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Evolution
Featured Scientists

Meet Michael J. Dougherty

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Director of Education
American Society of Human Genetics
Bethesda, MD

Q: Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?

A: In my former positions I traveled a fair amount, but in my current position I travel perhaps five or six times per year. International travel, a real bonus to being a scientist, is still exciting, but in my opinion, domestic travel has lost much of the luster it once had. I am grateful that my travel is more limited now.

Read more...

Meet the Scientists

Want to know the answers to some of your questions?

How can you tell when something has evolved?

What has been your biggest surprise in the science that you do?

Why is everyone so excited about celebrating Darwin's 200th birthday?

If you could meet any scientist from the past, who would it be and why?

Here you go!



Question One: What is or was your greatest challenge in doing your science?

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Kristi Curry Rogers


I think the best way to observe the signal of evolution recorded in organisms is to simply look closely at the features that organisms have and share. Looking at things in isolation won't help since every organism on earth is a part of this amazing tree of life. We have to look for the shared features - whether those features are microscopic cells or the outside similarities among animals living similar lifestyles.

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Peter D. Roopnarine


Individuals do not evolve, but populations do. When we compare individuals in a population from one generation to the next, and the variation in the population has changed, then we know that evolution has occurred. For example, let's say that a new predatory crab is introduced to a shoreline and begins to prey on snails there. If, after a few generations, the snails are growing thicker shells, then evolution has occurred.

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Andres Aguilar


In my line of research I look at primarily how DNA sequences have evolved among different species or groups of populations. By examining DNA sequences from different species, or even different populations from a single species, we can reconstruct an evolutionary history for that group. We can therefore use the pattern of DNA mutations to tell when certain species evolved, what the common ancestry is of that species, and possibly how natural selection may be involved for the gene(s) we are investigating.

Evolutionary biologists use a number of approaches, aside from DNA sequence data, to inform us when evolution has occurred. The fossil record, biogeographic distribution of species, morphological differences that occur throughout the range of a species and the occurrence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics are just a few lines of evidence that evolution has occurred.
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Anne Yoder


Literally, to evolve means to change. When we speak of evolution in the biological sense, we mean change that is heritable. That is, the change that we observe can be passed from parent to offspring. We also mean that the change that has occurred typifies the species or population. We can talk about visible evolution, or evolution that we can actually observe, when we look at viruses and bacteria. Their generation times are so short that we can observe their evolution in a matter of months. The most notorious case of this observable evolution is the acquisition of antibiotic resistance in so many bacterial strains.


Question Two: What has been your biggest surprise in the science that you do?

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Kristi Curry Rogers


I think the best way to observe the signal of evolution recorded in organisms is to simply look closely at the features that organisms have and share. Looking at things in isolation won't help since every organism on earth is a part of this amazing tree of life. We have to look for the shared features - whether those features are microscopic cells or the outside similarities among animals living similar lifestyles..

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Peter D. Roopnarine



One of the areas I work in is the study of modern and fossil ecosystems. One of my biggest surprises recently has been to learn how little we know and understand of how really diverse, species-rich systems function.


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Andres Aguilar


I have found two interesting results that were surprising. The first one involved a research project where we investigated genetic variation in an island population of foxes. For all genetic markers that we had looked at in this population we found no detectable variation. When we looked at genes in the immune system we were able to detect variation. This implied that natural selection must have maintained variation in this population, despite its small size. The second result comes from some recent work we are doing to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships for a group of fairy shrimp. The evolutionary trees we are producing contradict the traditional relationships for this group based on morphology..

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Anne Yoder


My biggest surprise came with the discovery that there are so many species of mouse lemurs, perhaps as many as 17 or 18. I was raised to believe that there were only two species of mouse lemurs: one from eastern Madagascar, and one from western Madagascar. It completely blew my mind when I first analyzed the genetics of a broad sample of mouse lemurs from all over Madagascar. The genetic analysis demonstrated that the various populations (that we now recognize as species) have been reproductively isolated for a very long time --- perhaps in the millions of years. This was amazing to me given that one mouse lemur looks pretty much like any other mouse lemur. From their morphological similarity, we must conclude that they are using cues other than vision, such as smell and sound, to recognize each other's differences. This makes sense for a nocturnal primate.

