Theoretical evolutionary biologist Joanna Masel conducts her scientific research in front of a computer.
“The most powerful tool today in biology is the download button,” she says with a smile.
Her endless curiosity takes her from one subject to the next.
“I’m not good at having boundaries. I turn everything into an intellectual journey,” Masel says. Whatever she is teaching, she researches heavily and then writes papers on the topic.
As a teenager, she spent four years in the training program of the International Math Olympiad in her native Australia. When it came time for her to go to university, she chose biology as her major.
“I became a mathematical biologist at age 17. At the time, biology was where exciting things were happening, so I strategically chose to become a biologist.” Her doctoral dissertation examined replication of the prion proteins that cause mad cow disease.
As a teacher, Masel says one of her passions is teaching future scientists the skill of critical thinking, something that they should be the best at but which isn’t always the case.
“My frustration is science courses teach a bunch of facts that one accepts, rather than critical thinking.”
She developed a course to help students select a hypothesis — on any practical question — and then be able to design an experiment to test that statement.
“So I picked one way of testing which is the best way of testing, randomized trials, and it made sense to make the course about medicine because students are interested in that and randomized trials come up a lot in that.”
She had two aims for the course, which ended up being a probability and statistics course: That students would test a hypothesis of their own devising, and they would know what’s necessary for critical thinking with respect to reasoning about medicine.
“The thing I love most about this job is working on a problem with a student,” Masel says.
Masel, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, says her career has alternated between “trying to do something useful and trying to do well-behaved science that responds well to logic, reason and data.”
One of the research areas Masel is known for is “evolvability.”
Simply put, that’s the study of evolutionary forces that shape variation in an organism.
But it’s not that simple. Evolution by natural selection involves variation, inheritance and selection, she explains.
Variation is critical for the organism, or biological system, to be able to adapt to future environments.
“My own contribution has been to take into account that when you change a system, not all possible effects are equally likely,” Masel says.
Mutations can break something or tinker with it, and not much in between.
“You never know what’s going to be useful, but you do know what’s not going to be useful.”
The “tinkering” mutations are probably bad but at some point might be useful. The “breaking” mutations almost never are.
“I study processes that preview mutations that haven’t even happened yet but that shape that variation,” she says.
The classic view of evolution is “mutations followed by selection.”
“My interest is pre-adapting selection, which is a form of selection that can come prior to mutation,” Masel says.
She looks for errors during the expression of genes that can provide a preview of what the future mutations are likely to do.
All of this research relies on data — lots of it. But scientists trying to amass data is not a 21st century phenomenon.
“Data is absolutely critical, the same as it’s always been,” she says.
“The aspiration to collect as much data as possible is not new. We have new technology now for storing and sorting and dealing with it a lot easier. But it’s not that new.”
Masel says the key is having a clear question and then having the right data to get an answer.
“You have to know what you want, what data you need.”
Masel says she landed at the University of Arizona in 2004 because she and her husband were both offered tenure-track positions.
“The U of A has an excellent history of doing that. I’d recommend other universities who want to recruit female faculty do that.”