The frog scientist
Harvard University: the elite of the elite, a standard ingrained in the American education system, or, to young Tyrone Hayes, a college referenced in his favorite television program, Green Acres.
“I first heard about Harvard because Oliver Douglas, the main character of Green Acres (a ’60s sitcom about a lawyer turned farmer), went there. It’s the reason I recognized the school when they sent me a letter. It’s the reason I went there,” he said. “You know the show, ‘Duh duh duh duh duh—fresh air!’”
Hayes, a Harvard graduate and the guest speaker for Denison’s science-based Anderson Lecture Series earlier this month, shared his story of “disadvantage turned into advantage,” with Douglas Spieles’ “Ecosystem Management” class during his visit.
A native of Colombia, S.C., Hayes grew up poor, although he didn’t think so at the time, with a father who made $9,000 a year. He didn’t speak to a white person until middle school; and he was first introduced to the reptiles and amphibians, which he now studies as a professor at the University of California-Berkeley through the regular flooding of his childhood home.
Hayes has spent the majority of his life studying the evolution of animal species, specifically amphibians. It began with experiments on the front porch of his childhood home to see how light (shielded by a dog house) and heat (provided by a hair dryer) affected the skin of color-changing anole lizards that populated his neighborhood.
“When you’re a 14-year-old boy you get a lot of crap for this,” he laughed. “But it was what interested me.”
This fascination eventually became a career. He is now widely known for his work with atrazine, the most popular herbicide in America and the subject of his lecture, “From Silent Spring to Silent Night: A tale of toads and men,” held last week in Swasey. Despite the large setting, he promised not to get too formal, citing a cherished piece of advice from his grandmother: “Don’t give a talk, tell a story.”
So he did, chronicling his journey from a little boy who loved frogs to a Berkeley professor whose controversial research made him the subject of a lengthy piece in The New Yorker just a few weeks ago.
In 1997, Hayes was hired to study the effects of atrazine on frogs. He unearthed some troubling data: exposure to the popular herbicide lowered testosterone levels in male frogs, inhibited their voice box development, and not only rendered them infertile, but even caused them to start growing eggs in their testicles. Even more disconcerting: Hayes was not using extraordinary quantities of the chemical to yield these results—there’s enough atrazine in rainwater to “chemically castrate” a frog, he explained.
In true liberal arts fashion, Hayes then expanded the discourse to include subject matter much broader than frogs. Agricultural workers who encounter atrazine at work have 24,000 times as much atrazine in their urine as it takes to cause ill effects in frogs. When women are exposed to the chemical, their children have a much higher risk of certain birth defects. Consequently, he argued, this scientific research is an issue of health, environment, and justice.
When Hayes brought his concerns to the EPA, the organization responded: “The ultimate decision is much bigger than science … it weighs in public opinion.” With this in mind, he concluded by stressing the importance of making sure the public has enough information to have an informed opinion. He recalled that early in his career, he was thrilled to be published in a major science journal, but the week after he told his mom about it, she called to suggest that it couldn’t be that famous, because she couldn’t find it at Barnes & Noble.
“Most of the people who vote and are politically active aren’t scientists,” said Hayes to the “Ecosystem Management” class earlier that day. “So, as a scientist, if you don’t become involved somewhere outside of your ivory tower and talk to your friends at lunch about what you learned in class today then you’re doing a disservice to the community.”
In this vein, Hayes said that the publication he’s most proud of is The Frog Scientist, a children’s book and Hayes biography, by Pamela Turner, who tells the story of a boy who collects frogs and later becomes a scientist in search of answers.