As a child, Jayatri Das loved to read. Nothing captured her imagination more than the science fiction books of Madeleine L'Engle. The classic A Wrinkle in Time was a favorite, as was its sequel, A Wind in the Door. That is where, she remembers, she first learned about mitochondria.
Das, now 23 and an HHMI predoctoral fellow, spends a lot of time these days reading about mitochondria, the energy-producing components of all cells and a key focus of her research. A Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, Das is looking at how a species is able to adapt to living in different environments. Using genetic, biochemical, and physiological techniques, she works with various fruit fly populations to learn how the flies adjust their metabolisms in extreme climatesparticularly the ways they regulate their breathing and energy requirements.
Das's early exposure to science was not limited to novels. Her father was an aerospace engineer and her mother a physicist, and her older sister pursued a career in chemistry. In high school, Das took a liking to physics, entered math competitions, and discovered she had a special interest in biology. As her interest blossomed, she spent three consecutive summers doing science internships.
At a Villanova University program, she participated in a computer simulation of population genetics. Looking back, Das feels the experience was an important transition. "I went with a focus on math and came out with a strong interest in biology," she says.
Another summer, spent investigating the genetics of the disease neurofibromatosis at Children's Hospital in Boston, provided her first real taste of lab research. "That was pretty addicting," she says. It helped her narrow her focus when she arrived at Pennsylvania State University, where she studied biochemistry and molecular biology.
As an undergrad, Das discovered the value of having a supportive lab community. In college "a lot of my experiments didn't work," she remembers. "There are times when you feel like you have more bad luck than anyone else. That's when it's important to have the support of your lab group."
Penn State honored Das for her extracurricular activities, which included taking a leadership role in the biochemistry society, serving on a committee to improve academic advising, and teaching science to young children. Today, her pastimes are less academic. She enjoys hiking and playing ultimate Frisbee, and she recently joined a crew team. "I'm still all about learning new things," she says.
She also fields questions through Ask a Scientist. Many are about evolution, a topic she believes is misunderstood by the general public. Her role, she says, is to "communicate the logic behind evolution and the data that led to establishing these theories."
The questions she gets are "the big ones," she saysfor example, How does evolution lead to so many different species? "The diversity of life out there is hard to comprehend sometimes," she admits.
People also ask about the origin of life and about the evolution of humans. "With questions like these that are so open-ended, my answers probably lead to more questions," Das says. "That's how we progressby asking more questions and looking for more answers."