The UCD Biological Society gives out the George Sigerson Award for Inspiring Aspiring Scientists approximately once a year to a scientist who has not only contributed greatly to the field of Biology but acts as a role model for the future generation of scientists who are just beginning their careers. In 2017 the Biological Society gave this award to Nobel prize winner Sir. Paul Nurse for his genetic research with the cdc2 gene, a gene that is responsible for encoding a kinase enzyme that “ensures the cell is ready to copy its DNA and divide”. This year the Biological Society gave this prestigious award to Dr. Beth Shapiro for her research into ancient DNA and for her commitment to supporting scientists in under-represented groups.
Sitting in a lecture hall at the University College Dublin campus a crowd of onlookers awaited the much anticipated talk by Dr. Beth Shapiro. Between the eager students and astute lecturers everyone could feel the buzzing energy in the room. Dr. Shapiro strolled in with grace and began to describe her past and current research projects.
Dr. Shapiro, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California Santa Cruz and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute runs the UCSC Paleogenomics lab. In this lab they are interested in using genetic material that can be recovered from things that used to be alive to learn about how species, populations and communities adapt to climate change.
In our interview with Dr. Shapiro, she describes her research as “using the past as if it were a completed natural experiment. [We] hope that we can learn from the past new things that we can apply while coming up with new ideas [or] new approaches to conserving and protecting species that are still alive”.
We are all taught to not judge a book by its cover and this is literally true in the case of Dr. Shapiro’s book titled: How to Clone A Mammoth where she explores the process of her work in depth. While the mammoth is not the main focus of her research, she explains that a mammoth “is a large exciting animal that we could use to engage people on the idea of using technologies [to analyse extinct populations]”. Citing that it is a bit silly to think that we can actually bring a mammoth back to life, Dr. Shapiro offers a different interpretation than is commonly believed. “It depends on what you are willing to accept as a Mammoth. Is it an Elephant that is slightly hairier? Well maybe that will happen in a couple decades…But their ecosystems are gone…The environment that one is surrounded in is just as important [as one’s DNA]”
Fascinated with the study of how populations change over time Dr. Shapiro has dedicated a substantial amount of energy trying to answer questions like: how big was the population, what impact did the first human contact have on the population, what do these creatures look like, how did they act, why did they change over time, what caused this change? Working in conjunction with a larger project called The Genome 10K project, Dr. Shapiro and other scientists are trying hard “to understand how complex animal life evolved through changes in DNA and use this knowledge to become better stewards of the planet”. Making the age-old adage “there is no better predictor of the future than the past” come to life Dr. Shapiro describes that by comparing populations that are extinct to populations that have survived very long periods of time we can potentially learn what it is that makes some species resistant to extinction or more resilient when things are happening in the world.
As more species are becoming extinct, new technologies are being born and growing to the point where it is possible to sequence large amounts of DNA very effectively. Scientists like Dr. Shapiro and those in her research group contribute to the UC Conservation Genomics Consortium, where a multitude of advanced analytical techniques are being developed to better understand the biodiversity of our planet. Dr. Shapiro’s interest in biodiversity runs alongside her vested goal of promoting gender, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within the study of science.
Describing that the University of California Santa Cruz “recruits heavily from the local community and has a very large first generation Mexican American community”, Dr. Shapiro emphasises that “you need to be open to different people working in your group and in your lab. I think it is important to have an ethnically and socially diverse group of people because then you have better ideas…I think it has clearly been shown that if you have mixed genders and mixed socioeconomic backgrounds that you end up having a more creative group together because people have different perspectives. It’s really important to do that…When I was an undergrad I used to think this was going to change in my lifetime and it was something that was over, but it hasn’t changed…We need to do a better job supporting women and people who are underrepresented in science”.
As she describes her work and goals of promoting diversity within her realm of reach Dr. Shapiro is very animated in her body language, she is equal parts charismatic and brilliant. A potent combination that would inspire any student, professional or child to pursue their passion with class and vigour. She embodies exactly what is needed in the STEM field. With the Biological Society at UCD giving her The George Sigerson Award for Inspiring Aspiring Scientists a new age of inclusivity within the STEM fields may finally be upon us.