The secret lives of our profs

Young, Rachel

Young: Tell me how you got interested in science, and how you came to Lawrence.
De Stasio: I came to Lawrence as an undergraduate because the state honors band camp had been here when I was in high school. From here I went to Brown University in Rhode Island, and I went straight through and got my Ph.D. [My Ph.D.] was officially in biology in medicine, but I worked in a lab that was biochemistry and molecular biology oriented. Afterwards, I came back here [to Lawrence] and taught a year as a sabbatical replacement, so my husband [Bart] and I split one position. At that point, I wasn’t too sure I wanted a job like this, because it was a tremendous amount of work, although I really enjoyed it. From here, I went to UW-Madison to be a post-doc. I disliked the atomization of science that you see at the big schools. It became clear that I didn’t want to work in a place like that, because you didn’t even talk to your neighbor lab if they were working on a different organism for example. Having come through smaller schools, where there was a lot of interaction between departments, it became clear that the narrowness of the [educational] approach [at Madison] was not for me. So, then, my husband and I looked at schools like Lawrence and schools that were slightly larger but still had a liberal arts tradition, and this [Lawrence] was the perfect fit for us. There was one position open here, and the biology department had written a grant to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that included funding for a new position in molecular biology, which hadn’t existed here prior to my hiring in 1992. So I came in under that grant. The university – when they wrote the grant – had committed to picking up that tenure track line. Bart was offered an assistant professor non-teaching position so that he could write grants, and he filled in and taught here and there. He eventually got a [permanent] position [here] too.Young: Why do you think it’s important for every Lawrence student to have some sort of science as part of their curriculum?
De Stasio: I agree that everyone should have some college level exposure to scientific thinking, and that’s the idea, that students should be able to see how scientists approach problems, and solve them, or come up with possible solutions and test a hypothesis. It’s not so much that they are going to do that kind of thinking themselves all the time, but that they understand what the benefits of a scientific approach are. What kinds of problems can science work on? What kinds of problems are outside the realm of science? So that, when you become a taxpayer, for example, you understand the importance of basic research, and what is best left to other disciplines to solve, or to use science in addition to other disciplines to solve problems. My hope for non-majors would be that students retain an interest in understanding what’s going on in science, and feel comfortable picking up the New York Times and reading the science section and being informed citizens about the scientific community and advances in science.

Young: Do you have a favorite area of scientific study?
De Stasio: I did molecular biology as a Ph.D. student, and then I moved into a genetics department for my post-doctoral work, so if I had to put a label on myself I would consider myself a molecular geneticist. The two fields are melding, although I think there is a place for both still within the approaches of biology, the genetics approach as a particular kind of way of solving problems that involves predicting what next generations are going to be, or creating those next generations by mating organisms of certain genotypes, where the biology approach is looking down one more level in a hierarchy of science at the molecules that produce those. It’s a nice intersection of the two disciplines. I work on a small model organism that is a worm, and its life cycle is only three days. That works out well for an institution like ours; even in a single term students can do genetic experiments. This organism lives in compost piles – primarily in the topsoil – and it eats bacteria, so it’s one of the things that recycles nutrients in the topsoil and makes them more available to plants. It serves a very important function in an ecosystem. It’s [also] great to study neurobiology. It’s the only organism for which we know the entire wiring, which neurons are connected to which neurons, and it’s also a transparent animal, so you can see right through it into all the cells. There [are] lots of wonderful molecular tricks one can use with this organism to learn about very basic biology. Right now Paul Stevens is working in my lab, finding out where in the organism this particular protein is.

Young: What are your interests outside of science?
De Stasio: Here at Lawrence, I’m one of the pre-medical advisors on the pre-health advisory committee. I usually have a committee assignment, and I enjoy that because I get to meet faculty from other parts of the college, and that’s really fun. This week I’m doing “Dancing with the Profs,” so that’s a bit terrifying, but we’ll get through it, and then at home I have a big garden, so this weekend I was playing in my garden. I also have a lot of flower gardens in the backyard. I still have one son at home, so there’s lot of things to do with him. I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, and I’m leading one of the Farm City classes with Mark Jenike, so that’s got me interested. I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” right now, and I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” which was really very good. We bought kayaks last year, and last summer we kayaked quite a bit on the Fox River, so we’re looking forward to exploring a little bit more this year.