This is the fourth interview in the series Research Spotlight, in which I share conversations that I have with faculty regarding their research, their journey within their field, and their field in a broader context.
Kathy Siwicki is the Howard A. Schneiderman Professor of Biology and Neurobiology. Her research focuses on understanding the neurobiology of courtship behavior and memory in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster.
This article is the second part of a two part interview with Professor Siwicki. You can read the first part here.
AIDAN REDDY: How did your interest develop in biology, and, more specifically, in the work you do working with fruit flies and neurobiology?
KATHY SIWICKI: I think my interest in neurobiology is more fundamental to who I am than my interest in fruit flies. Fruit flies are what I use. They’re the animals that I use to ask experimental research questions about neurobiological issues. So, how did I become a neurobiologist is really the core decision that I made as an undergraduate, probably late in my undergraduate career. That’s the kind of decision that you guys are wrestling with: “What am I going to be when I grow up?” I had no idea when I arrived at college what I was going to be. I hadn’t had particularly great science courses in high school, with the exception of math. I had some great math courses in high school, but not other kinds of sciences. Then I had the unfortunate experience of having terrible math teachers in college. College math teachers in my day were not particularly supportive of women in their math classes, so math kind of went out the window for me as a result of those bad experiences my first year in college. But, happily, at the same time, I was in a first-year biology class that really caught my imagination. I got really excited about biology from the way that it was taught by that professor, Walter Quevedo, at Brown. It was like Bio 1 and Bio 2 combined in one semester and Quevedo taught most of it. He was just the most engaging and dynamic lecturer in terms of explaining all of the wonders of modern biology at the time. He made it very easy to get excited about biology!
Also, instead of having labs in that class, we had discussion sections, which were run by different faculty members from the department on their own special sub-discipiline of biology, their own special interest. We’d sign up for a section and we’d go once a week and we’d read papers and eventually we wrote our own papers and gave presentations — that kind of thing. It was like a mini first-year seminar experience. I signed up for a section called “brain and behavior.” For the first time, I was exposed to the notion that’s so fundamental to modern neuroscience, that our behavior is a product of the cells and molecules in our brain. That, to me, was a revelation, as a first-year student in college. I did my own little research paper in the library and got really into understanding the basic neural circuit that moths use when they’re trying to evade bats. It’s a very simple three-neuron circuit, but that, to me, was another revelation, that, oh my god, something like an animal evading a predator can actually be understood at that very engineering level, almost. One neuron leads to another leads to another, and the result is that the moth gets out of the way and escapes the bat?! There were so many “aha moments” that occurred to me in my very first semester at Brown that got me hooked on neurobiology. So, I just kept taking courses in psychology and biology. It wasn’t until my junior or senior year that I started thinking seriously about applying to grad school and doing a PhD.
REDDY: What are some of the wonders that come from studying biology at any level that anyone can appreciate, insights from biology that you think people should be aware of?
SIWICKI: I think that every person is going to be different in what they perceive to be an awe-inspiring insight. It depends on what you care about. To me, at the time, the idea that I could understand how my own brain worked, or how others people’s brains worked, or how a moth’s brain worked, or how a fruit fly’s brain worked was a revelation that I just couldn’t resist pursuing in a committed professional way. For students today, that’s probably a no-brainer, that we can understand our own behavior by learning more about how our brains work. For me, at age eighteen, that was a revelation that turned me on to neurobiology and I haven’t looked back. Today’s revelations are going to be different, and I also think they’re going to be different for every student. Environmental issues seem to be posing a huge existential crisis to us right now. We didn’t face that kind of existential crisis in the 1970’s.
REDDY: I remember in my high school biology courses (I happened to have a really awesome biology teacher) always thinking about one of the fundamental concepts of biology, evolution by natural selection. To me, just thinking about that and all of the implications it had was really profound and interesting.
