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Interview

The HMS Beagle reborn

Karen James helps bring Darwin's epic voyage to life

Jennifer Rohn 29 June 2008

www.lablit.com/article/393

Sea-struck: Karen James and friend

The big impression that The Voyage of the Beagle left on me is that science really is high adventure

Editor’s note: Karen James is a scientist in the Department of Botany at London's Natural History Museum and, as a volunteer, acts as the scientific director of the HMS Beagle Project, a venture to rebuild Darwin’s famous ship and sail its historic itinerary. LabLit.com recently caught up with Karen to find out more.

First things first: tell us a little bit about your research. What are you trying to find out and how are you going about it?

First things first: thanks for having me on LabLit! I count myself among its many admirers, so this is a real honour. To answer your question, my research at the museum is loosely centred on scaling up the routine use of genetics and genomics in biodiversity research. For example, I am writing this on an airplane on my way back from a meeting on DNA barcoding, an international effort to build a database of DNA of all species and ultimately create the framework and tools so that DNA can be routinely used to identify unknown organisms to the species level.

Have you always been interested in plants, and when and why did you first decide to become a scientist?

I was more interested in animals growing up; I wanted to be a veterinarian and I enrolled in the pre-vet programme when I started university. I quickly switched to biology when I realised I was too emotionally attached to animals to be an effective (or at least not tear-soaked) vet. Then when I learned about genetics and cell biology I was hooked. The simple beauty and elegance of the genetic code, for example, was so compelling to me.

Do you consider yourself to be a typical scientist? How would you characterize your personal research style?

My background is in genetics and developmental biology and up until the middle of my PhD (in the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle), I suppose you could have called me ‘typical’. But ever since then I’ve been working at the intersections between disciplines and at the edges of the research foci of the departments I’ve worked in. For example, as a geneticist who did her PhD research on fruit flies, I am a rather unusual specimen in a museum botany department. My knowledge of plant taxonomy pales rather embarrassingly by comparison to that of my colleagues. This is offset by the fantastic opportunities for learning and research that are created when two fields collide. I really enjoy the creative aspects of science, and in my experience the boundaries between disciplines are richer compost for growing new research projects.

You also coordinate the Museum's Darwin bicentenary science campaign. What's this all about?

Unless you’ve been living in a hole (or possibly Kansas) you will know that next year is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. The Natural History Museum is planning all sorts of activities and celebrations to mark the occasion (as well as two other anniversaries: this week is the 150th anniversary of the Wallace-Darwin paper on natural selection at the Linnean Society and 24th November 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species...). I am on a 50% secondment from my research role for this entire period to coordinate the museum’s campaign of specifically science-driven projects. For example, I am working as part of a team to digitise and make accessible online the museum’s ~10,000 specimens collected by Charles Darwin, and to link this information with other Darwin resources like publications and manuscripts. I am also really excited about a project to extract and analyse DNA from two mockingbird specimens (Nesomimus trifasciatus) collected by Darwin and Fitzroy on Floreana in the Galapagos in 1835 for the purpose of informing the conservation and reintroduction strategy for that bird which is now critically endangered. More generally I am also serving as an advocate for science during the celebrations; that is, I am always trying to keep science at the heart of our activities and to make sure that Darwin’s science is communicated accurately as well as effectively – not an easy task considering how many myths and misconceptions are out there!

The Natural History Museum is a beautiful building inside and out. What is your favorite part or hiding place and why?

Oh, that is a difficult one. The central hall is so grand and moving, especially at night when no one else is around, but I also like the museum library’s rare books room which has such treasures as 2000-year-old manuscripts by Pliny the Elder and John James Audubon’s Birds of North America, and a lovely case containing the personal library and specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace. And of course, I love the specimens Darwin collected aboard the Beagle – the finches, yes, but also innumerable other plants and animals. It’s bewildering how prolific the man was.

What is the HMS Beagle Project and how did you become involved with it?

We aim to build a sailing replica of the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried a twenty-two year old Darwin around the world in 1831-6 on a voyage he called “by far the most important event in my life”. We will carry out contemporary scientific research aboard the replica and, as a charismatic and historic replica tall ship, she will be a compelling vehicle for education and public engagement with science.

I first learned about the project from a 2003 article on BBC Cornwall. I phoned Peter McGrath and told him I simply must be involved even if it meant volunteering or selling a kidney or perhaps even an arm or leg. That iteration of the project eventually folded but was resurrected in 2007 by Peter and our other founder David Lort-Phillips. I have been closely involved ever since. They’d need a pistol to keep me off of the new Beagle.

