Meet some of the people featured in the November/December 2011 issue of The Scientist.
Poet/scientist Katherine Larson thrives on diversity. Though she’s passionate about science—entering and subsequently exiting four separate PhD programs in fields as diverse as conservation genetics and paleontology—Larson’s never been able to stomach devoting her life to one particular discipline. “Being able to sample from a number of different fields has been really rewarding to me as a poet,” she says. Larson explores the benefits of having a curious and unsettled mind in her Reading Frames essay, a piece in which she explains the delicate balance between science and art on display in her most recently published poetry collection, Radial Symmetry. “I think the dialogue between the unconscious and conscious mind is really crucial,” she says. “It’s a difficult balance to strike to make a project artistic without being didactic.”
Over the last 40 years, Thomas Finger has studied just about every sensory system in fish. He has an abiding interest, he says, in “what the fish [are] doing and how they [are] doing it.” Starting as a student at MIT, then as a postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis, and finally in his own lab at the University of Colorado (UC) in 1978, he has continued to pursue the molecular mechanisms underlying taste and other chemosensory systems. It was in this line of research that he crossed paths with Sue Kinnamon, a fellow UC researcher also studying taste. Though she had started out as a middle school teacher, Kinnamon soon realized the job wasn’t for her. “I felt like I was intellectually starved,” she says. So she went back to school, earning a PhD at Kansas State University, and then on to two postdocs at UC, where she began studying taste. “I wanted to find out how the cells actually detected the different taste molecules,” she recalls. Like Finger, she started in fish—mud puppies, specifically—but has since branched out to mice. In their feature article, "Matters of Taste," Finger and Kinnamon describe recent work on mammalian taste pathways, which, surprisingly, has not focused on the mouth.
After a postdoc at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Beverly Tepper (top) became fascinated by smell and taste, and soon began to study how these senses influenced dietary choices and obesity. She started using questionnaires, but was frustrated that none of the results were adequately explaining “why some liked fat more than others,” and so she turned to genetics. That research led her and coauthor Kathleen Keller to look at a number of genes involved in taste preference and bias towards fattier foods, which they discuss in their feature article, "Sensing Fat." Both authors say their research has influenced how they eat and think about food. “I’m a supertaster,” said Tepper; “my partner is a nontaster. You would think domestic tranquility would not be within our grasp.” On the contrary, she says, it has given both a reason to push the boundaries of their adventurousness with food.