Michael Levin spent his childhood, first in Moscow and then in Swampscott, Massachusetts, observing and musing about the miniature world of insects. Even then, he says, he was amazed that swarms of individuals could share common goals; his interest would later shift to how collections of living cells coordinate the building of complex anatomical structures. Levin enrolled at Tufts University, receiving two bachelor’s degrees, in computer science and biology, before completing a PhD in genetics at Harvard in 1996. His early work focused on how cells organize embryogenesis, and included the discovery of a new “bioelectric language” used by cells to coordinate their activities. Drawing on the parlance of computer science, Levin has been working on modifying these electrical signals—the physiological “software” that dictates body shape in animals—to induce cells to form new structures without making changes to a cell’s genome, what Levin calls the “hardware.”
Now, as a developmental biologist at Tufts University, Levin continues to study how decision making in swarms of cells might be exploited for advances in regenerative medicine that could allow researchers to trigger the rebuilding of entire limbs or organs. “If we understand how cells cooperate in these collectives to build complex things, we can ask them to do it again,” Levin says. On page 38, Levin describes recent work from his own lab and others that demonstrates the promise of harnessing biology’s software.
David Bainbridge admits to having been “weirdly obsessed with how animals work and how we organize them” from a young age, an intellectual quirk he shares with many of the world’s most notable zoologists. Bainbridge received degrees in zoology (1989) and veterinary medicine (1992) from the University of Cambridge before completing a PhD in reproductive biology at the London Zoo’s Institute of Zoology in 1996. Studying the reproduction of red deer (Cervus elaphus) led him to realize how “fascinating and unusual” human reproduction is in the animal kingdom, and his postdoctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on human pregnancy. “Everybody thought that was hilarious, having a vet working in the OB/GYN department,” Bainbridge says.
Now, as the university clinical veterinary anatomist at Cambridge, it’s his job to teach young veterinary students the foundations of the anatomy and reproduction of nonhuman animals. In researching the history of his field, what struck him again and again was scientists’ propensity to rank some living things as inherently better than others—animals above plants, for example, and mammals over reptiles and amphibians. He also discovered how this tendency bled into categorizations of humans, with scientists sometimes putting certain racial and ethnic groups above others. “These were not peripheral people; these were mainstream writers and scientists,” Bainbridge says. In “Confronting Racism in Zoology” on page 56, Bainbridge discusses how we can learn from this shameful legacy and acknowledge our prejudices with an eye toward progressive change.
Amanda Heidt was undecided on the focus of her study when she started at MiraCosta Community College in San Diego in 2008, so she took both creative writing and marine biology courses. She ended up disliking her English instructor and loving the marine bio class, so she followed the science route. After two years, she transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), where she majored in marine biology and minored in chemistry. Then, in the master’s program at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories on the Monterey Bay, she worked in the invertebrate molecular ecology lab as a research tech, testing samples from around the world for invasive species. At the same time, Heidt researched meiofauna, tiny organisms that live between grains of sand. “I basically lived in my car for a summer and drove all up and down California, and I sampled all these different beaches,” she says. She brought the samples back to the lab and used metabarcoding to identify what she’d collected, and learned that meiofauna don’t adhere to a strict latitudinal gradient but are found all over. To help support herself through school, Heidt applied for and received a scholarship from California State University, Monterey Bay, and the NPR-member radio station KQED, which happened to come with a summer internship reporting and writing science news at the KQED headquarters in San Francisco. “That was the trial by fire,” she says. And it went well—so much so that it motivated her to wrap up her degree at Moss Landing and enroll in the UCSC science communication master’s program. There, Heidt interned at Inside Science, The Monterey Herald, and Science, before graduating and accepting a position as The Scientist’s summer intern. “I set it as a personal goal . . . to expand the types of stories I write,” she says. With many of the topics she now covers, “it’s not always the most comfortable thing to do, but I have enjoyed that opportunity to learn new things.”