SIWICKI: Part of the appeal of neurobiology for me was that it was something that was never even considered or discussed as an instrumental factor in one’s behavior in my own upbringing. Maybe when you first hear about evolution by natural selection, if it hasn’t been a part of the baseline assumptions that go on around your dinner table as a kid, it’s like, “Oh, really? Is this the way the world works?” To me, it was like, “Oh really? Is this the way our brains work? Is this what controls our behavior?” Like I said, a no-brainer today, but it was just exciting news to me at the time. Your first insights into evolutionary processes, the processes of natural selection, “Oh, is this the way the world works? Is this the way life on this planet has come to be where it is today?” I can see that as being a profound aha moment for many students, when they hear about that idea and the evidence that leads scientists to be comfortable with it as an accepted theory.
REDDY: It’s not that I hadn’t heard of evolution before, but learning about the specific details and mechanisms by which that works was the interesting part.
SIWICKI: Because it made sense, right? Because it was more than just a politically charged word. You’re now in a place in your own intellectual development and education where you’re learning about the substance behind the word. That can be an amazing process of discovery.
I imagine that for young people who have some kind of genetic issues in their family — an uncle or grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease, for example — that being able to think in more rigorous, precise ways about inheritance and genetics, and how traits get passed from one generation to another, can be really intriguing and captivating because they can relate it to their own personal situation and challenges. I think it’s, in part, personal. What are the things that each of us are naturally curious about, and how does this kind of science trigger our enthusiasm for understanding it more? For some people, it’s going to be astronomy. It depends on where you’re starting from and what gets you excited.
REDDY: I noticed this sign that you have over here that says “Science will make America great again”. What is the important of scientific literacy in the United States, and generally in the world today?
SIWICKI: Oh my heavens…. This is a sign that I made and took to the March for Science in Washington six months ago. It was a miserable, rainy day, but really one of the most moving experiences I’ve had going out there, second only to the Women’s March in January.
It’s mind-boggling to me that science and scientific evidence can be proudly and publicly denied by people in positions of power in ways that violate everything that we, as scientists stand for — evidence, basing arguments on evidence, critically evaluating evidence and using it to make important decisions.
Here we are, almost a year into this particular administration, but it’s not like the trend toward denying science is a new thing. It’s not something that just popped up with the Trump presidency. It’s been growing for decades now. But it’s completely foreign to the environment in which I had the privilege of growing up, America in the 1960’s, when science was super cool. This was not at all a controversial statement, “science will make America great again,” in 1965. Of course! Duh! Everybody completely recognized and accepted that science was what was going to make America great. The fact that we have to argue this point today is just so sad.
I don’t know the answer, honestly. Just keep voting. Just keep objecting to science deniers.
REDDY: And, I think, welcoming more people into the scientific community is something else.
SIWICKI: Absolutely. Making science education more broadly-based and inclusive is absolutely essential for making a more broad popular acceptance of the value of science, both in having a better understanding of ourselves and our world, but also, on a more practical level, for driving progress in the economy, driving jobs and infrastructure, and all sorts of other things that have come to us as benefits of the public funding and support for science in the second half of the twentieth century.
It’s interesting, because I’ve even had conversations with folks who are well-educated, who have bachelor’s degrees or advanced degrees and come from privileged families, who will, for example, assert that vaccines are dangerous and that they’re never going to vaccinate their children. It’s like wait… where did you hear this? Why do you believe this? The science is very clear that vaccines save lives — that immunizations are a critical, critical component of maintaining public health. The “evidence” that vaccines are dangerous is just not evidence; it’s all rumor and hearsay that’s accepted and believed by a lot of people. There’s a general cultural skepticism about science. People question the reliability and verifiability of science. Trust in science is not as widespread as it used to be. People are more skeptical and more inclined to reject it.
REDDY: I think it’s not even just about the skepticism, because that’s what science is all about, to a certain extent. It’s about all our rejection of the ideas that science suggests.
SIWICKI: Right, of the evidence. The kinds of skills that we try to focus on in introductory biology (because, of course, half of the students who take those courses are not going to be majoring in biology or any other science necessarily) is practicing the use of evidence to support your arguments. The use of scientific, quantitative evidence in the case of what we’re doing in biology class, but, presumably, you’re doing this in all of your courses at Swarthmore — using evidence to support your arguments. That’s something that you can apply to future decisions about anything and something that would be nice to have as part of the basic goals of public education throughout the country.