Mariana Cook’s book, “Faces of Science,” portrays 77 scientists who have made many of the most important discoveries of our time. Each photograph is accompanied by a personal essay written by the scientists. The portraits in this online series are accompanied by excerpts from those essays. For more information, please visit Mariana Cook’s website: www.cookstudio.com.
I was a little truth seeker as a child. I wanted more than anything to understand myself and also other people. I remember that my best friend stenciled for me “Seek Ye the Truth, and the Truth Shall Set You Free,” and I hung it on my bedroom wall. My path to truth was winding. It started with Russian novels, then psychology courses, and eventually led to molecular biology after my mother gave me a copy of Jim Watson’s wonderful Molecular Biology of the Gene. I also loved learning. I have always gotten a thrill, a kick, from leaning new things. Plus, very important, from a young age I wanted to accomplish something truly great, something extraordinary, during my lifetime.
As a scientist, I first studied problems pioneered by others—for example, the question of how a fertilized egg develops into a complex, fully formed animal. During this time, I began to realize two very important things about biology: nothing, it seemed “just happened”; everything—from cell division to biological pattern formation—was subject to elaborate and clever modes of regulation. Second, these regulatory mechanisms were, to a remarkable extent, the same in all organisms. The study of development was fascinating, but I still wanted to find something completely new and unknown to study. That turned out to be aging. Everyone seemed to think that aging was something that just happened. We wear out, like old cars. But genes had to influence aging. After all, mice live 2 years but bats live 50. Rats live 3 years; squirrels 25! Also, how could a young girl go through puberty at age 12 and then menopause four decades later if the aging process weren’t regulated in some way? I decided that there might really be something interesting here. Perhaps genes did regulate the aging process. Perhaps different organisms had different life spans because a universal regulatory “clock” was set to run at different speeds in different species.
Aging has puzzled and bedeviled mankind for centuries (just think of Shakespeare’s sonnets), so our findings give me a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness. Maybe one day we will be able to take a pill that keeps us young and healthy much longer. I believe in my heart that this will happen.