Scientific Genealogy

I’m not sure how it is in other professions, but in science your lineage is important. Not your family lineage, but your scientific lineage, the mentor or mentors who taught you to be a scientist. I suspect science is a bit different, in this respect, compared to other professions like law, medicine, or business, where the work to acquire an advanced degree is done as part of a larger student class with set course work, practicals, etc.  All done on a pretty typical college schedule. For these careers there are a whole series of teachers and professors responsible for your education. Some probably stand out more than others, but none actually direct your career. You even graduate together with your class — cap, gown and who knows maybe even class reunions, the whole nine yards.

A Ph.D in the natural sciences is quite a different experience. Course work is often taken care of in the first year or two, by which time you have also decided on a lab to work in. This is where you will do the bulk of the research that will be the topic of your, doctorate degree that may take an additional three to five years including the writing of a thesis or dissertation. For several years your life will revolve around ‘the lab’. Your Ph.D advisor who runs the lab, and is your mentor, becomes a very important person in your life, for better or worse. This very individualized training and experience does make science unique and, interestingly, probably a bit like art or some crafts and trades, where one is taught by a master. You graduate when your mentor (and hopefully you) decide you’re ready. Interestingly, this timing also tends to coincide with ‘when the money runs out’.  If this happens to also coincide with ‘graduation’, then you can do the cap and gown routine; mine didn’t.

So who your mentor is becomes important, and, not too surprisingly, who their mentor is, is also important. That’s how you end up with ‘family trees’ in science. Many of us can trace our ‘ancestry’ back to a few key individuals. In my own field of environmental microbiology, a Dutch microbiologist, Martinus Beijerinck who worked in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s at Delft University in the Netherlands is considered by many to be the ‘father’ of our field, so tracing your ancestry to him is important. It’s actually ironic, since he was (as photos of him attest) a dour individual, who did not associate well with students. Nonetheless, his work was so influential (he discovered viruses and nitrogen fixation, among other things) that it’s a badge of honor if you can trace your lineage to the ‘Delft school’ that he founded. Personally, I’m like a first cousin a couple of times removed, or maybe a 3rd or 4th cousin, or a great-great-nephew – like family genealogy it gets confusing. I have been to Delft University, and was able to look into the office and lab space where Beijerinck worked, it’s kept as a small museum. It felt a little like hallowed ground.

My own Ph.D mentor, Bill Ghiorse, at Cornell University taught me a bunch about science and integrity, or perhaps more importantly about integrity and science. I recently got to name an important new microbe after him. It’s nice to keep the scientific family tree alive.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.