Do you feel confident that the project will achieve its goals on time? How far have you got and what else is left to do?

Yes, I feel confident that the project will achieve its goals. There isn’t really such a thing as “on time” as far as we’re concerned. Of course we hope that 2009 will be a big fundraising year for us, and if we can start to build the ship in that year, that would tie nicely in with the Darwin bicentenary celebrations, especially in the sense that our project will create a legacy for those celebrations, propagating them into the future, and to future generations.

Our key objective now is to raise £5 million for the build and further fundraising for our programmes. We have received a smattering of early support from various individual donors and corporate sponsors, and these have enabled us to travel to meetings and keep an office and administrator in Pembrokeshire (where the project is based). But the main fundraising push is still ahead of us. In terms of the very near future, we are seeking a minimum of £200,000 to maintain our fundraising program and initiate the planning approval process for the build.

Who will be building the ship, and what sort of compromising, in terms of modern modifications to the original blueprints, will the builders be making for the sake of safety and scientific research infrastructure?

Journey’s origins The ship will be built in Pembrokshire, UK

Our professional shipwright, Detlev Loell, who is an experienced builder of replica and modern tall ships, has used the original design to draw the modern plans. The new Beagle will be a precise replica of its forebear externally, but internally it will be modern with a laboratory and flushing toilets (these two items being the most important for my own agenda, in that order). Adjustments will be made for modern health and safety and other regulations, including two diesel engines, though we hope to use these as little as possible!

The ship will be built in Milford Haven in Pembrokshire (see photo) near the home of our co-founder David Lort-Phillips. The Milford Haven Port Authority has kindly offered us two alternative build sites, one in Milford Haven itself and one at the Pembroke docks.

How much time do you spend with the Beagle project and how do you juggle all of your various roles?

I suppose I spend about 10-20 hours a week working on the Beagle Project. I keep these hours entirely separate from my full time job at the museum. It sounds like a lot now that I write it down, but it’s worth it to me for the possibilities the project presents. The hardest part about juggling these roles is that I find I’m constantly having to explain to people that the Beagle and the museum are separate. It doesn’t make intuitive sense to people that this should be the case…I think I’ll just leave it at that for now.

How will the scientists be chosen for the voyage? Will there be an open application or granting process, or will the research be commissioned by the project?

Commissioning research is, in my opinion, a bad idea. It is proscriptive and potentially misses the creativity that can be provided by independent researchers. So, rather than decide for ourselves what research we want conducted, we hope to host international researchers (with a special focus on scientists from the countries to be visited by the Beagle) who will carry out their own two to eight-week project proposals at sea or on land using the Beagle as their platform (or jumping off point) for data and specimen collection.

We are asking any interested researchers to email us their project ideas to help us develop a preliminary portfolio of the sorts of proposals we can expect when we open up the formal application process (which we had hoped to do towards the end of 2008, but 2009 is now looking more likely). I’ve been delighted by the large number of emails I’ve received so far, ranging from A-level (high school) students through to full professors. Considering the historical importance and charisma of a tall ship like the Beagle, it’s perhaps not surprising that we’ve got scientists tripping over themselves to be involved…to which I say, keep ‘em coming!

The formal applications will be peer-reviewed by a science advisory panel which has yet to be recruited, though we’ve had expressions of interest from several eminent scientists. We plan to raise funds to be able to provide support in kind in the form of ship time and expenses aboard, including DNA extraction and DNA barcoding of any specimens collected, and depending on fundraising we may be able to cover additional expenses. We will expect all other research expenses to be covered by investigators’ research grants, though we will be able to assist in the design and writing of those grants.

In addition to these researcher-led projects, we are also in the process of establishing some formal partnerships with major scientific institutions (big news coming soon!) to carry out some long-term projects aboard relating climate and biodiversity data.

To support all of these projects we will recruit a core science staff with broad taxonomic identification skills who can identify a range of organisms (and detect which are potential new species), extract DNA and prepare voucher specimens. Last but not least, we also want to host professional science communicators, photographers and historians of science, who will enrich both the science and the overall impact of the voyage itself.

We understand that you will be able to take part in the voyage. Besides blogging from the ship, would you like to help out with any of the research?

