Return to the audio for How to Science Episode 2, with scientist Abby Lamb.


Monica Dus: Today with me is Abby Lamb.

Abby Lamb: I am a Ph.D. student in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of Michigan, and I work in Trisha Wittkopp’s lab, where we study evolution, development, and DNA in general.

We’re going to hear about your research in a little bit, but I know you have an interesting science story, because you come from a unique background. Can you tell us a little bit about that? How did you get where you are today?

AL: Yeah! I’m from the South, from Texas. I don’t know how much that has to do with it, but it probably is related at least tangentially that I was very much of a creationist bent growing up, so it was kind of the only worldview I ever knew for a long time. Even to the point that I was taught a lot directly about evolution from religious sources. You know: “This is what evolutionists say, and here’s why they’re wrong.” And in fact, I even would do evangelizing, and trying to get people not to believe in evolution, which is a very strange way to become an evolutionary biologist…!

So you were doing that in high school? Or when you were even younger?

AL: Oh, since I can remember, basically. It was just what I knew. Everybody who was doing it had the best of intentions. It was very much of the idea that other people are being deceived and duped into something, and we need to correct that record. I don’t even know at what point that started to be less my idea, because at first, everything that you originally heard is just the truth is the truth is the truth.

That’s really interesting. When you said it took a long time, do you mean that you’ve heard about how the Earth was much older, but those facts had to become reconsolidated as beliefs?

AL: Yeah. I had heard these things, and in fact, the way that all of this had been pitched to me growing up—it had always been like, “What they’ll tell you is…Some people will say it’s this old,” and then there’d be this list of reasons why they would think that it’s not.

It was always interesting, because I loved sciencey things since I was a little kid. You know, I loved camping; going around finding animal tracks, trying to figure out animals they were; identifying plants. Anything that felt sciencey. Making slime and whatever. I would go to the natural science museum, and I always remember being really conflicted and confused about dinosaurs.

But I also felt like it was something that was not a comfortable thing to talk about, so I remember not usually asking much about it. It just kind of was easy to go along with that kind of thing. Also because you know that the people who care about you and who you love have the best intentions for you, and surely they’re telling you all the right things.

And I loved biology, which was very funny.

Yeah it’s funny, because you started with loving biology, and the whole of biology is explained singlehandedly by evolution.

AL: Which is why I think it completely entranced me once I figured it all out, because…Oh, I say “figured it all out,” but that sounds a little grandiose…once I found out what the unifying principle is, and what is really actually states. Basically just that super gradual changes in DNA sequence lead to super gradual changes in the way organisms are, in general.

The idea that, “How can there be monkeys and humans at the same time?” is basically like saying, “How can you exist at the same time as your own cousin?” Which is a pretty easy thing to answer: Because we have the same grandparent.

I think there was just this specter that evolutionary biology even had anything to say about God. It was weird for me to disentangle that. Evolutionary biology has nothing to say about God, supernatural or anything whatsoever.

It’s not about why—it’s really about how.

AL: Yeah, and this to me is not disturbing or anything. It’s just mind-blowingly gorgeous that we actually have common ancestors with flies. That is just remarkable. And to be able to get comfortable with that over time…It actually was very, very exciting and pleasant and great. There was some element of loss and confusion and to some extent embarrassment, I think, because I had been very evangelistic about it. It’s just very strange.

I wonder if you have a unique perspective, now that you've walked both sides. How do you go about communicating this with people who are creationists or who hold some dogmatic beliefs?

AL: I think to some extent, because it’s kind of an uncomfortable and weird element of my past, there may just be the fact that I’ve avoided those conversations sometimes, because it’s sort of fraught with history on my part. But at the same time, I’m always sitting back and kind of mentally honing it. I almost feel like I’m over-equipped to maybe even come across as mean, because I’ll know all of the points they make, and I’ll be ready to just jump on it.

