My job is really to discover things that other people have never discovered before, and that’s pretty exciting. I’m not sure I had, you know, an epiphany, a moment, when I knew I wanted to be a scientist or anything like that. When I first went to college I was very interested in political science, and I wanted to be the ambassador to Holland because my family is Dutch and I have always been proud of that heritage.
But I realized very quickly that I just didn’t…the day-to-day work just wasn’t that exciting. And so I switched to biology during my sophomore year, so I was behind in all of my classes, I had to take chemistry and physics and all of that. But it was very clear that that was the right decision.
The work that we do in our lab is really motivated by the same types of questions that Charles Darwin was interested in, and that is how is variation generated and maintained in natural populations. But of course, he was much more limited in his tool kit and his approaches to which to answer that question. And now we are sort of armed with molecular biology and genetics and can address those questions in ways that Darwin couldn’t even imagine.
I remember when we first discovered a gene that contributed to color variation in mice that we studied, and we figured out where the mutation was and how the mutation affected the receptor, which then led to color variation, which then led to differences in survival of these mice.
Over the years we maybe got a little bit more bold and expanded our thinking about traits and so I would say now about half the lab is really focused on behavioral straits. For example, we study digging behavior and how mice build burrows and the shapes of burrows differ. But it turns out some of our best candidate genes for controlling mouse behavior probably are associated with addictive behavior in humans. And so I think eventually or indirectly, this can contribute to our understanding of human behavioral variation.
I do have to say that some of the behaviors we are studying in the lab, some new projects, are much more directly related to human behavior. So for example, we study two very closely related species of mice. One of which is very promiscuous, which is typical of most mammals. Males and females will essentially mate with whoever they run into. But its sister species is one of those rare exceptions that’s both genetically and socially monogamous. So males and females together raise the young.
And by comparing these two species and doing crosses between them we are trying to hone in on the genes that are associated with monogamy in general. So there we obviously have to be very careful about how this research is interpreted and translates to humans.