First Person | Sean B. Carroll
Courtesy of Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Sean B. Carroll, developmental biologist, rock 'n' roll lover, a man who will stand in five feet of water all day dredging for shark teeth, is dreading his advancing years. He's all of 42. A self-described jeans-and-sneaker-wearing regular guy, Carroll says his age is "very hard to get used to. I don't know, it seems I've been doing this too long."
Earning his PhD in immunology at the age of 22--which he attributes more to empty pockets and determination than brains--Carroll switched gears as a postdoc in the early 1980s, when the idea of studying evolution through development was beginning to make sense. "Paleontologists were interested in how form changed, but they couldn't say where form came from. It made me decide to study developmental genetics."
One hundred-plus papers, significant press attention, and more than 20 years later, Carroll, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, still loves his work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "I take what I do seriously; I don't take myself seriously. Doing things like ... giving lectures, I'm still the same guy I've always known. But people treat me differently than when I was much younger, and I say, 'Why?'"
What do you ultimately want to learn?
Some narrative of the history of life, and mechanisms that underlie the two processes: development of complexity and evolutionary change. Long-term for me is the big picture, which is the sum of a whole lot of little pictures.
Do you likes sports?
At my decrepit age, I still play. It helps to have kids. I grew up in Toledo, an incredible baseball town. The Toledo Mud Hens was the farm system to the Detroit Tigers. In my neighborhood, in summertime, we played 12 hours a day ... every day.
When did the science bug bite?
I liked animals as a kid. I had pet snakes. I had a king snake; he was very influential on me. His name was King. There's a big difference between smart and clever.
How did your mother handle the snakes?
My mom was pretty tolerant. I was the fourth of four kids, which meant, anything short of arson, I could get away with.
What are your favorite papers?
I may take writing extra seriously. I would like to delude myself into believing that a lot of crafting goes on. I think of it as a lot more like short story writing, developing the story, developing questions.
So, in 1986, [myself] and Matt Scott [now at Stanford University], we were trying to make sense out of the genetic regulatory logic in the embryo.1 And then, in 1994, was our first paper on butterfly wings [which made the cover of Science]2.... The response to it blew me away. I was off at a meeting, and the New York Times wanted to talk with me. Then I was home watching the news, and an essayist on MacNeil-Lehrer [NewsHour] did a photo essay on the mysteries of beauty [using the Science cover].
What complaints do colleagues have about you?
I'm just a bit lost in my own thoughts. At times, it will be difficult to get my attention.
How often does that happen?
That's kind of a permanent part of the picture. To keep the gerbil wheel turning in my brain, I am preoccupied. It's a downside, but it's necessary in this game.
What is your favorite thing to do?
To travel with my family to really cool places. Jungles, places with wildlife. In Florida, I found some guy who knows about fossils. [We] stood in a river all day, in five feet of water, shoveling gravel for shark teeth.
How did you get your start?
[I met] Matt Scott, who was also a postdoc; this is 1982-'83, and there I was, a grad student looking for a postdoc [position], and talking to a guy who was a postdoc. But this was a new field. In the fall of 1983, I arrived at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Shortly thereafter, Matt discovered the homeobox [gene]. That first year in the lab was amazing. I worked like a dog. That was seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day. The only thing that shortened it up was when the [Boston] Celtics were in the playoffs. I did tinkering with technologies to get experiments to work. You had to invent your own way to get the tools you needed to solve a problem.
What is the lab working on now?
We continue to be interested in evolutionary mechanisms at three levels: the macro level, about major changes in body design; at the more micro level, which is variation between species; and at the molecular level, to see how change arises. Anybody who is a specialist would say, that's ambitious. My answer: Life is short.
1. S.B. Carroll, M.P. Scott, "Zygotically active genes that affect the spatial expression of the fushi-tarazu segmentation gene during early Drosophila embryogenesis," Cell, 45:113-26, 1986.
2. S.B. Carroll et al., "Pattern formation and eyespot determination in butterfly wings," Science, 265:109-14, 1994.