Popular Science picks School of Biological Sciences assistant professor for its annual list of bright young people changing the world
Sep 8, 2016 | Atlanta, GA
Popular Science has named William C. Ratcliff, an assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences, one of its Brilliant 10 for 2016. The list is how the magazine “honors the brightest young minds reshaping science, engineering, and the world.”
Ratcliff is an evolutionary biologist. He studies how multicellular clusters form from single cells and how the clusters become sophisticated through evolution. His work has been featured in Quanta Magazine, Scientific American, New Scientist, and other science magazines. For a fun explanation of his work, which Ratcliff gave at the 2015 Atlanta Science Festival, watch this video.
In the following Q&A, Ratcliff talks about his work, early love for biology, and more.
What is your research about?
Evolutionary biologists study how organisms change over time. My niche is understanding the origin of complex life, specifically how multicellular organisms can evolve from single cells.
Multicellularity evolved on Earth many times for different groups, from slime molds to animals. This evolutionary step occurred long ago and has been hard to study, largely because biologists haven’t had good ‘hands on’ model systems of early multicellular organisms and their actual unicellular ancestors.
In our lab, we do evolutionary time travel in a test tube, by creating new multicellular organisms, using yeast and algae, in a way that’s simple but which we can examine with huge precision, using all the tools of biology, as well as mathematics.
We’re not trying to explain what happened historically. Rather, we’re trying to show how it can happen in principle. We want to understand how single-cell organisms evolve to form groups and how those groups evolve to become more complex. We’re interested in how the geometry of cellular clusters influences the outcome of evolution, tipping the balance between cellular cooperation and conflict, and how cells lose their Darwinian autonomy, evolving from individual organisms into parts of a new organism. These are fundamental principles that should be broadly applicable.
What has been the most exciting time in your research life so far?
Setting up a new lab in Georgia Tech is unquestionably the most exciting so far. When you start a new lab, you have this war chest of startup money. You can buy the lab equipment you could just dream of before. You have resources to blow the lid off the constraints you previously had. You can hire people to do cool stuff. It’s like winning a lottery.
I would have had fun starting a lab anywhere, but unique to Tech is the collaborative opportunities I’ve had here. About a year after I started, I met Peter Yunker, a physicist who works with colloidal particles and soft matter. He had ideas for studying multicellularity through a physical lens that absolutely blew my mind. We now have students working together on projects, and my research has taken a totally new path.
Also, Sam Brown was hired shortly after I arrived. Sam is a mathematical microbiologist. Working with Sam has opened lots of doors into integrating modeling more explicitly in our work.
Over lunch a year and a half ago, Brian Hammer and I decided to do a project together, and now we have a paper in review examining the ecological and evolutionary consequences of ‘hand-to-hand’ combat – obviously bacteria don’t have hands, but it’s similar – in bacteria.
Did you have early life experiences that paved the way for you to be where you are now?
I’ve always thought of myself as a science geek and a biology nerd. My earliest memories are of playing with ladybugs swarming up a tree when I was two years old. I did a science fair project with yeast when I was six years old. I’m still working with yeast cells now.
I’ve always been interested in the lives of living things. My parents played a huge role in fostering that interest. My brother and I grew up in Berkeley, Calif. I had a vegetable garden in the backyard, and my dad built me a greenhouse where I grew orchids.
We also have family property on the coast near Mendocino, which my great-grandfather bought almost 100 years ago. As kids, we spent months at a time there, running around the woods, like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer poking around the beach and hiking way up through the forest for hours at a time. We occupied ourselves by poking our noses into the workings of living organisms. We wondered how all these things were changing from day to day. How did they deal with changing weather? What were they eating? As my dad says, “Boredom is the crucible of creativity”, but I don’t really remember being bored.
If you couldn’t be a scientist, what would you have done professionally?
I had become an avid stock trader toward the end of high school. As a college freshman I had to choose between economics and biology. I decided to stick with biology, thinking it would be more fun. That was a good call.
I’d also enjoy computer programing or big-data analytics. When I learned coding, it was almost like a drug. You can do so much, so fast, and writing code is like playing a 3D crossword puzzle. Had I learned it earlier, I wouldn’t have been a bench scientist.
When you were thinking where to settle after your postdoc, why did you choose Tech?
Partly, because Atlanta was a place my wife would move to.
What really drew me to Tech was the abundance of supersmart, nerdy people. The average Tech undergrad knows how to code. Many of them want to become doctors, but they also know calculus and (the programming language) Python.
I wanted to surround myself with bright people who are quantitative. Plus, it’s nice that the College of Sciences is so interdisciplinary, that our school values collaboration, and that campus is small enough that you run into people from far-flung disciplines.
In your encounters with students at Tech, what has surprised you about them?
They are so good! Their desire and ability to work hard, their interest in the material is way up – 75% of my students are as good as the top 10-15% of those I’ve taught previously.
What about your job do you like the least?
It’s the sheer number of different things we have to do as professors. Our time is split into so many little bins. I miss having that open space to think broadly and deeply about science.
What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?
Everyone assumes that I’m laid back because I’m an outgoing person and pretty happy, but I’m usually running around at a half jog and trying to get a million things done.
I like to play music – guitar and ukulele – to relax. I picked up the ukelele when my daughter was born because it’s smaller and quieter, and you can play it with a baby on your lap. I play a lot of bluegrass. I also garden and raise chickens; we harvest five eggs a day on average.
What bit of wisdom would you like to share to incoming freshmen?
I would tell them to study the things that they think are fun and cool and don’t be afraid to get their quantitative game on. Don’t shirk the math and programming because it’s going to be so valuable later.
Definitely take classes because you think they’ll be cool because ultimately it’s your own interests that motivate and drive you.
Also, find a lab early on if you’re interested in research. One of the main benefits of being at Tech is the opportunity to do primary research and interface with faculty, postdocs, and grad students. But this amazing opportunity comes only if you seek it. Find a lab you like in your first few years, and if you like it, by the end of school you’ll have a deep well of experience that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and you will have way more opportunities as a result. Nobody writes a better letter of recommendation than a professor who has known you for years!
What places do you want to visit that you haven’t visited yet?
Vietnam, because my wife’s family is out there and I haven’t been there yet. Cambodia would be really cool to see. I’d love to see an active volcano, any one of them! South Africa is another choice because it is a refuge for African plant diversity.
I’m also an amateur photographer, and after getting more into night photography, I would love to visit somewhere where I could take great photos of the Milky Way without light pollution, like the Mojave Desert.
With whom from history would you like to join for dinner?
I know this is cliché, but I would love to meet Charles Darwin. He laid out so much of the field 150 years ago, and it would be fun to just blow his mind. I’d love to update him about how the field has developed, how generally well-supported his ideas are, and how cool the nitty-gritty mechanistic details of evolution are. Dinner might stretch on a bit late, though.