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Directing Minorities Toward Careers in Evolutionary Biology

Scott Edwards

Scott Edwards is a member of a very small group: minority scientists in the field of evolutionary biology. "The number of African Americans I know in the field of evolution, in tenure-track positions, ... I'm sure I can count them on two hands if not one," he says.

Many science undergraduates, Edwards says, don't consider areas outside of biomedical research because they don't know how exciting evolutionary biology can be. So Edwards, a Harvard University professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and curator of ornithology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, recruits minority undergraduates to join his lab and immerses them into the field by taking them to evolutionary biology meetings. His research--genome and sex-chromosome evolution and phylogenetics (the study of organismal relationships) in reptiles and birds--has taken him around the world, exploring Australia's Gulf of Carpentaria, the island of Maui, and other exotic places. He wants his passion for the field to rub off on his students.

Thinking back to his early days as a student at a New Hampshire high school, he recalls a turning point and the role a mentor played. His biology teacher, Rich Aaronian, was a birder who took him bird watching in the mornings before classes. These outings exposed Edwards to science and produced a rich relationship, with Aaronian giving Edwards academic and career advice and providing a sounding board for the young man's ideas about the future.

Edwards excelled in high school and was accepted into Harvard after graduating. But he decided to take a year off after enduring an especially arduous organic chemistry class during his sophomore year. He volunteered at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Birds fascinated Edwards so much that he used the money he saved working at a bagel shop to take a trip to Hawaii to study native bird species on the islands. "It was really those experiences that helped me understand what it was that biologists did for a living," Edwards says. When he returned to Harvard for his junior year, he started working in the lab of evolutionary biologist Rodney Honeycutt. Honeycutt, says Edwards, "allowed me to learn new things and try my skills out." The experience deepened his love for the field.

A Career Takes Flight

After getting his B.S. in biology, Edwards entered the Ph.D. program in zoology (now integrative biology) at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he studied the genetics and population structure of babblers, a type of songbird found throughout Australia and New Guinea, finishing his doctorate in 1992. He did a postdoc at the University of Florida as an Alfred P. Sloan Postdoctoral Fellow, studying the evolution of disease-resistance genes in wild birds. In 1994, he became an assistant professor at the University of Washington's Department of Zoology (now Biology) but came to Harvard in 2003 because he had family in the Boston area and because its Museum of Comparative Zoology provided a better fit professionally. The museum has the "biggest [university] bird collection in the world," Edwards says, with facilities for doing genomics research.

The Kids Are Alright

Edwards's own positive mentoring experiences have always guided his actions as a mentor; he has learned to "never underestimate the power of an undergraduate." Undergraduates are capable of doing good science, Edwards says, and he does what he can to help them reach their full potential. An example is Matthew Saunders, a student who joined the Edwards lab as a junior at the University of Washington just after Edwards became a professor there. Before meeting Edwards, Saunders had considered studying molecular genetics, but not evolutionary biology. Edwards's tutelage resulted in a first-author paper for Saunders. "I got a lot of hands-on training from Scott, which is pretty unusual," Saunders says. "That's a testament to Scott. He really pushed me hard to make sure that I got that out." Now a postdoc at the University of Chicago, Saunders believes the paper was his ticket to graduate school.

Saunders is no anomaly; he is just one of Edwards's success stories. Undergraduates have published five papers as first authors in his lab. "This isn't something reserved for someone with a Ph.D.," Edwards says. "Undergrads are fully capable of doing this kind of research." Their lack of experience is at least partly offset by, well, their lack of experience. "They always have such a fresh perspective," he says. "The question is, will they get the opportunity?"

Making Changes for the Future

Edwards says that minority students don't enter evolutionary biology in greater numbers for several reasons. First, students of color don't take advantage of the opportunities they have. But faculty members share the blame, he says; they fail to expose them to cutting-edge research and to the scientific community, at national meetings. Edwards takes undergraduates of color to annual meetings using a National Science Foundation grant meant to increase the diversity of society-meeting attendees. "These fields are very poor in their representation of diverse groups of students," he says, "so it's important to bring in new blood and new faces to these meetings." Last year, he took 15 students to the Society for the Study of Evolution meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. All presented oral or poster presentations.

Another reason the number of minority students in the field is low, Edwards says, is that they don't know what's out there in the research world. Undergraduates, he says, should get experience in a lab, the field, or a museum to find out which sort of research suits them. He trains his students in all three, which he says improves their understanding of the field and their versatility in the lab. "It's a challenge to study the genetics and genomics of birds," Edwards says, "because you can't grow them in a lab like you can a fruit fly." But, he says, "it's such a fun field" precisely because of the diversity of subjects. That diversity is something the workforce in the field currently can't claim.

Clinton Parks writes from Washington, D.C.

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Text corrections made since original publication.

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