Scientist Spotlight: Virginia Markham

Svirginia-photoeptember 2017 Spotlight: Virginia Markham

CLEAR Member? 2016-present

What do you do? I work at a US Department of Energy research facility, analyzing the DNA of biofuel crop plants.

What got you involved in science? Learning about climate change in my high school environmental science class.

Which colleges did you attend? I went to UC Berkeley for both undergraduate and graduate school. The school’s environmental focus and the city’s laid-back vibe made it an easy choice.

What was your favorite class ever and why? It’s hard to choose, but one of the best was an endocrinology (study of hormones) class I took in college. The professor was (in)famous for his open-ended test questions, like “Say your preliminary experiment looks like this. Discuss what these results mean. What would you do next and why?” I loved this new kind of testing. It taught me to think about science as a practice in logic and reasoning rather than memorization.

Did you grow up around scientists and researchers? Are there any other scientists in your life? I grew up in a family of lawyers. When I was in high school, we used to watch Law and Order every evening and after the show was over, we’d discuss (or argue about) the case. Up until my first couple years of college, I was prepared to pursue that career. But as I grew more interested in biology I fell in love with the science and began to appreciate the extent to which scientific innovation drives social change, and eventually I decided to switch gears.

What is your favorite science factoid? Squirrels never find about 90% of the nuts they store in the ground. (I have to admit I learned that from a Sarah Silverman show.)

Describe your favorite science discovery. I like reading about little-known moments in science history, so here’s one off the top of my head: In the 9th century, Baghdad’s Caliph Al-Ma’mun, a great patron of many famous Islamic scientists, commissioned an expedition to measure the distance between two Middle Eastern cities with the ultimate goal of calculating the circumference of the earth. I believe the number they obtained was the most accurate to date, more so than those posited by more famous Greek mathematicians of antiquity. Their estimate was 40,248 km, very close to the actual 40,068 km. I like the romantic image of some of the world’s foremost scientists actually trekking around the world and measuring natural phenomena, instead of sitting at home speculating about it.

Describe your favorite scientific innovation, tool or technology and why.  I’m going to skirt this question and give someone else’s answer. I once asked my grandfather what invention he’s really glad was released during his lifetime. I figured he would say TV or email or something like that, but his answer was Kleenex. He said he hated handkerchiefs, which were gross to carry and not very soft. Every time I get a cold now I think of that, and it reminds me not to take our everyday technologies for granted.

Describe your work.  I study a particular type of hybrid plant (it’s a grass that kind of looks like wheat). Most major crop varieties are hybrids. Humans have known forever that hybrids are often bigger and stronger than either of their parents, like how mules are more powerful than either donkeys or horses in certain circumstances. People have been working on the genetics of ‘hybrid vigor’ for a long time – we even have writings from Charles Darwin on this topic – but the biological explanation is still being worked out. I sit at a computer all day, using computational tools (including my own programs) to study the DNA of this hybrid grass, with the goal of finding key genes that make hybrids so big and strong.

If you could go back and give yourself advice at any point in your schooling or career, what would it be? Read as much as you can, whether it’s scientific articles or fantasy novels or whatever. It will make you a better learner and a happier person in a million subtle ways.

What do you wish you had known about grad school before you started? I wish I had known that grad school would entail so much hand-holding, so I wouldn’t have been so stressed about applying. I think it’s harder than a typical job in a few ways, but it’s easier in many others. You have the peace of mind of knowing that as long as you genuinely try your best then you’ll be fine. That’s a luxury in any job.




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