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Assembling the Tree of Life: Q&A with Randy Linder

Assembling the Tree of Life: Q&A with Randy Linder

Biologist Randy Linder talks about his atypical college experience, evolution, his life outside the classroom, and a street fight in Peru.

By Tim Wong, for the Natural Sciences Council

Randy Linder is as an Associate Professor in the Section of Integrative Biology. He teaches BIO 325H Genetics, where his enthusiasm about topics such as evolution and ecology really shines through. If you have taken a course taught by him, or will, you’re sure to discover, as I did, that there’s much more to this biologist than meets the eye.

Tim Wong: So I heard you have an interesting story to tell about your time in Cuzco, Peru. Can you share it with us?

randy2-685x1024Randy Linder: One time I was down in Cuzco, Peru around when Haley’s comet was coming, so my friend and I went up above the city to get some photographs of it. On our way down, we ran into four guys, and the person I was with told me that they were thieves. I told him to stay close and not to do anything. As one of the four approached us, I had to think quickly. I assumed that since they lived at a higher altitude, they were bound to be shorter than me. I didn’t know if the guy had a knife or anything, and the longest weapons I had were my legs, so as he confronted us, I gave him a couple of karate kicks right in the middle of his chest and knocked him back. My friend, who was holding my tripod, hit one of the other guys in the back of the head, and then we took off running down an alleyway. Luckily, they chose not to pursue us. The experience doesn’t have much to do with science, but when you do field work, anything can happen.

Tell us a little about your undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate work.

My undergraduate work was a little bit different from what most people get in the U.S. I started at Stanford University, but quickly became dissatisfied with the passive education offered there. Seeking more active learning, I enrolled at a very small liberal arts school called St. John’s College and there were several things that made it different from most other colleges or universities. St. John’s has a prescribed curriculum consisting of reading a lot of primary literature in the liberal arts, such as a translation of Newton’s Principia while studying calculus. There were no lectures, electives, or majors. Everyone who graduates from St. John’s gets a B.A. in Liberal Arts. So oddly enough, I don’t have a degree in Biology from my undergraduate institution. But the idea behind the school I chose was to get a broad-based education in the liberal arts, and that’s exactly what I wanted.

I got my Master’s degree at Cornell University and my Ph.D. at Brown University. Both degrees were in ecology and evolutionary biology. I worked as a post-doc at Indiana University for a couple of years after completing my Ph.D.

What kind of research do you do?

There are two major tracks of research I’m involved in.

One of the tracks is adaptive evolution in plants. In particular, we study the evolution of oil composition in seeds. Oil in seeds acts as an energy store. We’ve seen some clear patterns of evolution over a latitudinal gradient – as you move away from the equator, seeds tend to have less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat. That pattern evolved repeatedly and independently so we have to ask ourselves questions like: how did that happen, does it happen the same way every time, are there multiple mechanisms involved, what are the ecological factors selecting for differences in oil composition. That’s the type of thing we try to understand. And because of my work, I’ve worked with the USDA to help them try to develop lower saturated-fat sunflower (seed) oil.

The other track is also evolutionary, but it’s different in that it deals with the evolutionary relationships amongst different organisms. There’s a big project going on right now at the National Science Foundation called Assembling the Tree of Life, or ATOL. Essentially, they’re trying to figure out the phylogeny for all of life. And I’ve been working with a computer scientist, Tandy Warnow, for over a decade now on trying to generate a more accurate tree while developing more computationally efficient ways to do that.

What sorts of things do you like to do in your free time?

I really enjoy cycling, so I like to go out and ride my bike. Before I began graduate school, I actually fulfilled a life-long dream of mine to bicycle across the United States. I used to ride a lot more before I had as many commitments as I do now, but I still try to get out and ride as much as I can. I do some charity rides; Lance (Armstrong) is someone I admire in many ways because of his reputation in cycling and charity. I also like to hike and camp. I also enjoy, to a lesser extent, doing computational things, like building my own computers. I’m a nerd, what can I say.

If you weren’t involved in biology, what would you be doing now?

When I was growing up, and during the early years of my college education, there were no personal computers. My first exposure to computers was when I went away to college at Stanford. After I took my first computer programming course, it dawned on me that computers were incredibly powerful machines that could be made to do almost anything if you just figure out how to program them right. That was fascinating to me, the whole concept of AI and the development of AI, trying to think about how you can use computers to solve various kinds of problems. I think I would probably become a computer scientist of some form or another if I weren’t a biologist.

What advice can you give to students reading this?

Always take time to reflect. Students often push themselves to the limit, cramming in classes and information too quickly for their own good. There’s a huge amount of detail out there, and the most effective learning occurs only when you have time to think more deeply about what you’re learning. And if you don’t leave yourself time to do that, that kind of thinking can be very hard. I think the question students should be asking themselves is: are there long term things that I can accomplish if I just take a little more time, that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise? Sure, they may come out of school a little later or carry a little extra debt, but the accumulated learning goes a long way after the money has been repaid.

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Friday, 27 January 2023

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