Dr. Ciara Reyes completed her PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology in May 2016 at the University of Michigan. She was a participant in an Emerging Scholars Workshop at CTI in June 2016.
Someone once asked me, humorously, if biology is the study of biographies. I thought it was an interesting question and perspective. I told them that could be one definition of it – If biology is the study of biography, then it is the study of the biography of life. To which they responded, “that’s deep.”
The night before I had just watched the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact” on the search for extraterrestrial life – perhaps this had filled my mind with existential questions and poetic ideas about our place in the universe, as one of the characters poses the following: “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”1 I might otherwise have chuckled and regurgitated a textbook definition of biology as the study of life and living organisms, which would’ve been true, but only partially. Biology as the biography of life, is a deep and beautiful metaphor to consider as it is not only concerned with the essence of what makes up life, basic units like cells and the DNA and proteins inside of them, and the processes that sustain life, but also the history of life itself, its origin and the plots and twists between then and now, which are encoded in our DNA.
I am a Cell and Molecular biologist by training, which is a branch of biology that studies cells, the basic units that makeup all living organisms, and the molecular machines or components inside of them that perform functions important for survival. I just completed my PhD at the University of Michigan in Dr. Ann Miller’s lab where we study cytokinesis, which is the last step of cell division where one cell physically separates into two – it drives our development from a single cell to a multi-cellular organism. Even after we’ve reached adulthood, it continues to renew and replace old and dying populations of cells in our bodies. When cell division is not properly regulated, it can lead to miscarriage, birth defects and diseases like cancer.2,3,4
While I am a basic researcher studying life at the level of the cell, a relatively small scale, participating in the CTI’s Astrobiology workshop for emerging scholars has allowed me to think more deeply and broadly about definitions of life and what constitutes a living organism within my discipline. For example, biology is the study of life as we know it and living organisms as we understand them to be, which is terrestrial and has traditionally been mostly carbon-based, and reliant on nutrients like oxygen, water, or sunlight for survival. But as biology has revealed to us organisms that challenge our understanding of life as we know it and the conditions necessary to sustain it, such as extremophiles (organisms that can survive conditions traditionally thought too hostile for life), or viruses (who require a living organism as a host for their replication and life cycle), it is not hard for me to imagine the possibility of extraterrestrial life forms similar or even vastly different from our own that may also challenge us in a similar way and their potential even to enrich our understanding of life as we know and experience it.
A key emphasis of the workshop was thinking about the societal implications of scientific discovery in astrobiology. Astrobiology is most simply defined as the search for extraterrestrial life and the study of the origins of life – it is a multi-disciplinary endeavor drawing on the earth, physical and life sciences as well as others.5 The team of scholars I was fortunate to work with represented the interdisciplinary nature of the astrobiology inquiry very well, drawing on expertise in ethics, evolutionary biology and theology. As a scientist, I am trained to think about the broader impacts of my research – how characterizing one protein’s role in a pathway or how better understanding an important process like cytokinesis may help contribute to the good of the scientific community (continued research and advancement in knowledge) and the good of the human endeavor (health and well-being). Here, at CTI, I was immersed in a mostly philosophical and theological approach to broader impacts, which is different from what I’m used to in the sciences, but not altogether unfamiliar to me and certainly no less important.
For the past few years I’ve been attending the Midwest Religion and Science Society (MRSS) conferences, where I’ve been exposed to interdisciplinary scholarship that sought to integrate theological ideas, scientific understanding of evolutionary origins, and philosophical ideas on the emergence of consciousness and personhood in our evolutionary history. It gave me a good framework for interdisciplinary dialogue and thinking, piqued my interest in science and religion and later drew me to the types of broader impacts questions that inquiries like the astrobiology endeavor seek to answer. If we find life on another planet, how should we respond to that life? Would we respond differently if it is simple vs. complex and, why? What do we define as life or a living organism and what does it mean to be human? For me, when these questions are juxtaposed with a theological framework, they become even more interesting. I am eager to gain a theological framework to unpack these ideas during my time at Vanderbilt Divinity school, where I will start a Masters of Theological Studies this fall. I hope to develop a technical knowledge base in theology to combine with my technical biology background, while finding ways to put the study of theology in dialogue with scientific endeavors such as astrobiology, finding ways to reach beyond the doors of the academy and of religious institutions.
- Zemeckis, R and Starkey, S (1997) Contact. United States: Warner Brothers.
- Fujiwara, T. et al. (2005) “Cytokinesis failure generating tetraploids promotes tumorigenesis in p53-null cells.” Nature, 437: 1043-1047.
- Lacroix and Maddox (2012) Cytokinesis, ploidy and aneuploidy. The Journal of Pathology, 226(2): 338-351.
- Storchova and Pellman (2004) From polyploidy to aneuploidy, genome instability and cancer, 5: Nature Reviews, 45-54.
- Catling, D. (2013) Astrobiology: a very short introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.