap between basic science findings and translations to human health may seem daunting. But this is mainly because we can’t imagine what progresses will be in the future to enable basic science findings to be applied to improve the human condition. My favourite example is the protein green fluorescent protein (GFP) that was discovered by Osamu Shimomura in jellyfish. GFP and related fluorescent proteins found in nature have now become an integral part of biomedical research by permitting the easy visualisation of everything from single proteins to organelles, cellular sub-compartments, single cells and even organs. So many labs in the world rely on these fluorescent proteins found in “primitive” organisms for their research programs.”

Susan Lehman—(Introduced me to biofilm. We share Trek and mushrooms. Besties.)
“I work on turning bacteriophages (“phages” [Editor's note: viruses that infect bacteria]) into drugs that can be used to treat human infections.  This idea is nearly as old as the discovery of phages themselves (about 100 years) but antibiotics sort of took over in most parts of the world. As antibiotic resistance becomes a bigger problem, interest in phages has become strong enough and persistent enough to support the difficult, long-term work that's needed to bring a really different type of technology into widespread medical use. I am most excited about the clinical trials that we are planning because good clinical trials are the ultimate test of whether these things we've spent years working on are truly effective and can be safely made available to large populations. We have been able to help a few individual patients already, but the goal is to help a lot more.
         “Phages make particularly cool drugs because they are self-replicating - they make dozens or hundred of copies of themselves when they kill a sensitive bacterial cell. This is completely different from the kinds of drugs we’re used to and it turns a lot of the traditional principles of drug development on their ear. Turning theory and basic science into practical applications always turns up unexpected surprises and this is no different. There is so much to learn!
          “Brewing beer and making bread are fabulous hobbies for a microbiologist because as long as you keep everything clean (which a lab scientist is usually really good at), then they’re the microbiology experiment that always works. When I'm dealing with a particular challenging problem at work, this is can be very comforting!”

Jeff Smith—(The heart of science is people. Also, I need to introduce him to Susan.)
          “One of the challenges that my lab is addressing is to tune the amount of viral growth using small molecule drugs - for example see here.  Our hope is that viruses can be controlled to the point that they are no longer a threat to host survival but a useful tool to promote health and wellness.
          “The tool of choice in my lab is the mass spectrometer. This instrument is able to identify individual types of molecules in complex solutions by separating them according to their mass to charge ratio and, if needed, fragment each molecule independent of the rest in the sample to provide unambiguous identification.  The instruments keep on getting faster and faster and more and more sensitive; femtomole quantities of analyte can be analyzed in a matter of microseconds.  The instruments also keep getting smaller and cheaper.  Prices have dropped an order of magnitude and what used to be the size of a small Fiat now fits in a briefcase and weighs as much as a case of beer. What excites me about these changes is that the technology is becoming increasingly accessible. What used to be done by few in several labs may one day be done by many in every day life situations.  Biomarkers in saliva may be tested beside every hospital bed, emissions from tailpipes may be monitored in real time, authorities may test for illicit substances on site.  The possibilities are endless.  One of the areas that I'm currently working on is in looking at opioid contamination of street drugs at safe injection sites.
          “My hope is that developments in mass spectrometry-based analysis will lead to breakthroughs in healthcare and in the quality of life that we experience day to day. Creating viruses that create anti-cancer drugs directly within cancer cells will save lives. Giving drug users the knowledge of what is in their drug before they take it might help people turn their lives around. The bottom line is if the research is going to have a positive impact on people's lives, then count me in on helping out with it!” See also science.carleton.ca/node/357

David DeGraff—(Hurray! An astronomer who writes SF and uses it in his classes!)
“I have two current projects. I watch asteroids spinning to get a hint about their internal structure. If it’s rubble held together by gravity, it will spin slowly. If it’s solid rock with some kind of structural integrity, it can spin faster. Knowing the internal structure will make a difference if we want to try to change the asteroid’s orbit—make it miss the Earth, or bring it to a more useful orbit for a mining operation. Benefit to humanity? Stop death from raining down from the sky. Or get the foundation going for a space-faring civilization. Mainly I do it because it’s a great introduction to astronomical research for undergrads. My other main project is a science fiction novel, based on one of my short stories.
          “We don't know what 95% of the universe is made of. We used to be able to say everything in the universe was made of atoms, but only 5% is atoms. 24% is Dark Matter. We can map the Dark Matter, find where it's located, but we don't know what it is--only that it is not made of electrically charged particles like electrons and quarks. The other 71%? Dark Energy. We know even less about that.
          “When we look at the whole universe as an object, the Earth is minuscule, The Solar System is tiny, and the Milky Way galaxy is a speck in the Cosmos. Understanding the Universe is a formidable challenge. But we can solve it. That gives me hope.” See also @DeGraffDavid on Twitter.

