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AAAS President Seeks New Support for Curiosity-driven Research

From a childhood fascination with cactus plants, to field work in Brazil tracing the wild progenitor of the cassava plant, to learning the subtleties of rice cultivation from an expert farmer in the highlands of Thailand, evolutionary biologist Barbara Schaal has found science to be "just so much fun."

She brings that enthusiasm to her new role as president of AAAS, where she will argue passionately for the value of curiosity-driven science pursued without regard for immediate application. At the same time, she has spent much of her career studying the practical benefits that can flow from a better understanding of the vast genetic diversity of the natural world.

Schaal, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, called for more effective communication and public engagement by scientists in explaining their work, both to policy makers and to the general public, across a range of topics — climate change, evolution, stem cells, and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture.

"Agriculture has tremendous challenges that it is going to face," Schaal said. "We want to feed a growing population. We want to feed them better, with more nutritious food." The global population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Of particular importance, Schaal said, is finding ways to lessen the environmental footprint of agriculture, which currently accounts for about 70% of U.S. water consumption. Such challenges, she said, must be addressed using the entire toolbox of methods, including genomics, cellular and molecular biology, traditional plant breeding, and genetic modification. Taken together, such tools are giving scientists a better understanding of how plants respond to drought, high temperatures, pests, and disease.

Messages by scientists about the environmental impact of agrochemicals, GMOs, and other topics often "are not well received," Schaal acknowledged. Researchers must understand the cultural context as well as the underlying science in communicating about their work. When scientists have difficulty trying to explain their research to a lay audience, she said, the tendency too often has been to just "give them more detail and say it louder."

Schaal's own pursuit of science blossomed from her childhood interest in plants. She majored in biology as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where she studied with Donald A. Levin, a specialist on the origin, expansion, and demise of plant species. When Levin moved to Yale University, Schaal followed. She was accepted as a doctoral student there and began a research career in which she was among the first plant scientists to use molecular biology-based approaches to understand evolutionary processes in plants.

Barbara Schaal at a rice-growing cooperative in Gongliao District in Taiwan. | Kupo-Fang Chung

Schaal's interest in agricultural species was spurred when Rob Bertram, a staff member at the U.S. Agency for International Development, asked if her research on plant DNA sequences could help trace the origin of cassava, a starchy root crop that is a large source of food carbohydrates in the tropics. "I didn't know what cassava was," Schaal admitted, but she figured the question was pretty straightforward. It took a decade of work before Schaal and Kenneth M. Olsen, then a graduate student, reported finding the wild progenitor of the cassava plant in a region along the southern border of the Amazon basin.

Their exercise in phylogeography, interesting on its own merits, also identified a source of genetic diversity that could be tapped to help improve the modern cassava plant. And it showed that the domestication of cassava occurred in a place where humans have had their longest association with the wild ancestor of the plant. Such associations began when "some smart men and women 10,000 years ago began to cultivate" various plants, Schaal said.

That human selection of favorable traits continues, both through traditional crop breeding and through the more targeted use of genetic engineering. In Thailand, where Schaal studied the adaptability of ancestral varieties of rice to pests and climate change, she was impressed by the ongoing search for favorable traits by expert farmers who pay close attention to mutations in their crops. "Clearly what is going on in these villages is artificial selection," Schaal said, "and they are modifying their crops in the same way as their ancestors did over many centuries."

In recent years, Schaal's focus has shifted from fieldwork (though she continues to follow the far-flung research projects of her students) to national and international policy issues involving science. In 2005, she was the first woman elected to the vice presidency of the National Academy of Sciences. She was elected to a second four-year term in 2009, the same year she was appointed by President Obama to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). She serves as chair of the Division on Earth and Life Studies at the National Research Council and also was a Science Envoy for the U.S. Department of State.

Schaal is eager in her new role with AAAS to become even more involved with science policy, particularly to make clear the value of basic research. She cited the "the incredible advances in medicine" that have come from basic studies funded by the National Institutes of Health. She worries that budget stringencies could close "the pipeline for new discoveries" fostered by NIH, the National Science Foundation, and other science-related agencies.

[A version of this story appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the 26 February 2016 issue of Science]