Scott V. Edwards - Contemporary Scientist - Evolutionary Biologist and Ornithologist
This post departs somewhat from the *history* theme by featuring the work of Scott V. Edwards, a present-day scientist, cycling enthusiast, and new-ish member of the Twitter-verse. Dr. Edwards is an endowed professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, and a curator of ornithology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. I first came across Dr. Edwards’ research group
a few years ago when I was trying to find information for a student who really wanted to know
whether birds actually did evolve from feathered dinosaurs. Dr. Edwards and the team of scientists that he mentors have conducted fascinating studies illuminating the evolutionary history of birds. His research indicates that ancient birds did indeed arise from feathered dinosaurs, with some descendent species then losing the ability to fly, in the case of birds like emus and ostriches. (Here's a 2019 publication from the Edwards lab
about this gain and loss of flight for those of you who like to dig into primary literature.)
Dr. Edwards has also made key contributions to the field of phylogenetics, a complex, multidisciplinary field that uses anatomy, physiology and genetic analysis to create the most accurate “trees of life.” This tree
, generated by Dr. Edwards and his collaborators (and sourced from the paper linked above), suggests that flight is a trait that has been gained (and lost) numerous times.
Like most researchers, Dr. Edwards paused many of his projects last spring, as COVID shuttered labs and postponed academic conferences. He took advantage of this sudden abundance of unscheduled time to attempt a lifelong dream of riding his bike from coast to coast. The Audubon Society caught up with him
early in his journey, and captured some of his initial experiences and impressions, including what it was like to be a Black man cycling across rural northeastern counties in June of 2020, as the nation’s streets filled with protests following the killing of George Floyd. This interview with Dr. Edwards also highlights the experiences of other Black ornithologists and recreational birders who frequently find themselves isolated in these predominantly white spaces. The events of last summer, including the racist harassment of Christian Cooper in Central Park
, inspired a group of Black birders to create Black Birders Week
to increase the visibility of the Black birding community.
As a scientist, Dr. Edwards continues to make vital contributions to our understanding of how the natural world has come to be the way it is. As a Black scientist in the predominantly white field of evolutionary biology
, Dr. Edwards is also serving as a crucial role model for the next generation of scientists and naturalists of color.
(Contributor: Science Faculty Member)
Alice Ball - Chemist
In honor of Black history month, I was drawn to the story of chemist Alice Ball because of the powerful impact her work had on the lives of thousands of people diagnosed with Hansen’s disease (leprosy)
. She was only twenty-three years old when she made her breakthrough discovery in 1915.
At the time, being diagnosed with Hansen’s disease was a criminal offense, and victims were sent to leprosy “colonies” that were, in essence, jails. In Hawaii, the leper colony on Molokai held over 1100 people. There was no effective treatment. The oil from the chaulmoogra
tree was used, but it had horrible side effects. When injected into patients, it caused terrible pain and then, as the oil clumped together under the skin, rows of painful blisters. If only the oil could be made water soluble so it dissolved into the bloodstream, it could be used without these side effects.
In the early 1900s, Alice Ball was pursuing a master’s degree in chemistry at the College of Hawaii, now the University of Hawaii. She had already earned two undergraduate degrees and published a paper
in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society - as an undergraduate. She had her pick of colleges for her graduate work, and chose Hawaii over UC Berkeley. She was the first woman and the first African American to receive a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, and the first woman and first African American to be a chemistry professor there, as well.
Dr. Harry T. Hollman asked Ball to work on making chaulmoogra oil water soluble. Working in her spare time, she was able to transform the oil into its ester ethyl form, allowing it to dissolve into the bloodstream. Hollman published a paper, referring to the process as the “Alice Ball Method.” Unfortunately, Ball died at the young age of twenty-four, and so never saw the impact of her work. The cause of death is murky, but it may have been due to exposure to chlorine gas during demonstrations in the lab. The dean of the college was a chemist, and he continued working on the process, but he claimed the work as his own, renaming the process after himself and giving no credit to Ball. Fortunately, Hollman spoke up and eventually Ball received the credit for her work.
Thousands of people with Hansen’s disease, all over the world, were given this new treatment, and they were allowed to go home and live out their lives with their families rather than stay incarcerated in colonies. This remained the leading treatment for Hansen’s disease until the 1940’s.