Layne O—(Who has the coolest job for a biologist!)
“My work consists chiefly of observing/identifying and reporting on number-counts and behaviour of various protected species of marine megafauna (and sometimes marine turtles and/or sea birds) during engineering or exploration endeavours in potentially sensitive areas or critical habitat.  Much of my recent work has brought me to the arctic and subarctic, and I expect to return to those areas in the coming years, which always brings new species (to me), experiences, and data.
          “Well, pertaining to observations in the arctic, any change in megafauna species movements/migration could potentially be seen as cues or markers in the food chain, which can in turn be explored, down the line of dominoes. My small contribution is the raw data, which can hopefully be utilized to further the human understanding of the natural world.”

Sam Wiber—(Someone I can’t wait to visit at work!)
“I could write hundreds of pages answering this question, but I'll try to condense it: Zoos serve multiple immensely important functions.  First, as a keeper, I work hard to ensure the best possible welfare for wild animals that serve as ambassadors for their species. Research has shown that zoos ignite and strengthen awareness, empathy, and a sense of connection between humans and wildlife. Second, zookeepers are often scientists that conduct research with the animals in our care. A wild tamandua (anteater) certainly wouldn't let me take weekly ultrasounds of her pregnant belly to better understand an under-studied species' reproductive processes; but a tamandua that I work with daily would (so long as I have plenty of waxworms for treats)! Third, zoos serve as a genetic reservoir for endangered species. Through the Species Survival Plan zoos diligently maintain genetic diversity for species at risk of extinction in the wild, so that the opportunity exists to reintroduce zoo-born animals back into the wild (as has been seen with the California condor, black-footed ferret, and many other species).
          “There are many misconceptions about zookeepers. Many people think we are uneducated, think that our job is just a stepping-stone to some other mythical "real" job, and that we spend our entire days playing with animals. The truth is that we are all highly educated, with many of us (myself included) having advanced degrees. We are all incredibly passionate about our career, which is absolutely a way of life, and never just a "job". And we are all true scientists, conservationists, educators, and caretakers who work tirelessly for a greater good (though we do sometimes get to just play with cute animals).
          Link to my current facility: ReidParkZoo.org/.
          Links to a current zoo project that has me excited: cbsnews.com/news/northern-white-rhino-san-diego-zoo-artificial-insemination/ and institute.sandiegozoo.org/resources/frozen-zoo%C2%AE
          “This describes the Frozen Zoo project led by San Diego Zoo that is using northern white rhino genetic material to revive the almost-extinct species through artificial insemination in closely related southern white rhinos.”

Carl Zimmer—(Provider of Clarity)
From print to his social media presence, if I see Carl’s name as author, I’m in.  He has serious talent, able to deliver important, accurate scientific information to an audience of, well, everyone. You can feel the love of the science and scientists—and of us all.

Sir David Attenborough OM CBE FRS FLS CBiol FIBiol—(I may have a crush on him too.)
By bringing the natural world to us through his broadcasts, unvarnished, unsentimentalised, in its purest possible form, David has done more to include us in it than any other. Also, I owe him big time for helping me create my aliens and environments, because the weirdest biology? Is real.

E. O. Wilson—(From the beginning.)
I’ve research papers, a well-worn copy of his book, Sociobiology (1975), and more from my student days, when his ideas were the rebellious new thing and we baby biologists couldn’t get enough.  He continues to publish and teach us the importance of biodiversity on this planet, and of our place among its life. (I’ve an autographed copy of his latest book, thanks to Susan Lehman. What are friends for?)

That was nine.  My tenth scientist?  Donna Strickland, who is associate professor at Ontario's University of Waterloo, and who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018 as I worked on this. I attended and taught at UW and couldn’t be more proud.

But Donna made my list by saying this, as quoted by CBC News:
          “…We are always marching forward.”

Yes, we are. One far, future day, I imagine another article series like this, recognising the work of scientists and creative folk. The writers will have trouble choosing just ten.

And someone will have a crush on Charles Darwin.

 

 

Julie E. Czerneda has for over twenty years been a Canadian author/ former biologist.  She has shared her curiosity about living things through her science fiction, published by DAW Books.  Julie writes fantasy too, her Night’s Edge novels (DAW) A Turn of Light and A Play of Shadow, winning consecutive Aurora Awards (Canada’s Hugo).  Her Clan Chronicles series concluded in To Guard Against the Dark, Julie’s latest SF, at the time of posting this article, is Search Image, #1 of The Web Shifter’s Library.  Next out is Clan Chronicles: Tales from Plexis. This winter she’ll be busy with her new fantasy standalone, The Gossamer Mage, out August 2019.  She can be found at www.czerneda.com.

 


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