Harper, an HHMI predoctoral fellow, studies population biology, ecology, and evolution. Her research at Emory University focuses on the controversial question of where syphilis originated. One theory is that the Spanish brought it to the Americas from Europe. Another suggests the disease originated in Africa, and another that it has always existed worldwide. Harper and her colleagues are looking at different genes in Treponema pallidum, the pathogen that causes syphilis, and other closely related pathogens to determine their origin. As part of her investigation, she is creating a mathematical model that examines the dynamics of how disease spreads, and she is also studying syphilis in primates, primarily baboons.
As she straddles biology and anthropology, Harper faces the challenge of reconciling the different recommendations from her advisers and balancing the unease that some scientists have with the methods and theories of counterparts in other fields. "The advice I've received is all great, so I've tried to find a project that combines the different viewpoints," she says.
Harper, whose mother is an artist and father a computer network specialist, initially planned to make her career in writing. However, a biology undergraduate class at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, ignited her interest in a science career, and she spent the next summer catching up on required chemistry classes. Now, she is happy with lab work and also pleased to find how valuable writing skills are in every scientist's work.
On the family front, Harper has a 10-month-old son and says she has designed projects with research that she can conduct in part from home. "It is important to me to be able to continue working in science, even with a family," she says. "A lot of scientists neglect family life or have a spouse who stays at home, so there's division of labor." She considers herself fortunate to find ample support as she juggles the two time-demanding roles, saying this is not typical in science yet. "There are still very few women faculty members," she notes. "It's changing for the better, but there's still a lot of distance to go" in terms of creating a family-friendly environment for scientists, both female and male.
Even with the demands on her time, she volunteers for Ask a Scientist. She recalls one moving question from a teenage boy searching for his identity. He wanted to know more about the origin of his Hmong people, and his relatives were unable to help. "I found theories that the Hmong came from the plains of Mongolia or perhaps from India a long time ago," but little is known about their early history, Harper said. She says by answering questions, she hopes to encourage people "to get even more interested and involved in science. It is important to me that science is accessible to everybody," she adds.
Author: Cathy Kristiansen