(Contributor: Science Faculty Member)
Contemporary Black Playwrights
Here are links to interviews with two playwrights who are rocking my world these days:
Jackie Sibblies Drury
won a Pulitzer and the Susan Blackburn Smith Prize for her play, FAIRVIEW, which premiered at Berkeley Rep in 2018. She is also known for her plays WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT... and MARY SEACOLES.
won an Obie for his plays APPROPRIATE and AN OCTOROON. (Octoroon was at Berkeley Rep in 2017). GLORIA (A.C.T. 2020) and EVERYBODY (CalShakes 2018) were finalists for the Pulitzer. He is a MacArthur Genius Fellow.
(Contributor: Arts Faculty Member)
I wanted to share one of my all-time favorite playwrights James Ijames
. His work is beautiful, mind-bending, thought provoking and full of rich, compelling characters. He is a recipient of the 2020 Steinberg Playwright Award. Shotgun Theater in Berkeley has performed several of his plays and some performances are available digitally. If you ever get the chance to see his work, do not miss out!
(Contributor: Admissions Staff Member)
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey - Blues Singer
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was a blues singer in the 1910s and 20s. While she was married to a man for some time, she is also known to have had many relationships with women. She even sang about them. In her song "Prove it on Me" she explains:
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man
The third line there also references Rainey's occasional choice to wear men's suits when she was performing or out on the town. Historically, a lot of the racism directed at black women involved referring to us as over-sexualized, or as a sexual threat. Ma Rainey didn't care about that. She owned her body and her sexuality proudly. Angela Davis wrote that her music was "a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s, which began to crystallize around the performance and recording of lesbian-affirming songs." It should be noted that Rainey had a few contemporaries—like Gladys Bentley and Bessie Smith—who also pushed back against white supremacy and gender norms.
(Contributor: History Faculty Member)
Celebrating Black Authors: LGBTQIA+
Here is this week's Celebrating Black Authors list
, focusing on LGBTQIA books and authors. As always, they're available in both ebook and physical format!
(Contributor: Library Staff Member)
Camille A. Brown - Black Social Dance History
"Why do we dance together?...To heal, to remember, to say we speak a common language, we exist and we are free."
- Camille A. Brown
Take a break from school and watch this TedEd video by Camille. A Brown: The History of African-American Social Dance
. This video is a fantastic overview of how Black Liberation and History is embodied through Black social dance. This video also shows how important it is to remember that Black history begins before the Middle Passage. The rhythms and movements found in American social dance today are firmly rooted in the African ancestry of the Black community.
(Video) 2016 protest piece against police brutality - Northwest Tap Connection & Shakiah Danielson. This is full of Black resilience, power, spirit, strength, and joy.
(Contributor: Arts Faculty Member)
Marjorie Lee Brown - Mathematician and Math Educator
In honor of Black History and Liberation Month, I’m sharing the story of a person who liberated others: Marjorie Lee Browne, a mathematician and math educator. I first became acquainted with her name and career at the University of Michigan where the math colloquium lecture given on Martin Luther King, Jr Day
is named after her. Born in Memphis, TN, in 1914, Marjorie Lee Browne lost her mother at the age of 2. Her father, a railway postal clerk with a gift for mental arithmetic, soon remarried to a school teacher. With their support, young Marjorie thrived at school. She managed to go to Howard University
(Kamala Harris's alma mater), in the middle of the Great Depression thanks to loans, jobs, and scholarships. She graduated cum laude
in 1935 with a degree in mathematics. After a year teaching math and physics in New Orleans, LA, Browne enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She got her Masters degree in 1939 and then worked on her doctorate while teaching full time at Wiley College
in Marshall, TX.
By defending her doctoral thesis in 1949, Browne became the third African American woman to obtain a Ph.D. in mathematics. (Her graduate work was supervised by George Yuri Rainich
(formerly known as Yuri Germanovich Rabinovich), a foremost authority on the Theory of Relativity.) She then joined the faculty of mathematics at North Carolina College (now called North Carolina Central University
) in Durham, NC and stayed there until she retired in 1979. During her time there, Browne accomplished much for the school and the community. In 1960, she was the principal author for a proposal that won a grant from IBM, which allowed for NCC to obtain its first computer for use in academic computations, one of the first of its kind at a historically black college or university (HBCU). She was also the main organizer/coordinator/teacher at NCC's Summer Institute for secondary school teachers, for which she managed to obtain funds from the National Science Foundation, also one of the first such NSF grants for a HBCU. Through her efforts, she received the first W. W. Rankin Memorial Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education in 1975. During the latter part of her career Browne used much of her own money to help gifted mathematics students continue their education.
(Contributor: Math Faculty Member)