Prof Davide Pisani
"If I hadn't become an evolutionary scientist I'd have been a historian; I like reconstructing the past from fragments."
Davide Pisani studied for his PhD at Bristol University before lecturing in bioinformatics at the National University of Ireland, becoming a scientific associate of the Natural History Museum of London and a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lead Team).
He returned to Bristol in 2012 on a joint appointment between Biological Sciences and Earth Sciences. His research merges genomics and paleobiology, and explores the origin and early evolution of life on Earth, particularly in relation to animals.
Phylogenomics is a big buzzword in science, currently. We’re interested mostly in the concept of origin. I guess that explains a lot about what I do, what I’ve done in the past and the kind of collaborations I’ve always had.
I study evolution but I’m also interested in the history of the Earth, and also to some extent, understanding life beyond Earth.
Everyone has different ways of deciding on their research focus. In my case, I’m a daydreamer. All my life that has been something that has characterised me, I get side-tracked by my own line of thinking.
I remember a particular period of my life where I spent most of my time thinking about why life was based on carbon; and it was a constant thing in my mind, but I wasn’t thinking about how to answer the question, just wondering about this interesting fact and how life would, could, or could not be based on other chemicals.
I very rarely think about things in terms of answering a question, until of course I have to write a grant and then one needs to think about how to frame a cool and interesting idea in a different way.
I remember back in 2001 when I moved to the US to work with NASA for the first time, I had already been thinking about tree of life and then a large amount of data became available that meant we could explore this in relation to bacteria. So the questions tend to be framed later.
Right now, we’re working on vision; how did the first animal start to see? If you go back in the evolutionary history of animals, what you’ll discover is that the simplest animal like the placozoans (that are tiny creeping creatures that lives at the bottom of the seas) cannot really detect light, but other animals like the jellyfish have proper light detection capabilities, so it seems this function came out of nowhere.
So what we’re interested is how this came into being, when and following what type of route? How did that then change into other animals? At some stage something happened [to a particular protein that governs vision] and it became able to let us see; we want to know what, how and when.
It’s very difficult to say why I picked science; I was probably more interested in the philosophical side of things. I went to a fairly bad high school, I’ve never been very good at that kind of studying. I wasn’t interested then in learning how to solve algebra, say, and if I wasn’t interested I couldn’t make myself think about it.
I was also uninspired by most of my teachers, but I was always interested in nature – I would rather spend my time reading about fish or dogs, because I loved ethology and animal behaviour. But we weren’t doing this kind of stuff at school.
I ended up going to Parma University close to my hometown, where the department of biology was directed by Danilo Maniardi, the most prominent of Italian ethologists. I spent most of my time going to labs and going to the library.
Many people were only joining labs in their last year but I was joining them in my second year. There was a particular professor, Patrizia Torricelli, who was working on the behaviour of fish and she invited me to go into her lab and I started to realise I really enjoyed scientific research.
I was having discussions with these famous, major professors so it was very inspiring. The more I found myself thinking about what I liked to think about rather than what I was told to think about – I had been at a technological school and I didn’t really want to work in industry or learn about technology – it became very natural.
I had always spent my life daydreaming about semi-scientific things, about animals and ancient human history and when I finished at university, I was in a position where I really started understanding science.
Life as a researcher is not as free as it seems because you still have boundaries, you are required to report back. It’s a question of trust.
“That’s something that is very important to me – that feeling that people trust you and you trust them and everyone trusts each other to do their job, there is a sense of voluntary action.
There is a pressure in science that sets in when you become professional, that’s just unavoidable. You start having responsibilities, where you have to find funding for your PhD students, for instance; it’s part of the competitive nature of securing grants. You have to keep publishing and moving forward otherwise you won’t be able to get the answers you need.
But very often, even if you have these external pressures to achieve a target, what you notice is that the internal drive is so much stronger, so you would do it anyway and it doesn’t change your lifestyle.
It’s innate for a scientist to obsess about their subject. It’s the way you are, you are thinking about this stuff all the time. Most of the day you think about your subject in a conscious way.
Subconsciously, you’re condensing that information in the back of your mind, and often, when you are distracted by something else, you find yourself coming back to it.
I love the past, hearing people talk about the past, history in general. Essentially I’m a historian, if I hadn’t become an evolutionary scientist I’d have been a historian; I like reconstructing the past from fragments.”
- A Relief to Darwin: The Eyes Have It
The Wall Street Journal, 2012
- Irish and US researchers redraw tree of life and settle age-old scientific dispute
Irish Times, 2011