People behind the Science: Dr. Richard Lenski

A winter break special interview with Dr. Richard Lenski from Michigan State University! Dr. Lenski is probably best known for his amazingly long-long-term experimental evolution with E. coli that has been running for over 25 years and 58,000 bacterial generations! He’s been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was recently profiled by Science Magazine. Recently, Dr. Lenski started a blog at Telliamed Revisited and can be found on twitter. We asked Dr. Lenski some hard-hitting questions about biology and life:
1) Did you always think you’d become an evolutionary biologist?
No! I always enjoyed being outdoors (sports and hiking), but I didn’t have any particular interest in biology. However, my mother (who dropped out of college when she married, but then co-authored a sociology textbook with my father) was very interested in biology. She would give me articles she had read and enjoyed from Natural History and elsewhere.
I went to Oberlin College, where I thought that I might major in government. But I disliked my first government class. I also took a team-taught biology class for non-majors. All of the instructors spoke on topics about which they cared deeply, and I was hooked! I took more biology courses, and I was especially drawn to ecology because there were so many ideas and questions. At that time, I wrongly viewed evolutionary biology as a more descriptive, old-fashioned field with fewer questions that one might still address. (By the way, several other evolutionary biologists were at Oberlin when I was there including Deborah Gordon, Joe Graves, Ruth Shaw, and Kurt Schwenk. Not bad for a small school!)
I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where Nelson Hairston, Sr., was my advisor. Nelson was interested in the interface of ecology and evolution, and that opened my eyes. I was also influenced by Janis Antonovics, then at Duke University. I took his Ecological Genetics course, and he served on my committee. Janis had written a paper [1] in which he argued that “The distinction between ‘ecological time’ and ‘evolutionary time’ is artificial and misleading.” That really got me thinking. I tried to develop a couple of field-based projects that would address evolutionary questions, but I didn’t know what I was doing and they failed. In the end, my dissertation project was pure ecology.

Lenski LTEE 50k

Richard Lenski signing “Five-O” when his long-term evolution experiment reached 50,000 generations. [Photo credit: Madeleine Lenski.]

By then, though, I knew I wanted to pursue evolutionary biology. While we were finishing our doctoral projects, a fellow grad student Phil Service and I spent a lot of time discussing model systems for studying evolution. For his postdoc, Phil chose to work with Drosophila. I recalled an undergrad course in which we read about elegant experiments with microbes that addressed fundamental questions, such as one by Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück showing that mutations happen at random and not in response to selection. Meanwhile, in a graduate seminar, we read a paper by Lin Chao and Bruce Levin on the coevolution of bacteria and viruses. I wrote Bruce to ask if he might have an opening for a postdoc. Lucky for me, Bruce knew Nelson and invited me for a visit.
2) You’ve described the theme of your research as “the tension between chance and necessity”. Can you comment on how chance and necessity have shaped your career?
The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” In my long-term evolution experiment with E. coli, we can explore the tension between chance and necessity because we have replicate populations started with the same ancestor and evolving under identical conditions, and because we can replay evolution from different points along the way. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart the roles of chance and necessity with a sample size of one, which is the life that each of us has experienced, and without the ability to replay our own lives. (On that last point, let me recommend Replay, a science-fiction novel by Ken Grimwood.)
I would say, though, that most people who have had some success in their adult lives also started out very lucky. We were fortunate to be born at times and in places where we had food, familial love, education, and opportunity.
3) Reading your blog it’s clear that you are a student of the philosophy and history of science. Do you think we should include more history and philosophy in scientific training? Any advice on something we should all go out and read?
I do think that the history and philosophy of science deserve more emphasis in science and education than they usually receive. But I didn’t have any formal education in those areas. Instead, I became interested in these issues through teachers, mentors, colleagues, and my own explorations.
For something to read in this area, I suggest Darwin’s Century by Loren Eiseley. (Originally published in 1958, it was republished in 2009 by Barnes & Noble.) The book discusses the fascinating history of evolutionary thought in the decades before and after the publication of The Origin of Species. I first read Darwin’s Century in a course at Oberlin taught by James Stewart.
4) If you were starting your career today, what would you study?
If I were starting today, and at my present age, I might choose to study the history of science, especially evolutionary biology and its antecedents.
But if I were starting out young, as one usually does, I’d like things to unfold as they did. It might be tempting to skip the rough patches, but dissatisfaction with my early research led me to make the switch to microbial evolution. Would I have enjoyed this lab-based work as much, if I hadn’t discovered that I was not nearly as good at fieldwork as many of my peers?
5) How close have you come to giving up as a researcher and doing something completely different?
The job market was tough when I was a postdoc, and I had a growing family to support. So after a slew of applications and rejections, and a period of uncertain funding, I started to think about other possibilities. Luckily for me, things turned around before I had to make a switch. (You can read more about it in my blog post, The Good Old Days.)
6) What’s the meaning of life?
I think that some understanding of evolution—at a basic level accessible to anyone with an open mind and a decent education—gives perspective about our place, both as individuals and as a species, in the grand sweep of time and space. Recognizing the transience of my personal existence fills me with awe and respect for the continuity of life and ideas. And belonging to a species that is profoundly altering the world that enabled the continuity of life reminds me of our responsibility for ensuring its future.
[1] JSG note: This paper also happened to be one of the first and most influential papers that Ruth Shaw gave me when I started my PhD in 2006!

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