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Faces of Science: Francisco J. Ayala

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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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: .

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Francisco J. Ayala - Photos and Text ©Mariana Cook “Faces of Science”

The first science class that I remember was in junior high, in Madrid, where I was born. The Catholic priest who taught the class got me hooked. I wanted to learn about astronomy, physics, and biology, about scientists and their exciting discoveries. When I registered to study physics at the University of Madrid, my parents, brothers, and sisters were surprised and a bit chagrined. Nobody in the family had ever studied science. Their interests were in business; economics or law would have been expected, but not physics.

Around 1960, science in Franco’s Spain was in a sorry state. Two Spanish professors whom I had befriended encouraged me to go abroad and introduce me to Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the great evolutionists of the 20th century. And so it was that in 1961 I began doctoral studies at Columbia University with Dobzhansky as sponsor. I was blinded by the excitement of New York City. I would study and work at the lab all day, including most weekends, but I would often attend poetry readings or music performances in the evening, mostly in Greenwich Village, and go to see foreign and experimental movies that had never been accessible in Spain. At the university, the facilities were splendid and the professors were brilliant scientists, accessible and friendly, a far cry from the stuffiness that prevailed in Spanish universities at the time.

In 1964, I got my Ph.D. degree. In 1967, I got my first faculty position, at Rockefeller University in New York. Dobzhanky was doing as much as he could to persuade me to stay in the United States. In March 1971, I became a U.S. citizen and later that year I moved to the Department of Genetics at the University of California at Davis. In 1987, I moved to the Irvine campus of the University of California, where I shall remain to the end of my career.

Genetic diversity and change have been the subjects of my research. I have investigated the changes that yield new species, how to use DNA to learn about the evolution of organisms and their interrelationships through time. The millions of “letters” that make up the DNA of organisms are books where we can read the history of the species and the timing of evolutionary events. For the last two decades, I have invested much effort in unraveling the genetics traits of the malaria parasites that every year kill a million children in Africa alone and debilitate with high fever hundreds of millions of infected individuals throughout the world.

Scientific research is exciting. I wake up every morning eager to get to my office and lab to pursue the subject at hand with my graduate students, postdocs, and other collaborators. I very much enjoy teaching undergraduates. For ten years, I have taught introductory biology to 500 students each quarter. And I enjoy world travel: for field research, for lecturing, for vacation. The little friend on my lap was a gift from Indians living in the jungles of Colombia.

Francisco J. Ayala, Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences and University Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Irvine. He is known for his research on population and evolutionary genetics, and has been called the “Renaissance Man of Evolutionary Biology”.