Igor Slowing, a scientist at the Ames Laboratory and adjunct professor of chemistry at Iowa State University, keeps a genealogy tree on the wall of his office--”with names, dates, and pictures.
Only it's not family history; it's academic heritage.
In academia one can also trace lineage. In the family, each generation nurtures the next. In academia, each generation of professor nurtures the student, imparting knowledge and encouraging original thought as they earn their doctoral degree.
With pages of paper hanging in a line towards the ceiling, Slowing can trace his academic heritage starting with his research in nanostructured materials for catalysis at Ames Laboratory, and his doctoral research at Iowa State under the late Victor Shang-Yi Lin. From there, his academic heritage goes back on this office wall a few hundred years, to early American academics like Amos Eaton (1776-1842), who co-founded what is now the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
"I've always loved history in general and the history of science in particular," said Slowing. "When I began to study chemistry, I was curious to know how I was related to these people that I was reading about."
And Slowing's historical research has taken him back even further, to the flowering of scientific thought that occurred in Western Europe during the Renaissance at universities in Padua, Basel, and Paris.
"And before the printing press, it was monasteries that were the centers of academic thought," said Slowing.
He can trace his academic genealogy over 600 years, to a time when the modern concept of what we now would call "science" was just beginning to emerge from the study of natural philosophy and mathematics. Down through the centuries, fields of science emerge: astronomy, physics, medicine, chemistry, botany, zoology and more.
Many of his scientific ancestors are a history book unto themselves, like Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a physician who pioneered concepts in public hygiene and modern psychiatry; or Justus von Liebig, a 19th century German chemist and inventor who is credited with the development of modern organic chemistry.
"It is also interesting to trace the emigration of scientists. From Europe, then to the West, and then back again as researchers from the Americas go to Europe and elsewhere for their education," said Slowing, as his hand traces more recent branches and decades of the tree. It's a dissemination of knowledge over time that has been affected by culture and geography, politics and war.
Slowing said he'd like to learn more about the scientists in his family tree that are still alive and actively researching "his academic great-grandfathers, as it were. Among them is Harry Gray, a pioneering bioinorganic chemist at the California Institute of Technology whose work Slowing finds fascinating.
"These are scientists actively working in areas very different from mine, and yet their accomplishments keep inspiring my work. The influence of ideas across the years and across scientific disciplines is a great history lesson."