“Organisms don’t change because there’s an opportunity there. It’s just by chance,” he says. “[Sometimes] it happened to change in the direction that’s suitable for an opportunity.”
That type of mutation can have a positive impact for a species, like ducks developing webbed feet that help them swim better or darker coats of feathers that allow them to hide more effectively from predators.
More often, though, the changes lead to bad results, Edwards says.
“Something doesn’t function correctly … you can’t move as fast, maybe a muscle atrophies,” says Edwards. “And usually these individuals are just weeded out. They can’t survive.”
This kind of research in evolutionary biology can also help people, says Edwards.
“[E]verything evolves, including diseases,” he says. “… And we want to know [which] of these changes can be predicted and what sort of changes are going to occur,” which could help researchers find cures.
Edwards’ team recently studied why, in the last 15 years, a certain type of disease has hit the house finch, a bird found in Massachusetts. Scientists believe the disease passed to the finch from chickens.
“By understanding how it has changed, we can understand … what happens when a pathogen switches species, like HIV switched to humans from chimpanzees,” he explains.
Professor James Hanken, the MCZ’s director and also an Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard, agrees with Edwards that birds are “excellent subjects for studying many areas of science,” such as behavior, ecology, biogeography, physiology and functional anatomy.
“Many compelling topics remain unaddressed, however,” he recently wrote in an e-mail to the Banner. “[A]nd we need to have active professionals and students here to pursue these.”
Edwards is one of them.
“Scott is a rare commodity in contemporary professional biology,” wrote Hanken. “MCZ has earned a reputation for being a global leader in our field, and Scott’s work helps us maintain it.”
When he was an undergrad at Harvard in the early 1980s, Edwards says, he never imagined he would be back there one day as a professor. But there was one thing he did know — wherever he wound up, he would be studying birds.
“Birds are very beautiful, very inspiring,” he says. “And to think that they’re sometimes right in your backyard — that’s amazing.”
When he arrived at Harvard as a student, Edwards took the passion he developed in the Bronx to the next level, studying for a major in the history of science. He was moved by the incredible quests of Charles Darwin to study nature around the world.
A 19th century English naturalist, Darwin is credited with realizing and demonstrating that all species have evolved over time from common ancestors through a process he called natural selection. To this day, Darwin’s scientific discoveries remain the foundation of biology and the basis of modern evolutionary theory.
While reading Darwin, Edwards soon felt compelled to embark on his own quests, rather than just studying the adventures of others. He took a year off from school after his sophomore year to volunteer at several institutions, among them the Smithsonian, and performed his first fieldwork in Hawaii and California.
When he came back to Cambridge, he says, he “was much more energized about school.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1986 and worked temporarily at Harvard studying evolutionary biology applied to mammals at the MCZ.
Edwards went on to receive a Ph.D. in zoology in 1992 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he had his first experiences as a teacher. From there, he took a position at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1995, and stayed there until 2003.
He then came back to Harvard, where he now participates in several activities. As a researcher, he runs a lab with a staff of undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students that study birds from the museum’s collection and the outside world.
Edwards also gets to watch birds with his team on a regular basis when he goes out to catch specimens, take blood samples, measure them or verify where they’re living. His studies have included birds from America and other countries, such as Australia and Mexico.
“A part we do outdoors, a part we do indoors,” says Edwards. “It’s a lot of fun.”
At Harvard, Edwards also teaches two classes — Molecular Ecology and Evolution, as well as Biology and Diversity of Birds.
While Edwards sees diversity in the species he studies every day, he says, he doesn’t always see it in the classrooms where he’s teaching.
“There are very few African Americans in this field,” he says.
That fact has led him to embark on another quest — to increase the ethnic and cultural diversity among both students and faculty working in evolutionary biology.
Hanken, the MCZ’s director, says Edwards “has done a yeoman’s job” in promoting Harvard’s efforts to recruit minority students into the field.
“While he actively recruits students to our discipline, as well as to Harvard in particular, he also offers an extremely effective role model to students of color, who are generally underrepresented in evolutionary and comparative biology,” Hanken wrote.
Edwards says some students recognize they like zoology, but have to overcome a lot of pressure from families that want them to pursue more traditional careers. So his job, he says, is to at least be an advocate.
“It’s not that you have to be a lawyer or a doctor to be useful to society. There are lots of ways to do that,” he says.
Emboldened by a lifelong enthusiasm that still causes him stop at every corner of a city park, Edwards hopes he can convince students to follow their dreams.
“I try to tell diverse students what an exciting job this is,” he says. “It’s just a lot of fun. Every day is a little bit different.”
Information on the museum's numerous departments focused on the development of all types of animal life can be found on its Web site. More »
Find out more about the Harvard professor on his bio page at the university's Web site. More »
This PBS site, an addendum to Sir Richard Attenborough's documentary on avian life, offers some additional information on how birds have evolved and the prospects for more change in the future. More »