Photo: Courtesy of Yale University Library
Seventy-five years ago, Charles A. Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in what aviators still deem the greatest solo flight of all time. Although his influence is indelibly stamped on virtually all aspects of commercial aviation, another Lindbergh legacy may be emerging in the realm of life sciences.
Recently, on the anniversary of the aviator's return home to Little Falls, Minn., a group of scientists, engineers, and environmental technologists gathered in the midwestern town for a conference to remember Lindbergh, share research, and honor the latest recipients of grants that bear his name. So what is the connection between the world's most famous aviator and the life sciences?
THE CONNECTION, AND CONVICTION Although lesser known, Lindbergh's contributions to biology and environmental research are as laudable as those he made to aviation. Not long after his flight, he went to work in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel (1912, medicine) at Rockefeller University, where he created the Lindbergh pump, the precursor to the heart implant. "A new era has opened," Carrel declared on publication of the work in 1935. Together, in 1938, they published The Culture of Organs and appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
During the same time, Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were flying around the world charting air routes, and they began to see close-up the often devastating effects of humankind's technological progress. In their best-selling books, articles, and talks, both Lindberghs philosophized about the need to establish a balance between technology development and environmental preservation. For him, it became the focus of his professional life, and after World War II he traded the lab for the field: cataloguing rare species for the World Wildlife Fund; launching the first campaigns to save the gray whale and arctic wolf, among other species; and, on behalf of the International Conservation Union, convincing world leaders to establish preserves to protect areas rich in biodiversity.
Although Lindbergh was deeply enthralled with the technology that allowed him to achieve his miraculous flight, he came to hold a deeper reverence for natural evolution. "The construction of an airplane ... is simple when compared to the evolutionary achievement of a bird. ... if I had to choose I would rather have birds than airplanes," he wrote in 1964.1 Following his death in 1974, a group of friends that included astronaut Neil Armstrong formed a foundation to carry on his efforts toward achieving a balance. It opened its doors in 1977.
DIVERSITY IN GRANT WORK Today, the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation(www.lindberghfoundation.org) in Anoka, Minn., presents a number of annual grants--each in the amount of $10,580, the cost of Lindbergh's plane, the Spirit of St. Louis--to researchers whose work contributes to their global vision of balance and at the same time passes the rigorous review. Any scientist at any career stage, with a good idea, working in any appropriate field, anywhere around the world, is invited to apply. The foundation "welcomes those who dream," says Clare Hallward, chair of the Lindbergh Grant Selection Committee.
Some 350 people gathered for the conference and watched as Reeve Lindbergh, the youngest daughter of Charles and Anne, announced this year's Lindbergh Grant Awardees. They include:
- Jorge M. Vivanco, horticultural biotechnologist and assistant professor at Colorado State University, who will use his grant to develop a natural herbicide by genetically engineering mauka (Mirabilis expansa), a plant from his native Peru;
- Alissa Salmore, environmental scientist with the University of Wisconsin, who will use DNA technology to study and track sources of Escherichia coli in urban rivers;
- Kristina Owens, a graduate student at Michigan Technological University, who plans to use statistical analysis of the genetic diversity of the Bolivian Cherimoya tree to characterize the differences and identify specific pest-resistant characteristics of the plants to allow for breeding of the trees that maintain the traditional genetic base, improving cash-crop opportunities, and reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides;
- Laura Anderson Barbata, a New York City artist and environmental technologist, who will use her grant to continue her biodegradable paper-making project to empower the Yanomami people of the Venezuelan Amazon territory to record their own history, ideas, and images while continuing their age-old ways of recycling and forest preservation;
- Thanh Hoa Le, of the National Institute of Biotechnology of Vietnam, who will use DNA sequencing techniques to develop a method for accurately identifying selected parasitic species associated with freshwater habitats in Vietnam to aid in diagnosing disease;
- Hatem Abdel-MoneimTallima, of Cairo University, who plans to develop a vaccine to prevent the spread of schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease caused by five species of flatworms or blood flukes and transmitted through infested water.
The Lindbergh Grants--which have been awarded to 233 researchers since their inception in 1978--have garnered a certain élan in the realm of seed money. "Ninety-three percent of the grantees are continuing the work they began with their Lindbergh Grant[s], and 76% have gone on to secure substantial additional funding from other sources, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, among others," says Kelley A. Welf, the foundation's communications manager.
"These grants are enabling people to do what they dream of doing in small but highly significant ways," says Hallward. "Small projects bring small changes, but together they can add up to a new vision of what is possible."
A.J.S. Rayl is a contributing editor.