'Cherishing The Exceptions': KC Scientist Scott Hawley On The Beauty Of Genetics

Mar 22, 2017

Geneticist Scott Hawley has a way with words — especially when it comes to explaining science to non-scientists.

For example, he remembers the connections he made the first time he saw "Star Warswhen he was in graduate school.

“Here’s this Imperial Death Star that can stay in space forever, and here’s Luke Skywalker in this little X-wing fighter,” he told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.

Luke comes down on the surface of the Death Star, he recalled, and goes in a little canal and loops around. Then, he fires a photon torpedo, which goes into the Death Star and there’s a huge explosion of energy.

“And I turn to the girl I was with and I go, ‘that’s fertilization!’”

“And she’d never go out with me again,” he added. “Which is why you don’t date science nerds.”

Hawley runs a lab at the Stowers Institute, where he’s also the Dean of the Graduate School. He studies the process of meiosis in fruit flies. Meiosis is how the body manages, every time it makes a sperm or an egg, to get the right number of chromosomes into that egg.

He describes chromosomes as gigantic moving vans that carry your genes and enables cells to move genes around in a convenient fashion.

“Each of us has 46 chromosomes,” he said. “But when we build a sperm or egg, we have to get 23 of those 46 those chromosomes in there. Not only do we have to get 23; it has to be the right 23.”

As for how two chromosomes pairs, that’s part of the mystery.

“I mean, I have to tell you, at the moment, pretty much the best mechanism we have for how pairing works is: ‘and then a miracle happens.’”

What drives his research is how this affects people.

One night, about 20 years ago, a chromosome segregation had gone wrong in a normal fruit fly. Hawley couldn’t find a reason for it, he said, and that really bugged him.

One of his post-doctorate fellows said, “You really do think meiosis is perfect, don’t you? Can’t you just let it make a mistake every now and then?”

“Well, it does makes mistakes every now and then,” Hawley said. “And the problem is, in human beings, when mistakes are made … the consequences are either a zygote that can’t flourish — in other words, a zygote that’s not going to be able to make it to term — or, in certain cases, individuals who are going to have to cope with a complex set of effects resulting from having the wrong number of chromosomes.

“And these are people and they’re trying to deal with very difficult disorders. And these are people, many of whom I know and I hear their stories, and it’s something that really matters to me. I want to understand how this process works.”

Hawley’s interest and drive started in a high school P.E. class.

When he was about 12 or 13, he had a series of three epileptic seizures. That bothered the state of California, where he lived at the time, so he couldn’t be in a regular P.E. class; he was placed in a “modified" P.E. class.

For the next four years, for an hour a day, five days a week, he was in a class with kids who had severe disabilities — mostly disabilities they had been born with, he said.

“And I saw how the world treated them,” Hawley recalled.

One day after class, he was walking down the hall with a kid from this P.E. class when one of the high school superstars deliberately tripped him.

He fell forward and his face hit the floor. According to Hawley, there was blood, the boy was crying and everyone was laughing.

“When he got up, it just didn’t bother him that he’d fallen. It didn’t bother him that he was bleeding,” Hawley said. “He couldn’t understand why people were laughing at him. He couldn’t figure out why this was funny. And I couldn’t explain it.”

“It just kept making me angrier and angrier.”

This was the late 1960s, when Hawley said advocacy was booming. He decided to become a lawyer to do something for these kids.

But when he got to college, he was randomly assigned an advisor: Crellin Pauling, a geneticist and the son of Linus Pauling (who won the Nobel Prize for his research of the chemical bond).

After listening to Hawley rant, Pauling said, “I don’t know if you’re naïve or just stupid."

“Look at what people will discriminate against … minor things. You think you’re going to get them to not discriminate against serious developmental defects? You want to do something to help these kids? Why don’t you try and fix it or prevent it?”

Hawley had never taken a genetics class. Pauling let Hawley into his class, where Hawley said he did badly. But he realized that maybe someday, they could do something about these issues. And, on a selfish level, he said, he fell in love with the intellectual beauty of genetics as a science.

“Genetics is kind of the algebra of biology. It’s a way of thinking,” he said. “It’s the ability to go into a genome that has 26,000 genes, or 14,000 like fruit flies, and be able to identify the small number of genes that specifically control the process you’re interested in, understand what those genes do, how they function, and then begin to understand what happens when they don’t do their job when they’re not right.”

Genetics is about cherishing the exceptions, he said.

Hawley also writes poetry. He paraphrases a quote: How am I supposed to know what I feel until I know what I’ve written?

“Words mean a lot to me,” he said. Poetry is a powerful way for him to communicate with people who matter in his life, especially when words fail him.

And poetry allows him to fail, he said. He usually writes and re-writes a poem multiple times. In that process, he learns what does and doesn’t work.

He writes about anything, he said, including science. The beauty of an image inspires him. He has a framed picture on his desk of when his lab first visualized this structure inside the meiotic cell.

When he first saw it, he said, it took him a minute or two to step back and say, OK, what are we actually looking at? What does this tell us? What questions does this answer and what questions do we need to ask? How do we make sure this is the right thing?

“The usual sort of self-questioning things that are science,” he said. “But for the first minute or two, I was just struck by ‘this image is so beautiful.’”

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.