Amazing Kids! Magazine

Amazing Mentor! Spotlight Interview with Dr. Shannon Bennet

By Mindy Yang, Editor in Chief


We see science in everyday life through simple tasks. If you ever wanted to explore the diversity of science, the California Academy of Sciences is the place to visit. The California Academy of Sciences’ mission is to explore, explain and protect the natural world. To help answer some of our questions about science and research evident in everyday life, Amazing Kids! has spoken with  Dr. Shannon Bennett, Associate Curator of Microbiology at the California Academy of Sciences. She focuses on the infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Dr. Shannon Bennett has done numerous amounts of research in virus evolution, identification and transmission. Let’s look at the impact of science on our lives!

AK: What is the main goal of the California Academy of Sciences?

The main goal of the California Academy of Sciences is to “explore, explain and protect the natural world” – if you dig a little deeper into this statement, you can see that it covers all aspects of the Academy, which includes research scientists industriously “exploring” the mysteries of our natural world; education, public programs and exhibit teams that facilitate “explaining” our research as well as a range of other important scientific topics to people of all life stages; and finally, a mission that knits us all together to translate what we know and learn into advocacy for the “protection” of our planet’s biodiversity, which is realized on local as well as international scales.

AK: Why do you think science is so profound in everyday life?

Life itself is a product of the processes which we study in science. Not only is the scientific method, and the things we have learned by conducting science, critical to understanding all aspects of life, from reproduction and survival to the diversity of forms to human health, but science also has predictive power to project potential outcomes in these times of rapid change in climate, population growth, and biodiversity loss.

AK: What types of research have you recently done? Can you provide any specific examples on how you collect data and analyze it?

My recent research has been on viruses, following my interests in how viruses evolve, where they occur in nature, and what causes them to change, either jumping into new hosts, or becoming more virulent in their current hosts. I study mosquito-borne viruses, as well as zoonotic viruses (viruses of animals that can spill over into people) such as hantaviruses and influenza. In studying mosquito-borne viruses, I spend time in the field, mainly in tropical areas, collecting mosquitoes using a variety of traps. I am also given human blood samples from my medical colleagues, or animal tissues. I transport my samples into my laboratory and extract the genetic material they contain, then I use different techniques to amplify and sequence any viral genetic material to characterize it. I use statistics and bioinformatics to compare virus sequences over space, time, habitat, and host, to determine how they are evolving. Sometimes I also do experiments in my lab, infecting mosquitoes and/or certain cell cultures with viruses to study how they grow.

AK: Describe your job and your favorite parts of your career.

My job is to do scientific research. This involves planning studies, conducting the studies, which includes training and mentoring staff and students who work with me, and communicating the results. Communication can take a variety of forms, from scientific publications in specialized journals, to presenting at conferences, seminars, or in public venues such as those provided at the Academy. Finally, teamwork is a critical part of being a scientist, so my job also includes regular meetings with other scientists at the academy to make our work environment functional, share scientific ideas, and have fun. My favorite part of my career is uncovering the results of a study I have carefully planned and executed – the discovery of something new I didn’t know before is extremely rewarding!

AK: How has your past shaped your interest in science. Any inspirations?

I have always enjoyed exploring since I was very young. I used to follow park naturalists around on our family camping trips, making sketches, collecting specimens and taking notes. Later in college I traveled to Liberia, west Africa, as a volunteer in public health, and after I contracted malaria and amoebic dysentery there I became inspired to study parasitism and microorganisms – I wanted to know where the pathogens came from (in nature and evolutionarily), how they infected me, and why they made me so sick!

AK: Why do you think it’s important for young children to become involved in science even in daily life?

Science is about creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking, skills which should be used every day! Involving children in science at a young age will entrain them with these skills that are so important to generate effective members of society that contribute to a better life for all.

AK: You have been an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine & Infectious Diseases and also an Associate Curator of Microbiology at the California Academy of Sciences for 7 years. What have you learned about microbiology and science in general?

Microbes continue to astound me with their diversity and the complex interactions they participate in with other micro- as well as macro-organisms. Many of these interactions critically sustain life at the ecosystem level. Most habitats are teeming with microorganisms, including our bodies. Did you know that, for example, bacteria of the genus Wolbachia living inside many insects manipulate their hosts’ reproduction to ensure their own transmission, and in turn, in the case of mosquitoes, interfere with the host’s ability to transmit dengue viruses?  This knowledge is now being tested as a means of controlling dengue in Queensland, Australia. As to science in general, I have learned to trust the scientific method as an important means to discovery – the scientific method is easy to practice by all under any circumstance: first we look around us and make an observation that piques our curiosity, then we pose a question around it, next we design how to challenge it, and when the results come in, we develop a new hypothesis and start testing again. Thus science is an iterative process built on the premise of building, testing and refining falsifiable hypotheses to incrementally resolve our understanding of how life and the universe works.

AK: What goals for research and teaching does the California Academy of Science have for the future? How do you think science will change in the next 5 years?

The Academy has identified some research thrusts to build upon and rally around in the upcoming years, including global biodiversity hotspots, California biodiversity and sustainability, ocean biodiversity, and human origins, with a common teaching thread that permeates them all around increasing science literacy and empowering all of us as advocates for biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and global ecological health.  Everyday new technologies applied to scientific discovery are drilling deeper to uncover the marvels of life and reveal the multi-faceted functions of its players. This is an exciting time of unparalleled discovery, and now is the time to get involved!

AK: Have you had any mentors who helped you follow your career path to become an Associate Curator of Microbiology at the California Academy of Sciences?

My PhD advisor Martin Adamson is my favorite mentor among many – not only is he brilliant, but he takes great joy in science, derives enormous fun out of teaching, glories in the gore of parasitism, and is one of a few living individuals who is a world expert systematist of nematodes. Trying to match his model of both scientist and teacher has brought me to this point at the Academy.

AK: What advice do you have for our readers that hope to pursue a career related to science or more specifically, microbiology?

Indulge your curiosity at every opportunity. Show no fear. Train in an area of science or life sciences that interests you, but pepper it with a grounding in math, statistics, and computational biology/bioinformatics.