Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary Interview

Fred Gould (SX 1982) 
Interviewed by Elsa Youngsteadt (SX 2009)

What made you want to be a scientist?

There was nothing that made me want to be a scientist!

I liked biology. My family wanted me to be a doctor, so it was pretty easy to just do biology. I applied to medical school and did get in. But I finally decided it was not what would be good for my life. I never went.

I wound up bumming around Europe and driving a cab in New York and working in a mental hospital. I thought I might go do some pottery. I didn’t really know what I was going to do.

I basically got tired of working in a mental hospital and applied to a few graduate schools. It was not to get a Ph.D. It was because it seemed like wow, they would pay me to take classes as opposed to doing nine-to-five!

I went to school in ecology and evolutionary biology, because I wanted to study natural history. But then it turned out that it was mostly about statistics and equations and experimental design. But slowly I got into that, and realized that was pretty interesting. I didn’t drive the thing, I sort of got used to it. And then I liked it. So what can I say?

What has been your most fulfilling accomplishment as a scientist?

That’s much easier! The Bt thing, to be able to take evolutionary theory and see that it had an application.  

The Bt thing?

In the late 80s it became possible to move genes from bacteria into plants, and have them expressed by the plants. These plants would have a Bt gene, from Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria, that was toxic to specific caterpillar pests. So you could plant those plants instead of spraying insecticide.

The issue that came up is that it’s just like any other pesticide. Aren’t the pests going to adapt to this? Especially if you put out thousands and thousands of acres of these crops that express the toxin whether you need it or not? The pests are going to be exposed [to the toxin] all the time.

So we used basic population genetic theory to figure out ways to make use of the Bt gene, to have that toxin expressed in ways that it would slow down the pests from adapting.

The approach that was most feasible and practical was what became known as the high dose refuge strategy. All the plants that produce the toxin have to produce a very high amount of the toxin, so even partially adapted pests will die. And then you leave part of the land with no toxin at all, so insects that have no adaptation can survive. Then they mate with the few resistant individuals that may pop up. That dilutes the resistance.

It became an EPA requirement that people [use the high dose refuge strategy]. It seems like this strategy has worked where it was implemented well. So that’s pretty cool.

What significant changes have you seen in your field during your career?

The big change is DNA sequencing. Years ago in evolutionary biology, we sort of had guesses about the amount of genetic variation within an organism. But with DNA technology you really see a lot more. When I was starting out, there were a lot of arguments in the literature that just couldn’t be answered. Now they’re being answered wholesale. Evolutionary biology has changed dramatically because of DNA sequencing.

The other change is the need for interdisciplinary research. Not that it wasn’t necessary years ago, but it just seems more and more like there’s no way that a lab can just act on its own and really address significant questions. There’s too much detail in each technique, so the tactics that you need and the approaches, you can’t know them all.

What advice do you have for younger, upcoming scientists?

It may be worth at least thinking about the idea that you should look at grad school as an experience unto itself. If you really don’t like grad school, you’re not going to like what happens when you come out of it. And if you really like grad school then maybe you’ll get a job in that area. Maybe you won’t. After you get out of grad school you might decide that’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life.

You should not then look back at the time you put into grad school as a waste. The idea would be that you got something good out of it that will help you with other things.

What do you think are the most pressing needs to be met in science in the coming years?

I’ve been learning more about the interaction of science and society, and the development of environmental policy and health policy, and what is the role of science in that. When there isn’t too much at stake in terms of the policy, then the science can come through. But when there’s something at stake in the policy, if somebody who has power has to sacrifice, then science becomes only a player in this. I think that there are new approaches coming along in terms of how to integrate science into policy development. And I think that’s pretty critical.

We also need to give up on the idea that science has the answer all the time. It may, but it might not.

What would you like to see scientific research accomplish?

I’d like to see science and policy take care of the population problem. That’s really the problem, as far as I can tell.

One of Sigma Xi’s strengths is its interdisciplinary nature. We’ve already talked about interdisciplinarity a little bit. But how important do you think interdisciplinary collaboration will be for solving some of the challenges that lie ahead in science?

We’ve already talked about that, but it is useful to ask the question of where Sigma Xi comes in. There aren’t very many societies like Sigma Xi that deal with all the different things.

The flagship thing in Sigma Xi is the American Scientist. And that’s where a lot of people go to read much more broadly than they would in their own field. It’s a great kind of contribution to be able to have that. I have found that I get on an airplane and I have my magazine with me and it’s a great time to be reading broadly.

I’m sure there are plenty of scientists out there who have had their thoughts very concretely moved into another area because they saw the application of what was going on in an American Scientist article to their own work. But I think it’s also that kind of thought process of watching how people in other fields have solved problems.

What is your favorite part of American Scientist magazine?

My focus is typically on feature articles and the book reviews. If it’s a long plane ride, then I start looking at the other things.
Where would you like to see Sigma Xi in 125 years?

That’s way too far!

How about in 25 years?

I’d like to see them still publishing the American Scientist so I can read it on planes. If we still have plane travel. But I hope that they will continue to be involved in bringing interdisciplinary kinds of things together, keeping that broad audience.

I should not end this interview without saying that the most important thing of Sigma Xi to me in my life was the Grants-in-Aid. That’s why I’ve always felt an allegiance to Sigma Xi, because that was the first grant I ever got. It wasn’t much money but it helped me to pay an assistant when I had to take off for a weekend or something. I was working on spider mites and they just needed to be cared for all the time, it was like working with dairy cattle, you couldn’t go away and you needed somebody to step in for you. That little grant went a long way, and I’ve always supported that part of Sigma Xi.