BS, Biology, University of California, Riverside
PhD, Genetics, University of Washington
Scott Hawley, PhD, estimates he has trained more than 400 undergraduates in science over his career. While he’s a noted researcher, elected to the National Academy of Sciences for his groundbreaking research in meiosis, Hawley considers teaching his most important legacy. “If we do it really, really well, we can communicate, not just the information but also the passion for learning,” he says.
It’s fitting that an influential teacher, Crellin Pauling, PhD, son of two-time Nobel laureate and chemist Linus Pauling, and a genetics professor at the University of California, Riverside, helped steer Hawley toward a career in science. Hawley initially wanted to be a lawyer so he could advocate for people with disabilities. He was diagnosed with epilepsy as a teenager and saw firsthand how other children with disabilities struggled. Pauling suggested Hawley could help by doing something about birth defects, taking a genetics course as a good first step. Hawley changed his major to biology, did undergraduate research in fruit fly (Drosophila) genetics, and published his first paper on meiosis in 1975.
Throughout graduate school at the University of Washington and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, Hawley continued to define the mechanisms behind what he terms the “meiotic ballet,” the tightly choreographed dance of elements and processes involved in meiosis. He went on to join the faculty at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and later at the University of California, Davis. He joined the Stowers Institute in 2001.
At the Stowers Institute, Hawley applied his love of teaching to his role as the founding dean of the Graduate School of the Stowers Institute, building a one-of-a-kind program that emphasized hands-on scientific experience and developing critical thinking skills. Today he teaches undergrads, graduate students, and even a few medical students at the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In recognition of his commitment to undergraduate education, he received the 2008 Elizabeth W. Jones Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Genetics Society of America, which also elected him president in 2010.
To Hawley, teaching is a profound human experience and an opportunity to connect and pass on knowledge. As a student, he learned from teachers using the Socratic method, with its back and forth dialogue. Now he teaches his students the same way. “If my students aren’t doing a fair fraction of the talking during my lectures, I’m doing something wrong,” he says.
In keeping with the quote topping Hawley’s CV, “There are three functions of a scholar: to learn, to write and to teach,” the researcher is author of seven published books, including The Human Genome: A User’s Guide, Advanced Genetic Analysis, and Drosophila genetics texts. He’s also working on a novel and writes poetry.
The Hawley Lab is known for groundbreaking work on meiosis in the fruit fly (Drosophila). Meiosis is a specialized type of cell division that’s needed for sexual reproduction. Hawley’s studies of egg generation in Drosophila are improving our understanding of how maternal age affects human reproductive capacity. For example, meiotic anomalies, which often result in miscarriage or birth defects, are more common as women age.
During meiosis, a single cell divides twice to produce four cells, each containing half the original amount of genetic information. These resulting cells are sex cells – sperm in males, eggs in females. The process follows a strict order in which maternal and paternal chromosomes pair up, exchange genetic material, and then separate. At Stowers, Hawley has focused on three questions: how chromosomes in the cells of female fruit flies pair up and swap genetic information, how they separate into two daughter cells when the cell first divides, and how the second division is coordinated, producing eggs, or oocytes, with half the number of the correct chromosomes. “How do you build an egg that’s going to have the right number of genes and have it function?” says Hawley. “This has been the sole function of my studies since I began as an undergraduate.”
The Hawley Lab has defined factors that govern the start of homologous chromosomal recombination, a process in which regions of homologous chromosomes “cross over” with each other and lock together. They made the discovery that a chromosome-binding protein called Trade Embargo defines the first step in initiating recombination, providing clues to how recombination is initiated. The group has also used live imaging to watch chromosomes in real time position themselves as meiosis begins, an alignment critical for successful segregation into daughter cells. In related studies they identified how the protein Nod nudges chromosomes into proper alignment prior to that crucial first meiotic division. Hawley and his team have also shown that the egg protein Matrimony controls the timing of a number of critical meiotic events by directly blocking the activity of an enzyme controlling meiotic progression.
Now, increasingly more sophisticated imaging techniques are giving Hawley and his lab members an extremely detailed, close-up look at meiosis in action. “Images change everything,” Hawley says. “We’re seeing stuff now that we never saw before. We’re able to see structures in incredible detail.”
American Cancer Society Excellence in Research Award
Genetics Society of America’s George W. Beadle Award
National Academy of Sciences
Genetics Society of America’s Elizabeth W. Jones Award for Excellence in Education
American Cancer Society Research Professor
American Academy of Arts
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science