Embracing evolution

Embracing evolution

What is imprinted in that fence, the entrance of the Leverhulme Center for Human Evolution Studies (LCHES) is supposed to be a tree.

Evolution is studied using trees, in which different lineages form branches that connect in their ancestral forms until one common ancestor sets the root. 

An entrance with an evolutionary tree was designed for LCHES, but a tree with many black vertical sticks would not stay firm as a fence. Therefore, they had to be attached to each other with horizontal sticks. Using sticks of lighter color would avoid confusion, but inevitably they made the fence an unrealistic representation of evolutionary history.

Well, that was the thought at that time. During the years of research at LCHES and other centres it became well accepted that there is also horizontal transfer of genetic information, which mixes lineages and makes evolution depart from tree-like and become rather network-like. The fence is actually a more realistic representation of evolutionary history. 

That is what Rob Foley was explaining Gerry Gilmore that warm day in August 2022, when I was visiting Cambridge.  Although I’ve always found very exciting to listen to such classical “Cambridge stories”, just standing behind these two very important scientist, an astronomer and an anthropologist,  who were there that day because of me, was taking up all my emotional capacity. It was a moment of feeling fully realised, that everything I’ve worked for was worth. 

I was hired in 2013 by Gerry at a moment of my life in which I was just learning to trust in my career, thanks to the opportunity I was given by Caroline Soubiran in Bordeaux, France. We had started working on our project of the Gaia Benchmark Stars and had the ambition to make our stars the reference for the Gaia-ESO Survey, which Gerry was leading. The fact that Gerry wanted me in his team was an appreciation that my work was important and that I was an interesting contribution to the University of Cambridge. I was so fond of Gerry’s science, and he was offering me a job! So we moved to Cambridge once my postdoc in France was over. 

Gerry wasn’t the kind of boss that wanted to meet us regularly, he left us postdocs free to navigate our ways. With no clear instructions of how to work at the Institute of Astronomy (IoA), I started exploring more of the University, and became associated to King’s College, a symbol of Cambridge through its beautiful entrance and chapel. I was so proud to have been accepted at King’s, that participated in all activities I was invited, regardless of if they “served for my career”. And one day I met Rob. 

During that meeting, I visualised a tree of Milky Way stars in my mind. I was so mind blowed that I had to see that tree for real, so I kept leaving the IoA, cycling through the energising hidden paths full with leaves or flowers, under the sun or the rain, and went to LCHES to talk to Rob and learn and discuss about  all the ways evolution can take place. Every time I parked my bike in front of that fence, I felt a special freedom that I could take my mind anywhere. 

My take away from Cambridge is that I learnt that every scientific discipline is useful,  magical and beautiful, that no good experience is a waste of time, and that there is nothing to be afraid of being wrong.  And the day I took this picture I embraced the feeling of precisely enjoying the merging of two disciplines, being protected by people I trust and like while the Milky Way stellar tree takes form