I need to find a balance in being able to talk to people and just have a very comfortable conversation about things, where we’re not just actively trying to change each other’s minds. Because that is not fruitful for anyone. And I think that’s one of the things that I look back at and don’t like is that I was going around actively trying to change people’s minds. I wasn’t going around trying to have a conversation with people.

I’d like to try to situate it in how impressive and interesting and strange and amazing it is to just be part of the fauna that is all the animals on Earth. Trying to get that idea across actually is very difficult, because there’s this idea of human specialness.

Right; we lose our special place in the world.

AL: It’s still okay to be special. We have all the things that humans have that other animals don’t have. It doesn’t take away anything that is uniquely human to admit that you’re part of the primates, but it’s very uncomfortable to people, I feel like, to admit that.

But I do know that I’ve seen people at zoos looking at chimpanzees and thinking, “Ugh, how can anyone say we’re related to those things?” And then you’ll someone else thinking, “Look at how alike our hands are and look at their eyes!” And you see people marveling. And what really gets to me is the difference in the two attitudes of, “Oh, I’m so disgusted that anyone could ever think that I’m like that,” versus, “Look at how marvelous this is. Look at how amazing.”

But this is why I am so impressed by this. This is why it works and why it fits, and there’s a beauty of these puzzle pieces fitting together. I think that’s a really important part of the conversations. But even I, from my own perspective, still don’t know quite how to have those conversations, because they’re very difficult.

What about the people that knew you from before? Say, your high school classmates or your uncles or whatnot?

AL: I kind of fell out of contact with people I knew in high school. When I got back in contact with them, I think they had their minds kind of blown by the fact that I do what I do as an evolutionary biologist now.

They’re like, “You do what?!” And I’m like, “Well, a lot has changed in the last few years…”

With family members—I think this is something that’s common to a lot of people when it comes to politics and religion and anything that gets uncomfortable—you have to pick who’s ready to have those conversations and who isn’t, and whose relationship you’re actually just going to damage by trying to have that conversation, because some people’s worldview is more important to them than understanding someone else’s viewpoint.

One thing that is very difficult to do is to sort of come out of the closet of not having the same belief as someone else, and yet, to reassure them that that is not an attack position. It’s not a stance that you take toward someone. It’s very disquieting for people to see people in their life change in any way. It’s a very hard thing that’s been a very central and difficult part of my life, but is also very, very tied up in my scientific profession.

I’ve very frequently thought about how much I want to get into scientific communication, because I’ve thought about this so much on such very different sides of it, that I’d like to find a way to be able to share with people without making them feel threatened. Or not even threatened, so much as pushed.

I know Darwin was always sort of this scary specter growing up as this bad guy of the past—you know, “Top Ten Bad Guys of History.” It’s Charles Darwin who just ruined everything. To hear him talk about nature when you read his writing, and he’s just flowing on about “endless forms most beautiful” and all of this language that is...

When people think of the sterile scientist—who’s leaning over their bench and doesn’t care about anything and is very hard—that is not what you expect to hear. And so to hear someone who’s vilified so much to be going on about how much they love nature and how amazing they think everything is…I think it’s really important and enlightening, and just to point out that this is not a confrontational stance to view the world this way.

I’m not a religious person, but I was always confused at how people think that science and religions are antithetical or how they can’t coexist.

AL: I think one of the reasons maybe that people view them as antithetical is because so many things in religion are stated as…Faith is viewed as a very, very strong virtue to just very, very deeply believe something, even whenever it’s not very apparent with your senses. That there’s an element of just knowing and being very certain…I think that may make people uncomfortable with the scientific process to some extent, because a lot of times, the scientific perspective is, “It is not there until we have worked out that it’s there.”

And it’s in constant flux.

AL: Yeah, but the idea that having to cross-pollinate faith and skepticism between the two realms, I think, is very hard for people, because you need your faith in your one realm, and you need your skepticism in the other. But to put them in each other’s courts, I think, makes things extremely difficult.

I see what you’re saying, because you could start questioning some of the religion part or maybe even replacing it with some of the certitudes of science. That makes sense.

