illustration by Chris Silas Neal

The Peripatetic Postdoc

Microbiologist Morgan Beeby gets some of his best thinking done on foot.

Morgan Beeby set out on a walk one Monday morning in June 2007 and didn’t stop until a Tuesday afternoon in October—four months later. By then, he had traveled 2,590 of the 2,650 miles that constitute the Pacific Crest Trail, which meanders through the United States from the Mexican border to the edge of Canada. Beeby, however, never quite made it to the point where the U.S. meets its neighbor to the north. He came to a standstill just 60 miles south of the trail’s end.

Why stop, so close to the finish line? “Because I was knee- and sometimes waist-deep in snow,” Beeby laughs. “I’d gotten a late start; I’d had a little thing called my Ph.D. to finish up.”

For this British-born microbiologist, now a postdoctoral scholar working with HHMI investigator Grant Jensen at the California Institute of Technology, walking is just a part of his native culture.

“The British are a nation of walkers,” he says. “That’s the case for a number of peoples—the English, the Japanese, the Koreans. I was brought up walking the hills near my home, in a town just south of Gloucester.”

Perhaps that’s why Beeby seems bemused by the interest shown in his ramblings, reacting as if he were being given a standing ovation for using a knife to cut his food into bite-sized pieces. To him, walking is neither vocation nor avocation, neither sport nor relaxation. It just is.

“Walking is a process,” he says. “It’s nice that it’s incidentally exercise, and it’s convenient that it’s also transportation, but that’s not the point of it. It’s something to be enjoyed in and of itself, a fantastic way of getting perspective.”

Although the time spent on the Pacific Coast Trail was by far Beeby’s longest trek, it was by no means his only one. He and a friend trudged nearly 120 miles across some of Australia’s least-hospitable terrain as part of an assignment for a magazine. He also hoofed 70 miles through Tasmania. And one summer he walked for five days from the university he attended in Birmingham, England, to his home in Gloucester. “I camped in fields wherever I could pitch a tent.”

Don’t count on Beeby for training tips or a discussion of the best walking shoes on the market, however. “I don’t train, and I almost never get blisters,” he says with a half-sheepish grin. “I think it’s because I’ve always walked and spent a lot of my childhood barefoot.”

These days, most of Beeby’s trips are short weekend jaunts when his research permits. He studies flagellar motors, the molecular machines that power the whip-like appendages that allow bacteria to travel—or, more precisely, to glide or swim—through their environment.

The only link between his work and his pastime is the process. “It’s not the surface similarity that I move and bacteria move,” he says. “It’s the pleasure and involvement I have with the process of research and development of an idea. Being able to get out and see the world is invaluable to me,” he adds. “Who can think at a desk?”

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California Institute of Technology