A discussion with R. Scott Hawley

By Crystal Gammon

R. Scott Hawley, PhD, began his career in genetics research a bit unintentionally. As a high school student, he planned to become a lawyer and advocate for people with developmental disabilities. But his plans quickly changed when he took his first college course in genetics and was captivated by the field.

Now, as a Stowers investigator, Hawley spends each day working to understand the intricacies of meiosis in Drosophila, and how we might use these clues to understand and prevent developmental disabilities in our own species. An avid educator and award-winning textbook author, Hawley recently took on the role of dean of The Graduate School of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, which will welcome its first class in the fall of 2012.

This month, Hawley was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, joining an elite cadre of the nation’s most accomplished scientists.

What is the most interesting question in your field of research?

There’s an observation that makes no sense to me as a biologist: if someone who’s 23 is going to have a baby, the probability that the child will have Down syndrome is only one in a few thousand. But if she’s a little older, say 34 or 35, then the risks start to go up into the range of one percent. And if she’s in her early- to mid-40s, the risks are much higher.

Why is the ability to carry out meiosis properly so sensitive to age? If we understood those processes at a molecular level, maybe we could begin to ask why a woman’s age makes a difference. We might be able to ask more informed questions about a number of human birth defects.

What ties together the many processes your lab studies?

I like to think of meiosis as a ballet with many dancers. Many different events—processes affecting the nuclear envelope, the chromosomes within the nucleus, as well as the cytoplasm surrounding the nucleus in the oocyte—all must follow the same choreography to occur correctly and at exactly the same time.

In the next decade or so, how will research like this contribute to medical science in general?

Someday I hope we’re able to understand what predisposes a given meiosis to make mistakes, or have a means of identifying an oocyte that has already made mistakes. Ultimately, a better understanding of what’s happening biologically will allow people—doctors, patients, and parents—to better understand the reproductive process.

How did you end up in the field of meiotic research?

When I was in high school, I had a couple of epileptic seizures. The only consequence, as far as I was concerned, was that I ended up in a PE class with a lot of kids with developmental disabilities. This was in the late sixties, and there was about every kind of political movement for equality you could imagine, but I noticed no one was fighting for the rights of people with birth defects. So I went off to college intending to be a lawyer. By accident, the undergraduate advisor assigned to me was a geneticist named Crellin Pauling, whose father, Linus, won a couple of Nobel Prizes. Crellin said, “Look, if you want to do something about birth defects figure out what causes them and try to do something about it.” He recommended that I should at least take a genetics course. I did, and I fell in love with the elegance and beauty of genetics.

What makes the Stowers Institute a great place to learn about science?

We are making an immense investment in the medical scientific community of the next generation by providing students with opportunities to do real science. I think you simply cannot learn science from Betty Crocker labs. If you want to follow a recipe, go into your kitchen and bake cupcakes. The fun stuff is when you get answers you don’t expect and learn from those experiences. One of the things I wish the community realized is just how many UMKC, KU-Edwards, Rockhurst University, and KU-Lawrence students we have in our labs—people who are going to go on to graduate school, medical school, and MD/PhD programs.

Are you excited to start the new graduate program here at Stowers?

Unbelievably so. It is such an incredible new opportunity. I feel sometimes we’re not only creating a graduate school, but in some ways we’re reinventing graduate education. To me, this is an incredible challenge. And I love it.

How will the Stowers Graduate School be different?

We’re looking for people who want to do science, who have already been successful in the lab and know that’s what they want. We are not making decisions based on GPAs and GREs because numbers don’t define any of us. Instead we ask students to tell us about the research they’ve done. We want to know how well they can describe it, and it gives us a chance to assess their critical thinking skills.

Looking 20 years down the road, what do you hope the inaugural class of Stowers Institute graduates will have done for medical research?

My hope is that twenty years from now we will be looking at scientists who have made transformative advances in terms of biology. They’ll be researchers who have completed a PhD here, gone on to become postdocs at really good places, started their own labs, and are out there doing really exciting, important science.

How do you view your upcoming role as a member of the Academy?

It is a tremendous honor—literally one of the most amazing events in my life—and I think there is a responsibility that comes along with it. The academy plays an important role in issuing reports on the status of American science, especially how specific scientific issues are taught and how they impact the general public. I really look forward to participating in that process.

What are some of your interests outside of the lab? Do you see them as separate creative outlets, or do they complement your work?

I can’t separate any of it. I’ve been working on a novel for a really long time, and I write a lot of poetry. Writing is an opportunity for me to try to realize how words are connected to thought. It’s really incredibly valuable, and it’s similar to what I get from art, literature, and even bird-watching. My wife and I have taken up bird-watching recently, and observing living systems is phenomenal to me.

What keeps getting you out of bed every morning?

The coolness of experiments. It’s an amazing thing to actually have the resources and tools at your disposal to come up with ideas and test them. To be able to go into the lab and say, “you know, it would be really interesting to look and see if...” This job gets better every day. I’m more excited about doing science now than I’ve ever been.