AL: So if you put your skepticism in your faith part of your life, then it could be a little disruptive. And if you put the faith parts in the science part of your life, you’re not going to do good science. It takes a person who is able to maintain those things in their separate areas.

But I do think that scientific, religious, political, all kinds of ideas are open to scrutiny and skepticism and debate and some level of contrariness. But it’s hard for people to realize what is and isn’t constructive sometimes, so I try to toe that line carefully, but I also don’t begrudge some people sometimes their prerogative to be maybe a little bit angry about things. It’s a playing field of ideas, and I think conversations are always good to have.

In Italian, there is a saying that goes, “Il mondo è bellow perché è vario,” which means, “The world is beautiful because it’s so different,” and you could apply that, too, to ideas.

I want to tell you something: I feel, in many ways, the feeling that I don’t really know what I’m doing never really goes away, but you get better at figuring out how to do things faster as you age. But in a way, that’s the most amazing thing about science is that there will always be stuff to learn.

AL: Yeah, and I think the further you get into a specialization—which is what you’re doing with a Ph.D.—it makes you realize how little you know about everything else. So you’re really just honing this super-sharp point, which means that there’s just a vast, enormous amount of things that you know basically nothing about. You may change directions at any point and become a complete beginner again. People do this in science all the time.

What was it like to realize that you were doing science? Was there a defining moment?

AL: It took a really long time for me to understand that I’m really doing this; I’m not just going with the flow and doing what people tell me to do. Which is interesting, because when I look back, I realize that I hadn’t been just following orders and doing what people asked me to do for a long time—I just kind of felt like I was.

You just have to find what you need to do, you figure out how to do it, and you start doing it. It’s hard to realize that’s the research process until you’ve been doing it for a while.

What was completely mind-blowing to me, I think, was actually meeting and getting to know scientists, because they’re all just salivating for the next question they don’t know the answer to. Everyone’s so excited to not know something! It’s the best thing in the world, and now I have that very strongly, and it’s just so diametrically different from what I had ever thought of when I thought about scientists—specifically evolutionary biologists, because there was this baggage attached to it.

Just in my personality, and as who I am—and I guess this bodes well for me becoming a scientist—when there’s a big black patch over something that says, “Do not look under this patch,” I’m going to look under there! I have to know! So I think there was an unintentional extreme mistake that was built up around it that probably made me a little more impassioned than I might have been otherwise.

Now that you’ve been in your Ph.D. program for a few years, how has science changed other aspects of your life?

AL: One thing that’s actually super positive is that it’s made the world a lot bigger. I had only ever lived in the Houston area, and then all of a sudden, because of science, I was applying to programs all over the country, and then I ended up moving from Texas to Michigan. That was a really, big, huge thing that changed.

What about the opposite question: How have other aspects of your life influenced the science you do or the kind of approach you take to science?

AL: I think censorship has made me tenacious, because when I’m told that I shouldn’t be looking at something, I get very determined. That’s a thing that happened outside of my scientific life that became very, very important to my scientific life.

Also, I think, having come from a background where I used to argue the opposite position of what I do now, I’m very attuned to why people might be opposed to certain things, so I tend to think a lot about the way I frame.

Like their unconscious biases and backgrounds.

AL: Yeah. And I had them, so I’m not super judgmental about the fact that other people have them, because I come from that.

And sometimes we have dogmatic beliefs in science, too.

AL: Yes, that does happen.

So it’s important when you’re talking to people that you keep an open dialogue to merge and advance knowledge, instead of butting heads, right?

AL: Yeah.

You already mentioned some of this, but what is your favorite part of doing science? You talked about always not knowing what the next thing is going to be, but is there something else?

AL: Yes. Kind of related to that is you’ll see this problem and you think, “I have no idea how to address this.” And I don’t think people realize—and I didn’t realize before—how much a creative process it is. Seeing all these scientists having to come up with these weird, creative ways…

Like my undergrad lab. They 3D-printed a wind tunnel to test flight performance of flies. There’s so much creativity and so much jamming on ideas and really getting excited and enthused together, and it’s a really fun process.

