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Faces of Science: Nina Fedoroff

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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Nina Fedoroff - Photos and Text ©Mariana Cook “Faces of Science”

I’ve never really thought about why I became a scientist. I guess I was too busy being one. When I was very small, I shared every little girl’s ambition of being a ballerina. Later I took up music and decided to become a musician. So how did I end up a scientist? We know that our choices in matters of the heart find their reasons buried in ourselves, our genes, our childhood experiences. So, too, it must be in matters of intellect.

As a child, I loved reading, collecting information – and understanding. I remember writing a report about Russia when I was in eighth grade. It was an inch thick, typed and illustrated, and it had a gold cover to which I had pasted a black paper cutout of the Russian double-headed eagle. I loved doing it. It didn’t seem odd to me at all. What surprised me was how much it seemed to surprise and please the teacher (though I seriously doubt that the other kids liked having it held up as an example).

In college, I loved literature and philosophy, psychology and political science. But even though some bits of philosophy and occasional literary insights seemed to transcend their time and place, most seemed quite stuck in the particulars of culture and history, at times just collections of people’s opinions. Science seemed different. Writing a paper about experiments people had done was a bit like reading a mystery novel. It wasn’t that people didn’t have opinions and battles over who was right and wrong. It’s just that each bit of research, each set of experiments gave up another clue or two. However badly misread and misconstrued at first, they could in time be assembled to understand how something complicated worked by the workings of simpler rules.

Then I started to do experiments, and I was hooked. Doing experiments turned out to be infinitely more absorbing than reading about them. Experiments are a way of discovering things no one has ever thought or seen before. Experiments can – and perhaps even should – be beautiful as well. I think I understood this through my work on transposons, often called jumping genes. They were discovered by Barbara McClintock, a great geneticist of the last century. Her experiments were elegant and spare – it was years before I stopped marveling at how much she had understood from the slimmest of clues. I remember a time when I finally went beyond what she could see just with genetics – I was so excited that I often couldn’t sleep and sometimes forgot to eat.

So the answer is that for me science is not different from art, except in the one small, crucial detail that experiments speak their own truth, not ours. Science is very much a human creation, else our understanding of the world would never change. The inventive scientist plays with the observations and ideas, taking them apart and putting them together in different ways, adding new observations until suddenly a new pattern, a new reality emerges, one that itself must then be severely questioned with experiments.