Beth Shapiro, DPhil | HHMI Investigator
Beth Shapiro deciphers the genetic secrets of mammoths and other prehistoric creatures.
She’s a pioneer in the field of ancient DNA, has been arrested in Siberia, and lived in a tent in the Yukon. And she’s a longtime storyteller. Shapiro delights in discovering – and telling – compelling stories, especially those that make a difference in people’s lives.
In high school in Georgia, she snared a post at the local TV station, getting up before dawn to film news spots. She picked the University of Georgia because of its strong broadcast journalism program and worked as news director of a radio station. Her goal: a life in journalism.
But then Shapiro’s career path abruptly changed, thanks to a four-week field course in geology, biology, and anthropology. The students drove across the country, camped in national parks, and marveled at the rich scientific resources in the majestic mountains and forests. “I was in awe,” Shapiro recalls.
She plunged into geology and molecular biology, worked at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and “started to think about how I could combine my interests in biology and communication,” she says. Her plan was to apply for a Marshall Scholarship for graduate work in Edinburgh, Scotland, exploring the evolution of sex.
That’s when her journey took another unexpected twist. Shapiro didn’t get a Marshall and instead ended up at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. “Wandering the halls of Oxford, wondering what to do,” she recalls, she bumped into New Zealand scientist Alan Cooper, PhD, who offered her both a spot working in the brand-new field of analyzing ancient DNA and a chance to go to Siberia to dig for prehistoric genes.
What drives your curiosity?
“What drives me is the abundance and diversity of life and the fear of running out of time. There is so much to learn. I want to be able to do it all.”
Shapiro seized the opportunity – and has made the most of it ever since. She’s developed innovative new technologies for recovering tiny bits of DNA from ancient bones. She’s pioneered the use of ancient genes to chart the rise and fall of populations, showing that the genetic diversity of mammoths and other now-extinct animals declined sharply as their numbers shrank. She has discovered surprising genetic similarities between dodos and today’s pigeons and proved that polar bears and brown bears interbred when shoved together by advancing ice sheets. She even holds the record for the oldest DNA ever analyzed, from a 700,000-year-old horse. “We find all sorts of crazy things,” she says.
In the Yukon, her team works amid clouds of mosquitoes, snatching bones from walls of permafrost exposed by gold miners. In Siberia, they’ve been stranded in the field for weeks and arrested for straying outside the bounds of their visas. Her exploits have earned her a whole shelf of awards and plaudits, from a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” to the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorer award.
Yet even as Shapiro rose to be a leader in her field, she kept her passion for telling stories about the excitement and relevance of research and for attracting new, more diverse faces to science. Her 2015 book How to Clone a Mammoth describes how the giant mammals could be brought back to restore a hugely productive and valuable grasslands ecosystem. She’s helped other scientists learn to communicate and has worked tirelessly to show her students how past populations’ responses to climate change hold crucial lessons for coping with a warming planet today, earning her the accolade of HHMI professor. And in the summer of 2018, she’ll pass on the experience that was the turning point in her own life by taking some of her students on a four-week camping trip to the Arctic.