What about parts you don’t like so much?

AL: There’s certain cultural things that I think are maybe, hopefully sort of on the way out. There’s this unfortunate tendency, I think, for people to have a one-upmanship of how out of whack their work-life balance is, and to go on and on about, “Oh yeah, I only slept 30 minutes last night, and I was at lab until 5 AM.” It becomes this high five each other because of horrific your experience was. I don’t know if you’ve seen this.

For sure. And the thing with science is that there is no stop, right? Because there’s always something to learn. It’s hard to pull back and have some sort of balance. There’s also a very, very competitive element of it.

AL: Yeah. I’ve actually started a thing in our department where we include in the orientation talks about imposter syndrome with people. And not just imposter syndrome. These are mental health issues that, if you do experience them during grad school, you will not be by a long shot the only person who experienced them, because it’s a real pressure cooker. It’s very intense. Like you said, there’s not really a stopping point—ever. It takes a lot of self-regulation to figure out where that is. And when you’re hearing all of your peers talk about how much harder they’re working, it can be kind of a nightmare at first.

Coming from being a college dropout for a long time, and a carriage driver, and a golf cart beer service person, and all of these things before I finally went back to college, I felt like everyone who I met here in grad school was just these driven people who always wanted to be scientists, and it was their thing. I felt like I was in this world I didn’t belong in, and it took me a lot of adjusting.

But we didn’t know that everybody could do science. That it’s actually super democratic. And you can walk into a lab and, with training, you can do research.

AL: The barrier to entry is unbelievably low! I had no idea until I asked, and I think that’s what it takes: asking. Which is a little scary, and then you do it, and it’s over.

That is very true. The barrier to entry is quite low, and usually, it just takes courage to think of yourself like you could be doing that. I want to ask you now a little bit about your research.

AL: I study evolution in fruit flies. That’s the really, really short answer I can give.

But there’s actually quite a few species of fruit flies that differ in a huge amount of ways—so many different traits. And it’s really interesting, because each one of those traits has an underlying genetic basis, and being able to find out what connects DNA sequence to appearance, shape, behavior, physiology, or things like that, is actually quite a challenge.

Because while we can look at DNA sequence, and we can sequence DNA very, very well now, you can’t necessarily look at DNA sequence and know what’s going on in it.

What the sequences mean and why they end up making a fly look this way rather than that way.

AL: You can actually determine from sequence a considerable amount of things about those kinds of sequence. But there’s other parts of the DNA sequence that I am particularly interested in, which basically work almost like control panels: regulatory sequences. What these do is control when, where, and how much certain genes are expressed or turned on or turned off.

And a gene is an instruction to make something.

AL: Yeah. Things have to be in the right places; they have to happen in the right quantities; and they have to occur at the right place. It’s almost like thinking about recipes. You can’t just get a list of ingredients. You have to know how much of everything, and what function and order they go in, so these regulatory sections, which work almost like on and off switches, are very hard to read. You look at them, and they just look like sequences, for the most part.

So what we do with flies—in my case, I look at pigmentation differences. There’s a yellow fly and a black fly. We can look and see how these pigmentation genes are turned on and off and try to get to where we can understand how changes in sequence cause changes in appearance, expression, and morphology.

It turns out that more and more research is showing that a lot of the time, a lot of these evolutionary changes are these little tweaks and little tinkerings of changes in how much something is expressed or where it’s expressed.

Better control panels.

AL: Yeah.

Tweaking with all the buttons or a few of the buttons, I guess.

AL: And because and we can’t read these control panel sequences presently with what we know, it’s very hard to look at them and understand what they’re doing. But once we can see how they’re changing, then we can come to understand what parts are important. And maybe the goal is eventually—after we’ve really synthesized a lot of these studies—it may be possible to understand more about how these genes are turned on and off, which is very important to biology in general to understand these kinds of things.

