Evolution of a Scientist

If there is a sweet spot at the intersection of talent, hard work, drive and luck, Beth Shapiro has found it. At thirty-four years old, Shapiro—an evolutionary molecular biologist who came to Penn State in 2007 as the Shaffer Career Development assistant professor in biology—has already received more awards and honors than many scientists do in a lifetime.

There's the Rhodes Scholarship that came as she graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Georgia with a combined B.S. and M.S. in ecology, an award that took the Pennsylvania native (she was born in Allentown) to Oxford University. Three years later, she had finished her doctorate, which she earned while also hosting a science radio show and running the university's wine club. A Royal Society University Research Fellowship extended her stay in the U.K. and led to her appointment as the youngest director ever to lead Oxford's Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre. A Smithsonian Young Innovator award came next in 2007.

woman and man sit on a rhino
Dan Rubenstein via Smithsonian.com

While in the field working on a zebra DNA project, Beth Shapiro and a park ranger at Sweetwaters Game Reserve in Laikipia, Kenya, are photographed near a sleeping rhino.

Two years later, Shapiro received a phone call with the stunning news that she had been selected as one of 24 American citizens to be awarded a 2009 MacArthur Fellow award—often called a "genius grant"—given to "talented individuals in any discipline who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication to their field," and carrying a $500,000 stipend over the course of five years with no strings attached. The MacArthur was followed just months later by a Searle Scholarship for exceptional young faculty, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorers award. Shapiro says she's grateful for these honors, which allow her "to explore options in my research that other people at my stage in their careers typically don't have the ability to do." She adds, "I count myself very fortunate in that regard."

On and Off Camera

Shapiro's meteoric rise began early—but in a different field. "When I was in tenth grade, I wanted to be a television journalist," she explains. To the amusement of some, she decided to audition for the morning anchor position at her local television station, where she'd been working part-time as a camera operator. Beating out college graduates with degrees in broadcast journalism, Shapiro got the job, and spent the next two years arriving at the station by 6 a.m. to write, produce, tape and edit her stories, before heading off to high school where she played soccer, acted in school plays, was president of the local Honor Society chapter, and graduated salutatorian.

"I went to the University of Georgia because it has an excellent broadcast journalism program," says Shapiro. "I started off as the news director at the local radio station and would go in every morning at 5 a.m., but after a few months I decided this lifestyle was just not compatible with being a freshman."

Soon after, her career ambitions took a fortuitous turn toward science. "I went on an honors program summer field course," recalls Shapiro. "We drove across country and spent nine weeks living in tents in national parks—it was the most fun I'd ever had in my life. The experience said to me 'You really want to be outside,' so I thought about becoming a science journalist and started taking some science classes." That casual decision soon turned into a newfound passion. "I've never been one to do anything halfheartedly," she admits with a laugh. "I thought at the time, 'If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this with everything that I am."

Shapiro credits her mom ("bubbly, energetic, and driven") for instilling her with confidence and determination—but makes it clear that her own path has always been motivated by love of adventure and scientific discovery, rather than a desire for accolades.

"The success has been very nice," she says, "mostly because it's given me some flexibility to do more risky research I might not have been able to do. But I don't feel like I've met my own goals yet. It's never been about seeking a lot of money or being famous. My goals are to do really interesting science and to learn something we can use."

Old Bones and New Technologies

As a researcher working in the relatively new and rapidly expanding field of ancient DNA studies, Shapiro is able to use genetic information gleaned from ancient plants and animals to learn how evolution happens over time and terrain. In the past five years, technical advances in genomic sequencing technology have allowed researchers to "reach into those specimens of ancient DNA and get crucial information" about how ancient animals responded to large-scale changes in their habitat and environment.

woman and men look at bones on beach
Alan Cooper via Smithsonian.com

Beth Shapiro and colleague Paul Matheus label bones collected during a fieldwork trip.

"There have been many hypotheses about why populations maintain or lose diversity," she explains. "Now, for the first time, ancient DNA lets us explicitly test those hypotheses and propose new ones. Answering these questions can help form strategies to protect and conserve species today. We can look at prehistoric analogs to modern populations and see who was in trouble, when, and why."

To shed light on those questions, Shapiro has explored museum collections worldwide, as well as cold and remote landscapes in Alaska, Siberia, and Canada (permafrost preserves bones and thawing permafrost reveals them, she explains). The bone samples she collects—when ground to a powder, dissolved in solution, mixed with magnesium and enzymes, and "cooked" in the lab—yield their valuable DNA.

In 2000, after talking curators at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History into letting her take a bone sample from a rare dodo specimen, Shapiro was able to trace the population history of the extinct bird and discovered that it was distantly related to the pigeon. Traveling to Alaska with her Oxford mentor Alan Cooper in 2001, she helped pull a 21,000 year-old woolly mammoth femur from a frozen riverbank. ("It was roughly as tall as I am, she recalls, "and I'm about five feet.") Several years later, with their colleagues, Shapiro and Cooper published one of the first woolly mammoth genome sequences. In the past year, she collected musk ox bones in the Yukon tundra and led a team of scientists in the discovery that a warming climate—and not human hunting—was to blame for the steep decline in musk ox populations that began 12,000 years ago.

Diverse Lines of Research

Praised by colleagues for her curiosity and dynamism, Shapiro tackles diverse lines of research and shifts easily from mapping ancient and endangered animal DNA to applying those same techniques to exploring the viral evolution of HIV and influenza, in collaboration with Penn State colleague Mary Poss. The energetic Shapiro has published over 40 papers in journals such as Science, PLoS Biology, Current Biology, and PNAS and has become a reviewer for almost 20 peer-reviewed journals as well.

Despite her rapid rise and prolific achievements, Shapiro doesn't see herself as a workaholic. Simple things still motivate her the most, she says. "One of my favorite things to do when I go into the field is to travel into the middle of nowhere where there aren't any people. The world feels so good and clean and natural up there. If everybody had an opportunity to go somewhere that's pristine, people would get a much better appreciation for saving habitats and species."

These days, Shapiro has added motivation for preserving the planet—her six-month old son Henry. She's already mastering the parenting learning curve and "figuring out how to fit work into the length of time he naps."

"I don't know where my research is going," concludes Shapiro, seeming contented with the unknown. "I have some ideas, I have a lot of enthusiasm, and quite a lot of drive, but let's just see."

One thing seems certain: Wherever Beth Shapiro's drive takes her next, the scientific world will be watching.

Beth Shapiro, Ph.D., is Shaffer Career Development Assistant Professor of Biology in the Eberly College of Science, beth.shapiro@psu.edu.

Last Updated August 31, 2010