Question Three: Why is everyone so excited about celebrating Darwin's 200th birthday?

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Kristi Curry Rogers


I don't know about everyone else, but I'm celebrating because of the strides that have been made in our understanding of evolution and life on earth - just think....since Darwin's publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, we've rediscovered Mendel's pea plant experiments, figured out so many things that unite genetics and the outside expressions of those genes on organisms. The last 200 years have been an exciting synthesis of all these ideas. Darwin deserves props for getting evolution off the ground in such an elegant and thoughtful way.

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Peter D. Roopnarine


Charles Darwin was one of the greatest scientists and thinkers in history. Darwin took some of the biggest puzzles of his time - how to explain the tremendous diversity of species on Earth, and the long history of life recorded in the fossil record - and wove them together into a truly original theory of evolution. And not only did he start the entire science of evolutionary biology, and modern biology, but he developed so much of the theory right at the start! There is very little that we work on today that Darwin did not anticipate to some extent. And he raised questions which today are still unanswered. The theory of evolution has truly changed the way that we humans understand ourselves, and our relationship to the rest of the natural world.
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Andres Aguilar


I think we are all excited because Darwin was the first one to formalize the theory of natural selection. His work changed the way biologists view life on earth and gives us a framework for understanding how not only how species evolve, but how all life on earth is related.


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Anne Yoder


Darwin described the unifying mechanism that explains the diversity of life on Earth. What could be cooler than that?



Question Four: If you could meet any scientist from the past, who would it be and why?

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Kristi Curry Rogers


Roy Chapman Andrews - discoverer of dinosaur eggs in Mongolia, model for Indiana Jones - how much fun would it be to be riding herd on camels in the Gobi and finding such fantastic dinosaur specimens alongside the inspiration for one of our most iconic adventurers??!



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Peter D. Roopnarine


This is a difficult one. After having said so many great things about Darwin, who truly is one of my idols, I would have to say Archimedes. He was probably the most original scientific thinker in history. You have to imagine this man, at the very dawn of logical thinking, who while still surrounded by semi-mystical philosophers and scientists, single-handedly revolutionized the ancient world. He could do it all; physics, biology, advanced mathematics. And his influence was enormous, spanning western Europe to China. He still echoes two and a half thousand years later. That's immortality.
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Andres Aguilar


I would have to say Alfred Russel Wallace. He was a contemporary of Darwin's who came up with the theory of natural selection right about the same time Darwin did. I would like to hear about how his travels and experiences helped him develop his ideas about natural selection. It would also be great to hear Wallace's account of the publication of "The Origin of Species" his interpretation of the work.


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Anne Yoder


I know that this is predictable, but I would choose Charles Darwin. Not only was he brilliant, but from my reading of many of his books (including his autobiography), he seems to have been a completely charming and humble man. He would be someone with whom to sit outdoors with a nice glass of sherry, perhaps on a later summer's eve, and muse about the wonders of nature. I would also be fascinated to meet Alfred Russel Wallace. I would ask him directly, "So how did you feel when Charles Darwin wrote back to tell you that he had been working on the same theory?" There have been so many interpretations about Wallace's reaction to Darwin (and Darwin's to Wallace). I would love to hear their stories from the horse's mouth.








The following organizations contributed content to this theme:

American Institute of Biological SciencesScience ComedianDarwin Day Celebration The Clergy Letter Project

Flat Stanley ProjectNational Center for Science EducationNESCent: National Evolutionary Synthesis CenterThe Northwest School
RAFTUniversity of California Museum of PaleontologyThe Sloan Career Cornerstone CenterUnderstanding Evolution
Scientific American American Society of Human Genetics


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