Tuesday, January 31, 2012

James Crow: Scientist, mentor, musician

When the general public thinks of scientists, a few stereotypes often emerge:
• The crazy-haired, lab-coat wearing, sometimes egomaniacal and evil, lone genius;
• The socially awkward lone genius who can't be coaxed away from an experiment and who operates on a level that transcends mere non-scientific mortals.

The common thread seems to be that the scientist is someone who works alone, apart from a community, and with no other interests besides science. The life of James Crow, a population geneticist who passed away early this year, shortly before his 96th birthday, and the outpouring of pieces lauding that life demonstrate that great scientists do not really work alone, but rather build rich and diverse communities, and often have strong connections beyond just the laboratory bench or the field site.

Crow was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and, although he officially retired in 1986, he still maintained an active presence on campus. I met him through the Evolution Reading Group at Madison in 2002, and he was a regular participant as we read through Gould, Simpson, Dobzhansky, and others. The university established the JF Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution in 2009 to promote research and outreach in the study of evolution.

For a more complete description of his life and his work, you can read the obituaries from Nature, the New York Times, and Genetics. On the occasion of his 95th birthday last January, the journal Genetics commissioned a series of pieces on Crow, and the first of them, on his role as a teacher and mentor, appeared in December. Crow mentored an astonishing list of scientists, many of whom went on to their own stellar careers. He also organized the first meeting of Drosophila biologists at Madison that would grow into the Annual Drosophila Research Conference, now attended by hundreds of researchers studying the genetics, behavior, and development of the fruit fly. Far from a lone genius working in solitude, Crow mentored many graduate students and postdocs, encouraged the growth of communities of scientists studying genetics and evolution, and also taught hundreds of undergraduates.

Because his research focused on mutations, Crow also was an important figure in public discussions of the harmful mutations that radiation and other environmental chemicals could cause. I recall a ~2005 presentation in which Crow (humorously) suggested that the main source of preventable mutations in the human population was older men (as men age, the rate of mutation in sperm rises; similar to, but for different reasons than, the rise in the incidence of Down syndrome in children of older women), and that to counter this, all men should store their sperm when they are young for potential use at a later date.

Crow's quick wit and sly sense of humor (for example, that both he and the first issue of the journal Genetics were scheduled to arrive in January 1916, but only he arrived on time) feature prominently in the pieces honoring him. Stories of his warmth and kindness are widespread -- for instance, a casual conversation at reading group could result in a sheaf of unexpected, but relevant, references a week later. And this generosity of spirit extended well beyond lecture halls, labs, and scientific conferences. Crow was an accomplished viola player (I saw him play a short piece with a student on his 90th birthday - sadly, I didn't think to note the name of the piece they played--or, if I did, I've lost those notes), playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra for many years.
Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison, University Communications
© Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
Crow clearly defies the Hollywood stereotypes of a scientist. Some scientists are quiet and some are outspoken; some socially awkward and some the life of the conversation. Scientists are people, too, and so science has social and cultural aspects (like any human endeavor); scientists build their own communities, and also operate within larger communities that extend beyond the boundaries of science. Both these communities are saddened by the loss of James Crow, who did so much to enrich them; but even in this loss, they are strengthened by the legacy of the many lives he touched.

No comments:

Post a Comment