Being a scientist myself, of course I have my own research aspirations for the new Beagle. Primarily, as a continuation of my current research, I plan on being a principal investigator for the overarching DNA barcoding effort aboard the Beagle (and ashore), collaborating with each visiting researcher to produce, publish (we hope through a dedicated open-access partner) and analyse the tens of thousands of DNA barcodes that will emerge from the combined projects. I am also developing specific projects (and recruiting co-investigators) with relation to the major partnerships mentioned above.

How many scientists might take part? How many professional crew will it take to operate a vessel of that size? Will the scientists have to swab the deck as well?

Let’s assume that on top of the core professional sailing crew, film crew and core research support team, as well as the communicators, photographers and historians mentioned above, we’ll have room for one or two research teams at any given time (these teams will include principal investigators and perhaps one of their students/post-docs/technicians along with “research assistants” comprising teachers on continuing professional development and students from local schools along the voyage route). If each research project lasts an average of four weeks, and the voyage takes 30 months, that means nearly fifty research teams will be able to take part.

This might be increased if our plan for partnering with larger modern research vessels as “companion ships” takes root. As for swabbing the decks, our co-founder Peter McGrath says it best: “People wishing to sail with us and use the Beagle for scientific research will need sea legs, be prepared to do some science mentoring and rope-haulin’ (emeriti not excepted).”

Thought experiment: if the Beagle ever crossed paths on the open sea with Craig Venter's yacht, would you invite him on board for a martini?

[laughing] Yes, of course. Venter is a real pioneer in the life sciences, and he cites Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle as one of his key inspirations…though I might suggest gin and tonic or perhaps whisky as the drink of choice.

Who is your favorite scientist in a work of fiction and why?

Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve come across that many scientists in fiction, and the ones I can think of are mostly of the “mad scientist” variety and not necessarily worthy of the label “favourite”. Stumped, I’ve just consulted with my partner Bill, who suggests Saruman of The Lord of the Rings (“he invented gunpowder,” Bill notes), but again, I’m not sure Saruman is really “favourite” material.

I did enjoy Acceptable Risk by Robin Cook in which a young woman explores her ancestor's involvement in the Salem witch trials, and discovers the possibility that a fungal contamination of stored rye caused hallucinations in women who were thus labelled “witches” by their oppressors. She teams up with a scientist who is more interested in the potential medical value of the rye fungus as an antidepressant than in her dark family history…to his peril. It’s all very interesting until things leave the realm of reality…something about full moons and werewolves.

That said, I have just started reading Master and Commander, the first book in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, and I have a feeling that Stephen Maturin is going to climb to the top of my very short list in very short order.

You cite Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle as your favorite book. How old were you when you read for the first time? What sort of an impression did it make on you?

Marginal examples Darwin’s writing is evidence-based

Okay, time for full disclosure: I only read it for the first time five years ago when I first came across that BBC Cornwall article I mentioned earlier. While I’m at it, I might as well also admit that while I had read the first four chapters of Origin during an honours course at Colorado State University, I only read that seminal book all the way through for the first time four years ago. I like to think I made up for this late-coming by taking copious notes in the margins including scribbling “ex” (see photo below) every time Darwin mentions a specific example (by observation or experiment) that supports his hypothesis of evolution by natural selection (as opposed to special creation). If you count up the “ex” at the end, you find that he provides more than 300 specific points of evidence!

Compared to Origin, The Voyage of the Beagle it is a delightful and easy read. It’s a real-life adventure story, told from the point of view of a young awe-struck Charles Darwin having the time of his life. The big impression it left on me (the same impression I want The Beagle Project to leave on others) is that science really is high adventure.

Related information

The Beagle Project is currently seeking £5m in sponsorships and donations large and small to build the new Beagle. For individual donations they have PayPal buttons (USD & GBP) on their website.

Those interested in corporate sponsorship opportunities are asked to get in touch directly with the office or one of the co-founders:

The HMS Beagle Project office
Perry Crickmere (administrator)
email: office@thebeagleproject.com
tel: +44 (0)1646 650 050

David Lort-Phillips (co-founder)
email: davidlp@lawrenny.org.uk

Peter McGrath (co-founder)
email: peter@thebeagleproject.com

For any transatlantic readers interested in helping, they have just established the “American Friends of the HMS Beagle Project” which will soon be able to accept tax deductible donations in US Dollars. The contact is:

Norman James
Treasurer and Secretary
American Friends of the HMS Beagle Project (Rhode Island, USA)
email: n.h.james@worldnet.att.net
tel: +1 401 935 8710