Research: Q & A
Alexey Kondrashov is using computing power to investigate some of the most difficult questions of evolutionary biology, such as how natural selection works at the level of individual proteins and amino acids, and why so many species rely on sexual reproduction. Some of this work relates to human mutations and comparisons between our species and other mammals.
Dr. Kondrashov will join LSI this summer from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) of the National Institutes of Health. He will be LSI Research Professor and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the College of Literature Science and the Arts.
You earned your PhD in Evolutionary Genetics and conducted research for 10 years at the prestigious Pushchino Research Center of the Russia Academy of Science before moving to the US. What brought you here?
James Crow, from the University of Wisconsin, invited me to work with him in 1983, immediately after we independently published the same idea. However, I was only able to use his invitation, for a short visit in 1988 after it became possible to travel abroad without submitting to humiliating interrogations by the communists. Then, in 1990, I came with my family for one year—to work for six months with James Crow and for another six months at the University of Chicago with Brian Charlesworth. However, very soon several things happened: 1) my wife became a graduate student in Linguistics, 2) we had a fifth child, and 3) it became clear that doing science in post-Soviet Russia with this number of kids to feed would be impossible. Thus, we decided to stay for a while—and this "while" has not ended so far.
Hundreds of top Russian scientists moved to other countries in the 1990s. Did many of your scientific peers and colleagues move?
From our 1978 class in the faculty of Biology, Lomonosov Moscow Federal University, several of my dear friends became well-known in their fields: Galina Selivanova (cancer research, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm), Sergei Mirkin (molecular genetics, University of Illinois), Andrei Gudkov (cancer research, Cleveland Foundation), and Eugene Koonin (bioinformatics, NCBI). In contrast, only a few of those who did not leave the country are still doing research of any importance.
The proximal cause of this disaster is obvious—lack of funds from the Russian government and lack of interest in research from the Russian society in general. Why this is the case, nobody really knows. Certainly, huge Russian oil and gas reserves are to blame to some exten—why do research, when we can easily export some oil and get dollars? Still, the magnitude of the disaster was not widely anticipated. If somebody told me 20 years ago that getting rid of the communists would cause destruction of science, I would not believe it. This is particularly sad because there is still a decent system of basic education in Russia , and there are many amazingly talented high school kids there.
You have worked at four US universities before LSI including the Universities of Wisconsin, Chicago, Oregon, and Cornell—are there key differences with Russian institutions?
What people in the USA often do not realize is that there are huge differences between how science is being done in US universities versus US government laboratories, such as NIH intramural research facilities. US government science is organized very much like Soviet government science -- there is a strict hierarchy of authority. Scientists who do actual work do not participate in making any important decisions, and the well-being of your laboratory mostly depends on whether your boss likes or dislikes you. In fact, Soviet science was more democratic—at least a new faculty could not be hired there without a vote by the faculty. On a positive note, if, in the US government, you are on good terms with the authorities, you do not have to teach or to worry about grants, and can concentrate on your research. That is why so many Soviet expatriates gravitate towards US government laboratories. At NCBI, English is only the third language used, after C++ (a programming language) and Russian.
In contrast, science in the US universities is really democratic—faculty make important decisions, your funding depends on whether your peers like your grant proposal, and your hapless chairman can do very little to facilitate/impede your work. There was—and is—nothing like this in the USSR or Russian science. As everybody knows, democracy is the worst system of government, except all others.
Through your work here over the past 15 years you have worked in a growing field looking at evolutionary differences through long stretches of biological history. Are there insights you developed because of your diversity of experience in working in so many different university and research environments?
The most beneficial development in my career was that, after being trained as a zoologist, in 1978 I joined a computing center, where I was the only one without a formal education in mathematics. As a result, I learned a lot and acquired the whole new perspective on doing science, which is more characteristic for a theoretical physicist. My mentor, Prof. Molchanov, the most brilliant mind I ever encountered, made me to go step-by-step through all the basic bifurcations possible in dynamical systems, and this is now the background of my approach to any scientific problem.
Compared to this transition from a naturalist to a theorist, all other events in my intellectual development were mild. Still, it was quite a challenge to move from classical Fisher-Wright-Kimura evolutionary genetics to data analysis. This transition coincided with me going from Cornell to NCBI. I still hate data analysis and love dynamical theory, but data analysis is where the real action is now, whether I like it or not. Time will tell what I will do at UM (if anything).
Do you have collaborations with other scientists in Russia or elsewhere abroad?
Yes, my friend of 30 years Mikhail Roytberg still lives in Pushchino, and I love to work with him as he is one of the best computer scientists doing sequence analysis. When I visit Russia , I love to work (as a heavy loads carrier, mostly) for my other old friend, Prof. Vladimir Onipchenko, who is doing field research in plant community ecology in the mountains of North Caucuses (not far away from Chechnya ). Bringing 50 pounds of supplies from 4000 to 9000 feet can be a real contribution to research. Recently, while giving a lecture course in Israel, I started collaborating with a very strong grad student from Tel Aviv; I hope she will come to Ann Arbor as a postdoc.
What is attractive to you about the university environment at LSI and Ann Arbor and what are your plans?
My main motivation for returning back to the university (apart from personal reasons) is that I love to teach. Moreover, I am approaching the age of 50—and most of theorist at this age are rapidly getting useless (of course, there are exceptions). Thus, the ability to earn my keep by teaching (something I hope to be able to do for another 30 years, God willing) is really attractive.
My scientific plans are currently vague. I will try to make another mini-transition—this time away from evolutionary bioinformatics. The next frontier is, definitely, the attempt to understand the evolution of cells and organisms, but I am not sure if I am smart and fresh enough to tackle these problems. Time will tell. Also, collaborating with real doctors on the applied research may be very interesting—or it may fail. Also, I want to do some work with fruit flies—I love them.