On Wed., March 29, Dr. Bethany Wasik spoke at the NS&M Colloquium and gave a talk titled “Adventures in #AltAc: How to Evolve from Biologist to Editor and Still Find Time to Tweet about It.” Wasik was invited to speak at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) by Biology Professor Kevin Emerson. Emerson met Wasik in an undergraduate program they were both in; he introduced Wasik as an Assistant Editor at Cornell University Press.
Wasik began her talk by explaining the research she had done on beetle horns and butterflies. Wasik’s research on beetle horns focused on the questions: “How do body structures evolve and diversify during development?” and “What genes affect the development and diversity of novel traits?” She was “interested in figuring out what genes cause horns to change in location, shape, size, and more [in beetles],” she said. The beetles she looked at were dung beetles, and the amount and quality of the dung the beetles were exposed to affected the growth and development of beetle larva. Wasik eventually said that “you can predict horn size based on body size.”
For her research, Wasik had hypothesized that novel structures like horns reuse genes involved in appendage patterning during development. She looked at mRNA’s relationship with protein expression and could use certain copies of genes in RNAi to shut down a certain gene’s expression in the beetles. This enabled Wasik to see what the gene did based on the changes that were seen in the beetle’s development.
Wasik’s second research topic asked: “How do novel wing patterns evolve among closely related species?” Wing patterns are important for butterflies, as they can be involved in mimicry, avoiding predators, or just a part of phenotypic plasticity (increased variation) within a population. The researchers artificially selected violet-color wing scales in the butterflies, and after about eight generations, the microscopy of the scales on the wings showed that there were violet wavelengths picked up in a butterfly species which previously did not have any violet hue to it.
The project got picked up by the local news such as Yale University Press, and headlines proclaimed this as a revolutionary scientific idea. while the results were exciting for the biological community, the newspapers which were reporting on it misrepresented the results. Different headlines said that the butterflies were “free to change color” or the new butterflies were changed to be “glamorous.”
“It was particularly enlightening to me [to see this misrepresentation of the results], as I was getting interested in writing and editing and how we communicate about science,” Wasik said.
Wasik emphasized how having appropriate ways to communicate in science is crucial; it helps reporters to accurately explain research to the public who doesn’t have as much knowledge about the scientific concepts within the experiments. Wasik thought that editing might be something she would be able to use her skills in to help individuals communicate science effectively.
She currently works for Cornell University Press which publishes scholarly works to promote academic research and scholarship through books and journals. They print mostly books used by professors and students in lecture courses, but sometimes print general interest books. Wasik explained her unique path to this career is certainly not what anyone with a PhD and two postdoctoral fellows is usually seen doing, but that doesn’t make the unorthodox career move impossible or unfulfilling.