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Washington U. scientist Barbara Schaal named to presidential panel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2009 - President Barack Obama has appointed Barbara Schaal, distinguished professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. An expert in plant evolutionary biology, she is concerned with conserving earth's delicate ecosystems, improving the world's agricultural crops, and mentoring students here and abroad.

A meeting with Barbara Schaal often begins with steaming mugs of tea.

Tightly rolled balls of loose-leaf tea slowly unfurl as they steep in mugs emblazoned with the logo of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This particular tea is from Taiwan, a gift from a former student.

Schaal is professor of biology who studies plant evolution at Washington University. So, her love of tea goes beyond its taste. To Schaal, a mug of green tea holds fascinating chemistry. While some plants make a tasty beverage, others can produce toxic chemicals like cyanide, or compounds used in life-saving drugs like Taxol, which comes from the bark of the Pacific yew and is used to treat breast cancer. Plants are sophisticated chemists, she said, and that makes them cool.

Her unassuming office, tucked in a corner of McDonnell Hall, stands in contrast to her prestigious titles and scientific accomplishments. Since 2005, she has served as the vice president of the National Academy of Sciences, the first woman to hold the position. She is a world-renown evolutionary plant biologist, bringing multi-million dollar research grants to the university.

With her long and distinguished resume, Schaal, 61, was recently named to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. She joins 19 other distinguished individuals including Nobel laureates, university presidents, MacArthur Prize Fellows and members of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Alan Templeton, a fellow evolutionary biologist at Washington University, called Schaal an excellent appointment. “She's an outstanding scientist,” he said. Compassionate and caring not just in her interactions with faculty and students, but in the problems she chooses to study, he said, pointing to her work on rice and cassava in the developing world.  “She'll bring a rigorous scientific point of view, but one that is cognizant of the implications of science in the real world.”

Hooked on Plants

Without doubt, Schaal is a talented and successful scientist. In hindsight, though, her success seems a particular triumph against the odds. “I'm the first person in my family to get a college degree,” she said. “I always liked science and I really liked plants a lot,” she said, “But in those days there weren't many women scientists, so it didn't seem realistic.”

Born in Berlin, Germany, in 1947, her family came to the United States when she was 3 years old, settling in Chicago. “I have an image of coming over on the boat,” she says. Recalling stories her mother told, the ship was a converted troop carrier with men housed on one deck and women and children on another.

As a child, Schaal was fascinated with nature. In a 2005 interview on the National Academy of Sciences website, Schaal recalls classifying plants on family camping trips. Her parents, perhaps glimpsing her potential, gave her a microscope. “I got to look at pond scum, which was really cool,” she said. Some kids get hooked on dinosaurs; Barbara Schaal was hooked on plants.

Later, as a high school student, she took a biology class and excelled. She decided to give college a try, she said. “And I've never left.”   When asked, she attributes much of her scientific success to good luck. Luck may have played some role, but her current colleagues, former students, and early advisers tell stories of hard work, creativity and calculated risk-taking that have steered her career.

Hard Work and a Novel Approach

Donald Levin, biology professor at the University of Texas, taught Schaal as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He recalled her work ethic. Asking if she would like to work on a particular project, Levin remembers telling Schaal, “I can't pay you, but I'll give you an authorship on the paper.” She jumped at the chance.

Schaal followed Levin to Yale for graduate school. “The work she had done with Don Levin for her PhD thesis was quite exciting,” said Templeton, who was a member of the search committee that recruited Schaal from Ohio State University in 1980. “Even though she was still a young researcher, she was just heads and shoulders above everybody else,” Templeton remembers.

Her early work measured gene migration, how genes move through a population of plants. “I never thought it would have any application except for pure science,” Schaal said. But with the introduction of genetically modified crops, the work became newly relevant. For genetically modified plants, “one of the big environmental questions is how do these genes move,” said Schaal. “It's a real hoot to see this topic that I did so long ago now become so important.”

In setting up her lab at Washington University, Schaal took a chance on a novel approach to studying evolution in plants, said Kenneth Olsen, a former student of Schaal and current assistant professor of biology at Washington University. One of a few researchers beginning this work at that time, Schaal looked at variation in DNA, rather than variation in the proteins produced by the plants.

“I think in science in general, people make a step forward when the field is ready for that step,” Schaal said. So, a number of people come up with the same idea at the same time. At that time, according to Schaal, molecular biology was ripe for this new application. Needless to say, it was a good call. As complete genome sequences have become available, the techniques have become even more important. The great advantage of the DNA approach is that it shows how things are related to one other.

In practical terms, Schaal's work can help explain how rice has become the domesticated agricultural crop that feeds billions of people around the world. With her collaborators, her work has traced cassava, a staple food in many developing countries, back to its original wild ancestor. For farmers, her work could help explain a crop's ability to withstand drought or help prevent invasive species from decimating a field. Also relevant for conservation, Schaal's work helps in understanding the genetic resources available and those that may be lost to habitat destruction and climate change.   In short, her work spans the divide between basic science in the lab and practical applications in the field.

Balancing Work and Family

In addition to her science, Schaal cites the importance of family. She and her husband, Joe Leverich, a professor of biology at Saint Louis University, raised two children and are now proud grandparents.

The difficulty of a scientific career and raising children may be one reason fewer women go into scientific research. There is no shortage of women studying biology as undergraduates and in graduate school, Schaal observes, “But as you go to each level, the number declines.”

