Ag Research Spotlight: Brian Dilkes
“The most important thing in science is to ask the right question. People limit the capacity of discovery by needing an answer. At Purdue University you can very openly explore possibilities.” -Brian Dilkes, Associate Professor of Biochemistry
The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our spotlight for March 2016 underscores the theme, “Utilizing molecular approaches to expand the frontiers of agriculture and life sciences.”
Los Angeles native Brian Dilkes says he was “always a science nerd.” He recalls a conference on genetically engineered insulin in the 1980s—his high-school biology teacher gave him a ticket—as a defining moment in his academic path. Dilkes asked a question of the late Nobel Laureate Marshall Nirenberg. Nirenberg’s graceful reply was that he didn’t know the answer, didn’t think anyone did, and, science was full of questions no one knew the answer to. Dilkes says that response “hooked him.” He earned a bachelor of liberal arts at Oberlin College, a doctorate from the University of Arizona, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington. While a project scientist at the University of California, Davis Genome Center, an opening for a plant evolutionary genomics professor attracted him to Purdue. He joined the faculty in 2009.
Dilkes’ area of expertise is plant genetics. “I’m interested in how new species arise. How they become isolated from their progenitors and adapted to new environments,” he explains. He looks for situations in which information about plant adaptation is available but the molecular mechanism isn’t known. For example, one project focuses on plants that prefer nickel-contaminated soils. “These plants accumulate nickel to very high levels,” he says. “We know some about how that works, but not a lot.” By introducing features from the adapted plants into relatives, Dilkes can test hypotheses about how this adaptation occurs at the molecular level.
By increasing human understanding, science helps predict the consequences of human activity, Dilkes says. Limiting research to projects that generate short-term direct economic activity is a disservice to our society and all of humanity, he adds: “The applied justification for science is increased knowledge, and I’m a zealot about this.”
One advantage of being at Purdue is access to the tools and colleagues that permit work at multiple scales, from field research to analyzing molecules in the lab, and across time scales as well, Dilkes says. One inspiration he cites is the short film “Powers of Ten” by Charles and Ray Eames, which depicts the relative scale of the universe from its entirety to a single atom: “It’s a beautiful expression of scale,” he says.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
Dilkes communicates his passion about science to multiple groups: the scientific community, through publishing and speaking; undergraduates in his experimental design course and graduate students studying advanced genetics; and lay audiences. He recalls one 8-year-old who was excited by the idea of talking to a scientist and kept asking questions. “The parents were super embarrassed but I thought, ‘That’s why I’m here.’ I wanted the kid to know that their ideas matter, to build aspiration.” Away from the lab and classroom, Dilkes enjoys politics, automobiles, and film, all of which he credits to his California roots.