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Rob DeSalle Interview

An Interview with Dr. Rob DeSalle,Co-Curator of The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins

1. What has been your contribution as curator of the Hall of Human Origins?

My role in curating this hall has been to bring the molecular biology, genomics, and genetics up to date in the hall, and to give the hall a sense of importance for the genetic data…to show how the genetic data relate to what our human origins are.

2. What is your interest in molecular evolution? What made you decide to pursue this field?

That's a funny story. When I was an undergraduate thinking about going to graduate school, I approached one of my professors at the University of Chicago, and asked him what I needed to do to study certain things. And I was really interested at that point in time, in narwhals. Narwhals are these really great looking whales. And this professor I had who's a geneticist, he said 'forget about the narwhals, study genetics.' And that's what I did. And in the course of studying genetics, I learned that genetics is very important for studying evolution, and lo and behold, come full circle, I now get to work on whales. So he was right.

The whales, you study their genetics?

Yes, I study the genetics of whales.

And was that your choice? Or it just happened to come to you?

It just kind of happened to come around full circle.

3. What other exhibits have you worked on here at the Museum?

In 1999 I worked on Epidemic! The World of Infectious Disease, and in 2001 I worked on The Genomic Revolution. Both of these exhibitions were very different from other exhibitions here in the Museum because of their lack of specimens that we could show in the exhibitions. And so in developing these exhibitions we used a lot of interactives, and a lot of models of things. And I think that you'll see in the Hall of Human Origins, the genetic information is not as specimen-rich as the paleoanthropological information that Ian Tattersall will present. And you'll find that the exhibitry around the genetics part of the Hall of Human Origins is very similar in its approach as Epidemic and Genomics.

4. Describe a typical day in the lab, and in the field.

Well, I don't go into the field much. A typical day… I don't go in the lab much, either. [laughs] But a typical day in my lab would be you'd come in, you know you have a certain set of samples to process, you process them, and that's kind of the drudgery work, but then the fun work is when everything—when the day is kind of over, and the data come back. And when you see the data, you get to start to see patterns and new things that you'd never seen before. And so the day is kind of drudgery in the beginning and fun at the end of the day.

5. How is the way genes evolve important for human evolution?

There's two ways that genes—genomics and genome evolution—are important for understanding human origins. The first way is because genes are passed down and genomes are passed down from parent to offspring, and this has happened from the beginning of life on this planet. There's an unbroken chain of history in our genomes. And in that context genomics can tell us molecular evolution, and the way genes evolved can tell us about our relationships with other organisms on this planet. It can also tell us about our relationships—certain kinds of relationships we have with other people on this planet too. The second way is really interesting and could show even more importance. And that is that genomic information can tell us about the changes that happened in our genomes that made us human. In other words, the kinds of changes that allowed our brains to acquire symbolic logic, to acquire language, to acquire all the other things that make us human. In many cases it's a matter of interaction of genes and environment, but our genomes can help tell us about those kinds of changes that are important in why we became human, and how we became human.

6. How do you put an exhibition like Hall of Human Origins together? What are the steps involved?

Well the steps are first of all, you get asked to do it, by the Provost and the President of the Museum and you don't refuse. And then the second step is, you visit lots of other museums with similar kinds of halls and similar kinds of exhibits, which is what Ian Tattersall and David Harvey and I did two or three years ago. And from there you get ideas, and you get other kinds of important ways of thinking about the subject, and then you go off and hide and write up something. Write an outline, and try to cover those things that you, as a curator, think are important for the hall to have. And then there's a design step that David Harvey and his wonderful staff in Exhibitions take care of; they then come back to the curators and there's an interaction between the curators and the Exhibitions staff to create the things that are created for the hall. And it's very much at that point in the hands of the Exhibition people to create as beautiful things that they create and in the hands of the curators, it's our job to make sure that the content is as good as we possibly can make it.

7. What do you think is the most important feature of the hall?

I think the most important feature of the hall is the fact that it intertwines molecular and genetic information with the paleoanthropological information. And this is something that a lot of places try to do, but I don't think do quite as well as what we've done. There are a lot of halls out there in other museums that have the paleoanthropology or have the molecular biology but there's very few that bring them both together. But I think that's the most important feature of the hall.