Allison Miller, a former student and now an assistant professor of biology at Saint Louis University, called Schaal a great role model for women in science – not just as a scientist, but as a woman who found a career and family balance that worked for her. “It's really important for young women scientists to see that you don't have to make a choice between having a home life and being a scientist. You can do both,” said Miller, who recently gave birth to a baby boy. “Seeing Barbara (combine family and career) every day for six years was a really great reminder of that possibility.”

Even with this work-life balance Schaal admits that her son and daughter, growing up with two biologist parents, might have gotten tired of some of the nerdy things they did. “We'd drive someplace and have roadside geology of Kansas,” she said, laughing. “We were very interested in the 1993 flooding and we dragged them along to look at it.”

Lab Camaraderie

Of course, having graduate students means having academic “kids” as well. On a wall outside her lab hangs a map of the world. Thumb tacks dot every continent, save Antarctica, keeping a record of her globe-trotting students and their plant-collecting endeavors. But plant-collections are not their only exploits.

Miller said Schaal encourages camaraderie among the people in her lab since a lab that gets along is more productive. “And we had a great group of jokesters,” she said. In 1999, when Schaal was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, her students were eager to congratulate their professor. Election to the National Academy is a huge deal, Miller said. “It's almost like being knighted, from a scientific perspective.”

Not content with typical celebrations of success – a party, a dinner, a greeting card –  Schaal's students instead purchased a six-foot-tall suit of armor. “We all kicked in 10 bucks, threw it in the car, and got somebody to let us into Barbara's office” while she was out of town, Miller said. Leaving a note of congratulations with this life-size trophy honoring her scientific knighthood seemed fitting.

Returning home, after the National Academy induction ceremony in Washington, Schaal opened her  door. Looking down for exam questions slipped under her door, she didn't see the sword-wielding intruder at first.

“Then I looked up... and there's this MAN – this giant man in my office!” she said, laughing. “I almost died. I probably did yell. But it was a Sunday, so there weren't too many people around.”

Now standing guard over her lab, the suit of armor has become something of a mascot -- Schaal dresses him up for special occasions. In honor of May graduation, a purple mortar board tassel hangs from his helmet. In December, he wears a beard and Santa hat.

Schaal clearly delights in the creative initiative of her students. “She's a mentor who allows you to explore,” said Ana Caicedo, another former student, suit-of-armor co-conspirator, and assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “She would give guidance, but she would give you space to try to figure things out on your own.”

The purpose of providing such free reign is to get students to invest in the project and make it their own. “They can take it with them so that when they start their careers, they have an ongoing research program,” Schaal said. Frequently co-advising students with Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, has led to a great diversity of projects in her lab.

Devious Snack Tactics

Beyond research and mentoring budding scientists, Schaal loves teaching. And one class stands out as a particular favorite. It is a lecture course for non-science majors about the interaction of plants and people. “A lot of the students in there are afraid of science,” she said. “They don't want to take a science class, but it's a requirement.”

Some might dread teaching such a class. Schaal embraces it. Her goal is simple: Make the students realize that plants are cool.

Though a lecture class, Schaal made one equipment purchase – a set of mini-muffin tins. For that first class, when no one wants to be sitting in a science lecture, she presents every student with four mini-muffins, each one made with a different type of flour. She tells them to break them open, look at the different textures, smell the different smells and, of course, eat them.

“After that first snack, they're mine,” she said with a grin. “It's very devious,” she adds, laughing. “The way to a student's mind is through the stomach.”

Both Miller and Caicedo were teaching assistants for this course. “She would cook before almost every class,” said Miller, marveling at the time and effort required for such culinary dedication to teaching biology.

Schaal brought exotic spices, strange fruits from specialty grocery stores (like durian from Indonesia), beverage samples from unfamiliar plants, anything the students might not have tried before. She once got permission from the dean to brew beer (for those over 21).

Another goal of the class is to get students to think about what they eat. Some drugs come from compounds plants use to protect themselves from bacterial or fungal attack. Just because it's natural and growing, Schaal explains, doesn't make it safe to eat.

Adviser to the President

The skills required to teach biology to non-science majors may come in handy when advising politicians. According to her colleagues, Schaal is a natural communicator and diplomat.

“Just by laying things out from many perspectives, she would diffuse a lot of the turmoil that can arise from a divisive issue,” Templeton said.   Olsen agrees. “She's remarkably diplomatic. Anyone who has served on a committee with her has seen her ability to make consensus in a room where people with very disparate and sometimes contradictory views are sitting.”

Indeed, similar observations have been made of President Obama. After his speech introducing his science advisers, Obama got to meet his committee for the first time. “It was awesome,” Schaal said. She described him as commanding, but also calm and sure.

Obama's newly appointed council of science advisers (see below) has met once, Schaal said, and outlined important issues they will discuss. Climate change and energy are high on the agenda. And she is particularly interested in agriculture and biodiversity. With energy policies that drive global warming putting stress on the world's agriculture and natural ecosystems, these problems are inextricably linked. Schaal said she hopes good science is actually used to make policy.

Those policies may help improve the world's staple crops, protect delicate ecosystems and preserve the dwindling diversity of species, so that our children and grandchildren might benefit from new plant-based medicines -- or enjoy a unique tea from Taiwan.

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer and a 2009 Missouri Health Journalism Fellow.