Early Career Leadership Spotlight — Zach Grochau-Wright
Early Career Scientist Communication Outreach Subcommittee
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona
In ~4 billion years of evolution, life on Earth has gone from simple, microscopic organisms to immensely complex macroscopic organisms. Understanding how complex life evolved on Earth is a fundamental goal of evolutionary biology and will help in the search for complex extraterrestrial life as well.
One mechanism that underlies the evolution of complexity is Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality (ETIs). An ETI occurs when individual organisms form a cooperative group and become so functionally integrated that natural selection starts to operate on the group level and the group transitions into a new higher-level individual. Examples of ETIs include the evolution of the genome, the evolution of eukaryotic cells, the evolution of multicellularity, and the evolution of eusocial societies. My research is focused on understanding how the genetic basis for multicellularity and multicellular-level traits, such as cellular differentiation, evolved. This work not only informs how complex life evolved on Earth but also how and why certain diseases, such as cancer, occur. In the ETI framework, cancer may be viewed as a loss of group-level (multicellular organism) control of the lower-level (cells), and the lower-level acting selfishly to the detriment of the group. Understanding how the genes to keep the lower level functioning normally evolved can also help us understand why the lower-level sometimes revolts.
Volvocine green algae are an excellent model system for studying evolution, development, and genetics. Among the many species within this group are members spanning a range of multicellular complexity from single-celled, to undifferentiated multicellularity with few to dozens of cells, to organisms with hundreds to thousands of cells and distinct specialized cell-types. I use molecular cloning, DNA sequencing, and evolutionary analysis to determine when a critical gene family, involved in controlling cell-type development, arose in this group. I also examine the function and evolution of this gene family in diverse species to study the convergent evolution of cellular differentiation seen in this clade. By studying the evolution of these algae in detail, we can gain a better understanding of how new genes, functions, and cell-types evolve and the steps life takes from simplicity to complexity. And, in turn, we can learn why cell types sometimes change in ways detrimental to the organism as well.
As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What career paths interest you the most?
My PhD training has exposed me to a wide diversity of disciplines. I’ve learned about evolution, development, and genetics through my research; geology, astronomy, and physics through pursuing a graduate minor in Astrobiology; and pedagogy and the psychology of learning through my work as an instructor and course reform teaching assistant. I’ve also gained experience teaching undergraduate students, K-12 students, and the general public about these topics through formal teaching positions and informal outreach work.
What I’ve discovered through these experiences is that I enjoy learning about science and how the world works from a variety of viewpoints and approaches. I also enjoy interacting with other scientists and teaching students and the public about science. I’d like to translate this into a career where I can continue to teach and promote science to students and the public. I’m interested in pursuing a career as faculty at a primarily undergraduate institution where I can teach and mentor future generations of scientists or as an outreach program director for a museum or non-profit institution where I can promote and teach science to the general public.
In addition to your research, how else do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
Today, science plays a major role in our everyday lives, from the food we eat to the air we breathe. It’s imperative that the public and policy makers have an understanding of how science works. To accomplish this, the scientific enterprise must be inclusive and representative of the population so that the voices of all groups affected by science are represented. This will enable the best ideas to come to the forefront.
I’m interested in developing networks and relationships to discuss science with those who typically wouldn’t be interested, think science isn’t relevant to them, or typically don’t have access to professional expertise. To do so, I want to develop science communication and education tools to help scientists and teachers generate interest in science, teach the scientific method, and correct common misconceptions. Generating interest and appreciation for the relevance of science in as much of the public as possible will help ensure that science is supported, is considered in decisions, and is inclusive.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
Scientists are well trained in presenting information and arguments clearly to other scientists through research articles, conference talks, seminars, etc. But techniques that work well for engaging with other professional scientists don’t always work well with students or members of the general public. Personal stories or arguments based on deeply held values are often more persuasive than figures and data. As a member of the Communication and Outreach Subcommittee, I want to help my fellow scientists come up with fun and creative ideas to share their science with diverse audiences. I also want to generate tools to help scientists address common misunderstandings about science and key topics in their specific fields, as well as tools to help them find common ground and talking points for audiences that are resistant to established science.
Previous Leadership Experience
- Election Science Voter Guide, Co-author, and Representative – March for Science Southern Arizona
- Head Teaching Assistant – University of Arizona
- Outreach Fellow – University of Arizona
- Organizer – Blue Marble Space Institute of Science Astrobiology Summer Academy
- Mentor – NASA UK Astrobiology Academy