STEMinist Profile: Karen James, Biologist

Karen James

Karen James

Visiting Staff Scientist, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory
Consultant, International Barcode of Life Scientific Steering Committee
Co-founder and Director, The HMS Beagle Project

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Like every child, I was curious about the world. My mother tells me that at the age of four, I confidently theorized about such biological processes as the origin of cantaloupes (cantaloupe factories, of course) and from which body part the spider spins her web (her heart, apparently). I wondered why we don’t have skin between our fingers, since “it is so annoying to have to dry there every time we wash our hands” (I still get annoyed by that). I think in my case, that curiosity just never went away.

That said, I wasn’t always sure I wanted to be a scientist. I switched majors several times in college. I started out as a Pre-veterinary student but then a summer internship at a vet hospital made me realize that it is possible to love animals too much to be a vet. So, I switched to Engineering. As part of my first year of courses, I took honors Biology, and that was it. I loved it… the intricate, elegant world of the cell… the way that organisms make themselves. So I switched to Biology and never looked back.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
While I was a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, I coordinated a program of science projects for the Museum’s Darwin200 campaign (a series of activities and events celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth). As part of this role, I worked on a project in collaboration with Paquita Hoeck and Lukas Keller at the University of Zurich, and Rosemary Grant and Peter Grant (famous for their work with Darwin’s finches) at Princeton University. The project involved coordinating access to and taking a small tissue sample from the toe-pads of historical mockingbird specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Robert Fitzroy in Galapagos in 1835.

Dr. Hoeck and I extracted DNA from these toe-pads (she in Zurich and I in London, to minimize the possibility of contamination from other sources of DNA in one of our labs), and then carried out a genetic analysis to contribute to a conservation genetics study on modern populations of these birds, which are extremely rare in the wild today. The resulting paper can be found here. I’ll never forget how exciting it was to have the tubes with the toe-pad clippings on my lab bench… “these were on the Beagle!” I kept thinking.

Role models and heroes:
There have been many great explorer-naturalists, but only some of them were also great communicators: Charles Darwin, of course, but also Alexander Von Humboldt, John Muir and, today, David Attenborough. I also just recently learned about the botanist Jeanne Baret, who, disguised as a man, became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Man or woman, the scientific career path isn’t always a bowl of cherries. It’s hard work, there’s a lot of unfairness in the system (more so if you’re a woman), it doesn’t pay particularly well, and stable academic jobs are scarce. But if you love science, you enjoy your work at each stage, and you keep an open mind about your next-step career options, it can be a whole lot of fun.

Don’t let senior academics brainwash you into thinking that getting an increasingly rare tenure-track position is the only way to consider yourself a “success” in science. Do it because you love it, not because you want to make a lot of money (ha!) or because you want to impress or make someone else proud.

Favorite website or app:
The TimeTree app lets you enter the names of two organisms and tells you how long it’s been since those two organisms shared a common ancestor. The answer is based on published molecular time estimates and it lets you follow links to the published papers that support that estimate. I’m also a little bit of a Words With Friends addict. Ahem.

Twitter: @kejames

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