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The Breadth, Depth and Power of Evolutionary Thinking Explored
Arkhat in the lab.
Credit: Anara Aitkhozhina

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Arkhat Abzhanov is a Harvard University evolutionary biologist who has traveled the same ground as Charles Darwin, studying finches on the Galapagos Islands. Via genetic analyses, he and his colleagues discovered a molecule that controls beak length and shape in Darwin’s finches. Nature included that study in its 2009 15 Evolutionary Gems — a feature designed to illustrate “the breadth, depth and power of evolutionary thinking.” Today Abzhanov’s lab at Harvard investigates a variety of topics related to craniofacial development in vertebrates. “I am fascinated with the evolutionary process, how it generated and continues to generate the myriad of amazing living creatures all around us,” Abzhanov says. He received his Ph.D. in molecular, cell and developmental biology from Indiana University. Below, he answers 10 questions related to his scientific work.

Name: Arkhat Abzhanov Talks About His Work And The Joy of Discovery
Age: 38
Institution: Harvard University
Field of Study: Craniofacial Development, Evolution and Disease

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I am fascinated with the evolutionary process, how it generated and continues to generate the myriad of amazing living creatures all around us. The new-old field of evolutionary developmental biology promises to provide a more mechanistic explanation of evolution, linking the very materialistic phenomena of mutation and developmental change with the observed evolution of morphology and behavior. In particular, all of vertebrate animals have unique-looking faces and display a number of adaptive traits, yet the cellular and molecular events underlying the development and evolution (and disease) of our heads are only very poorly understood.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

“The more you work, the luckier you get!” I believe this was one of the most useful pieces of advice I received from my parents.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?

When I was a young teenager I installed several bird nesting boxes in my parents’ fruit tree orchard. As you can see, I was already interested in birds back then. The nesting boxes were occupied year after year by various bird species, from common starlings to flycatchers, titmice and chickadees.

One summer I decided to switch eggs and young nestlings by swapping them one to one between nests of different species. I quickly learned that very different birds, like starlings and sparrows, quickly reject the alien young. However, parents of two different titmice species accepted nestlings that hatched from the swapped eggs and fed them well, based on their appearance (I checked them regularly).

One day, the fledglings all left the nests and were gone. To this day I am wondering if this set off a wave of some interesting hybridization – young male and female birds often learn the songs of their species from the male who feeds them and sings near the nest.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?

Most science projects are like building a puzzle. Sometimes the puzzle is simple and only needs a few large bits, sometimes it is more complicated and requires many pieces. Sometimes you expect a particular pattern to emerge, other times you are surprised by what you find. Most excitingly, when you figure one puzzle, it turns to be a piece of much larger puzzle, so the joy of discovery is never over.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher?

I think the most important quality of a scientist is persistence. Persistence coupled with determination and clear goals will wear down mountains of obstacles. Here is my favorite quote from Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

What are the societal benefits of your research?

My research interests range from normal cranial development to disease to evolution. The broader effects of our evolutionary studies are, hopefully, [providing a] better understanding of the world around us and an inspiration to everybody who gets excited about scientific knowledge and the process of discovery. For example, birds are among the most charismatic creatures on our planet. Millions of people enjoy watching and listening to birds. Linking them in meaningful ways to dinosaurs, thinking about them as the descendants and heirs of the once glorious group of animals, is quite exhilarating, especially to a younger audience.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

When I was about 10 years of age I came across a set of old books covered with dust at the back of a local library. Almost as soon as I opened them I could not stop reading them and learning about a whole new world. These books were the original Russian translations of several volumes of “Souvenirs Entomoligies” by Jean Henri Fabre, a famous French entomologist. He lived and worked a century ago, but the methods that he employed, his entire philosophy of doing science, were extremely modern. Fabre was not content with studying dead and neatly arranged insects on pins. Fabre wanted to know how these insects lived their busy lives, how they interacted with each other and the environment. He designed and conducted clever experiments, For example, he investigated, bit by bit, the principles and boundaries of insects’ instinctive behaviors and the meaning of some of the differences in the morphological appearance.

Fabre was also a master storyteller, and reading his books inspired me for many years afterwards to think about the world as a scientist.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most?

I think most people do not realize that combining methods, approaches and ideas from developmental genetics and evolutionary biology actually dates back to the early days of both fields in the second half of the XIX century. Both processes of development and evolution are in many ways related, development itself being a product of evolutionary change, while morphological transformations often occur as a result of specific alterations of developmental programs.

Charles Darwin himself was very curious about the breakthroughs in embryology and often referred in his important works to the internal “laws of growth” that helped explain the observed patterns of evolutionary changes along with natural selection and other forces.

The fields of developmental genetics and evolutionary biology were moving largely independently for nearly a century before coming back recently on a whole new level to synergistically probe the exact mechanisms of evolution by taking advantage of ecological data, molecular phylogenetic trees, morphometric calculations and knowledge of how genes and cells worked during development.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?

Most likely my laptop. Even though information in it could be recovered, I am quite attached to it as an organizer of all my projects, ideas and plans.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?

Modern classic music and New Age music — depending on the time of day.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.