And even things outside of animals. You look at yeast that’s used in fermentation processes, or other kinds of biotechnology applications. If you can change the amounts of products that they make, it can really change the way you can use biological things to get jobs done, if we can just understand how their genetic switches turn on and off.

It’s a really interesting and strange part of biology that I think is really fun.

So what attracted you to this particular thesis project?

AL: The idea that every single cell in your body has the same genes, and that they turn on the right things in the right places at the right times, is just super, super mind-blowing to me.

There’s also the differences from one member of the same species to another. They can be very slightly different, because we can tell each other apart as people. You can tell your dog from your friend’s dog. What little tweaks and changes are involved to make those differences.

And to think about that just amazing, almost Rube Goldberg machine of this little change during development leads to this little thing, leads to this little thing, leads to this little thing, until you have this fully developed organism. The fact that any of that can evolve at all—that something in it can change, and everything still works, and you just get something different, is very, very cool to me.

What do you find beautiful about this process of science?

AL: What I mentioned earlier about it being like a Rube Goldberg machine. You see one change lead to another change lead to another change lead to another change, and it’s this cascading thing. It’s like when you watch someone push a domino down, and they’ve made one of those beautiful domino displays. I feel like genetics is like that, because you have this sequence, and it responds to a chemical more on one side of an embryo than the other. So then all of a sudden, there’s a difference on one side than there is on the other, and then that leads to another difference. And then it just blossoms out into this amazingly differentiated organism.

And beautifully, amazingly, simplistically enough, a lot of these genes and systems are the same or extremely similar, I’d say. In flies, humans, plants—a lot of these things are done in much the same way. Knowing that there’s this continuity throughout life that unfolds, and that these little tweaks can happen to it and not cause the whole thing to go crashing down.

We talked about how research is really awesome and really beautiful, and then how sometimes it’s pretty hard. Can you tell us about a time where you reached a dead end or some hardship and how you dealt with it?

AL: There’s probably tons of examples. I just have to think of one that’s good.

Actually, I had been coming up with this experiment that involved some molecular tools called CRISPR—pretty much DNA scissors that you can use to cut very specific sequences—and I wanted to use these to induce specific mutations and then look at the effects they have on the pigmentations of these flies. I could not for the life of me inject the embryos of these species that I wanted to work in. It was so frustrating to have this suite of tools that I had gotten ready and could not get them into these embryos.

I wasted a lot of time, and a lot of frustration, and a lot of agony, until finally my boss, Trisha, says, “My grad school lab over at the University of Wisconsin—do you want me to see if they’d be okay with you coming and learning from them?” She contacted them, and they were very happy to have me, and said, “Send her on over. We’ll show her how we do it and give her all the tricks.” I drove in December from Ann Arbor to Madison in an ice storm with boxes full of flies in the back of this rental car…!

That’s real science right there!

AL: It was long. Actually, considering the storm, it was longer. When I got there, everyone was fantastic, and it was great just completely bootcamping myself to learn how to do this thing that was just this stupid barrier.

What was the trick?

AL: A lot of it is making your needles just right with the needle-pulling machine. It was far more artisan than it was scientific. It was very much like, “Look at this needle. You see how that one looks kind of like ‘eh’ and the other kind of looks like ‘ah.’” And then you’d get to where you’re like, “Ahh, I get it. This one’s like that, and that one’s like this.”

It was not easy to quantify. It was a little bit a finesse thing. But I had a fantastic teacher. And since then, I’ve been able to come back and teach other people here how to do it. Now the knowledge doesn’t reside only in my head, so if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, people in my lab will still be able to do it.

It’s amazing how many things in science feel far less scientific than you thought they would, because the way people have figured out how to do it is just finesse.

It goes back, I think, to what you said about creativity and science actually being quite an artistic profession, unlike what people usually think of it. Which is why I love it, too.



Return to the audio for How to Science Episode 2, with scientist Abby Lamb.