8. How has the new Hall of Human Origins evolved compared to the prior Hall of Human Biology and Evolution?

Evolved is a good word because it really hasn't—the old hall didn't really go extinct. It essentially evolved into this new hall and visitors will see very many similarities of the old hall to the new hall. In particular, the dioramas have remained but they've evolved into what Ian Tattersall likes to call tableaux. And many of the other specimens that were in the old hall are in the new hall, and even some of the molecular biology that was in the old hall is in the new hall too. So the new features that have evolved in the new hall are features that address more issues about how we became human. Issues about our brain, how our brain evolved, and how we acquired symbolic logic, and language, and art and music and tools. We have much more in the hall about that and to cap the hall off we have a piece on the future of human evolution, which I think is a very daring exclamation point to the hall that the old hall didn't have.

9. Tell us about the Museum's Conservation Genetics Program – what are the latest projects being worked on? What are some of the things the program has accomplished as far as conservation?

We've had this Conservation Genetics Program at the Museum for about 15 years in collaboration with George Amato who was at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and we were lucky enough to hire him here at the Museum and he's the director of our Conservation Genetics Center. The projects that have been done in that particular center over the past 15 years include the conservation genetics of whales, the conservation genetics of turtles, the conservation genetics of lemurs, and my favorite, the conservation genetics of endangered fish. And the one thing that I'm most proud of that the Conservation Genetics Program has done, with respect to conservation, is its forced CITES to list sturgeons which are one of the more endangered groups of fish. And that arose pretty much directly from some of the work we did here at the Museum.

10. Tell us about the book you co-wrote with co-curator Ian Tattersall, Human Origins: What Bones and Genomes Tell Us About Ourselves?

Ah okay, good—I get to give a pitch here. There are actually two books. One book that you just mentioned is the book that's being published by Texas A&M Press, and Ian and I sat down and decided that we could follow the outline of the hall fairly well, but also put in the stuff that we couldn't get in the hall, and that's what we tried to do with this book that's kind of targeted to college level—upper high school, college, young adult level. And I think this book is going to have a lot of really nice illustrations in it, and it explains the paleoanthropological evidence for our origins, and the molecular evidence about our origins. It was really a lot of fun to write with Ian, I've always wanted to do something with Ian and it was really great to work with him on that.

But the other book is a lot more fun, I think, and it's a children's book. And it's titled Bones, Brains and DNA: The Human Genome and Human Evolution. And this was a lot of fun to do, because it allowed Ian and I to have fun with a lot of really neat illustrations, and we worked with an artist named Patricia Wright who's just a wonderful artist. And it was a lot of fun to bounce our ideas off of her, and have her bring some of these pictures to life. And it turns out that this book is – I had a copy of it in my office and my 11 year old daughter stole it from me. But I think also parents will like it a lot, because it's pitched at a level that's, I think, high enough that parents won't get bored with it but I think also that children will see it and like the pictures and learn something from it.

11. If people could take away just one important point from this exhibit, what would you want that to be?

That we're all related to each other. That we're all a huge species, 99.9% similar to each other at the genomic level, and that we all come from the same ancestors – we have the same animal ancestors, the same early human ancestors. Just that the people should take away that they are a part of this family, this large species, and that as we are a part of this, we need to really think about how we do things on this planet. That's pretty much what I would hope that they take away.

12. What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about evolution?

Well it depends on what age they are, of course. If they're very young, then I would tell them just to keep their eyes open, and always look around and see things. And always try to think of a way to explain those things. In trying to explain those things they should be trying to think of scientific ways to explain those things. And I always tell them to ask questions - never keep a question inside, there is no such thing as a stupid question; the only stupid question is the one you don't ask. And always knock on doors. If you think there's something good for you, you need to find it. And that's what you do with studying evolution and with studying biology, you keep this inquisitiveness about you that you want to try to find out things about things. And that's the advice I would give someone, not to give up on—essentially don't stop asking questions.

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