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.
My fifth-grade teacher walked in to the classroom one day and said, “Close your books. Today we’re going to try to answer the question ‘What is life?’” We started listing things on the board. Something is alive if it moves, eats food, uses oxygen. She said, “What about a car? Doesn’t it do those things? Is a car alive?” We spent maybe an hour on it. But I continued to think about that question as the years went by. And I continue to think it is the most compelling intellectual question there is. I’ve been asking that question—on a variety of different levels and from many different angles—throughout my career.
I came to a career in science, however, through a series of happy accidents. When I was a little girl, I used to imagine ways in which I could help mankind. I read about Jane Addams and Hull House, and I wanted to be a social worker. Then I wanted to be a nurse. Then—a bold thought in my household—I wanted to be a doctor. I am a second generation American; my mother is Italian, my dad Swedish. They were very warm and loving people, but in the 1950s and 1960s the concept of a girl’s wanting to become a doctor seemed ridiculous. So even as I started having dreams of having a career, I never really took myself seriously. I did take several science courses in college, but I have to admit that I spent an awful lot of my time making friends, dating boys, and having an absolutely great time. Then one my teachers encouraged me to think about a career in biological research, and I thought, “Wow! You really think I could do that?” It’s been a progressive series of awakenings ever since, and not just to the world of science but to my internal self in terms of what I’m capable of doing. We’ve tackled a variety of different types of problems in the work we do in the lab, and the constant growth has been really exciting.
I came into science for the sheer intellectual joy of it. I am simply awed to find myself a participant in one of the most extraordinary events in human history. We’re actually figuring out the answer to the question “What is life?” And the more we learn, the more beautiful, and crazy, and amazing, and fascinating, and wild, and wonderful it seems. The downside is that everything is moving so fast. Keeping up with it is exhausting. The upside is the sheer wonder of it all. It’s one constant surprise after another. Science is not an easy profession, but now that I’ve tasted it, it is the only one I can imagine following.
So I find myself working at the remarkable intersection of the two things that meant a lot to me as a young girl. This extraordinarily exciting intellectual quest is also of fundamental importance to humanity. We are facing some extraordinary problems. We already have many horrific diseases, and new ones are emerging The threat of bioterrorism is very real. We are polluting our environment and overpopulating the planet. People are starving to death, and other species are disappearing from the earth at an extraordinary rate. These biological problems—and our abilities to solve them—will shape our destinies. For the sake of my children, whom I adore, and their children, whom I can as yet only contemplate adoring, I hope we succeed.