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June 2008
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Where are they now?
Back to the future


Beth Shapiro, UGA's first female Rhodes Scholar, studies the DNA from extinct species to learn how to keep modern species alive


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by Kate Carter

From a helicopter hovering over Canada’s Yukon Territory, Beth Shapiro (AB, MA ’99) spotted what appeared to be chocolate ice cream on top of a big scoop of vanilla.

“It was probably millions of pellets of ancient caribou poo,” says Shapiro, exhilarated by the memory of researching ancient DNA extracted from the arctic tundra. Once she landed, she slipped on the ice and ended up in the droppings, which she says “looked like modern caribou poop and smelled like modern caribou poop.”

Shapiro was UGA’s first female Rhodes Scholar. She graduated in 1999 with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ecology, and within four years earned her Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford University.

Now an assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, Shapiro specializes in ancient DNA, molecular evolution, virus evolution and phylogenetics, a field of biology that focuses on the relationships between organisms. At just 32, she already has many adventure-soaked tales from her world travels—gathering DNA from wooly mammoth bones in Siberia or from zebra droppings in Kenya.

But despite her Indiana Jones escapades, Shapiro’s task is a sober one: She studies the DNA of extinct species in order to shed light on how we can keep modern species from extinction.
In this 1999 photo Shapiro is in a UGA ecology lab studying a parasitoid wasp with a dissecting microscope. Photo by Rick O'Quinn.

“We can look directly at the past and follow the evolutionary dynamics and the pathway to the present,” she says. “When we study the ancient caribou droppings, one of the most exciting things we can do is not just look at the caribou DNA but look at the plant, parasite DNA and learn about how the entire landscape changed.”

Her scholarship in the burgeoning field of ancient DNA has earned Shapiro a distinguished reputation. She has headed Oxford’s Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre, and co-authored six articles in Science­—one establishing that the ancient, flightless dodo bird is a distant relative of the pigeon, and another arguing that bison began to decline 15,000 years before the species had contact with humans.

Shapiro’s curiosity and independence were evident at UGA. She was on an Honors Program trip to the Grand Canyon when she disobeyed a professor’s instructions and ventured into the lower canyon looking for a particular rock formation, called Zoroaster granite.

The professor, Sandra Whitney, was furious with Shapiro for putting herself at risk. But she says now that independence is a key part of Shapiro’s personality and has helped her succeed.

That “is part of her package,” Whitney says. “She says, ‘I can go out there and try something that seems too difficult or impossible or that somebody told me I can’t do.’”

With independence stamped into her DNA, Shapiro is still exploring a brave, new world of science.

Where are they now? is a new feature in GM that spotlights students who made a name for themselves while at UGA. Have a standout classmate you’d like to catch up on? Email Kelly Simmons at simmonsk@uga.edu.




Kate Carter is a freelance writer in Atlanta.

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