by Festival Board Member, Kerry Bennett

Since 1990, when Michael Crighton’s blockbuster “Jurassic Park” was first published—then brought to life on the big screen by Steven Spielberg in 1993—the prospect of cloning dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals such as woolly mammoths has captured our collective imagination. Although heavily fictionalized, Crighton’s story was based on actual work being done in the fledgling field of ancient DNA at the time, which began with the first study of DNA isolated from the remains of animals that used to be alive, which was published in the scientific journal Nature in 1984.

Dr. Beth Shapiro, herself a pioneer in the field of ancient DNA, will deliver the W. L. Gore & Associates Keynote Presentation on Sept. 22 to kick off the 10-day Flagstaff Festival of Science—along with her own unique brand of what she calls ‘enthusiastic realism’ about the potential of using ancient DNA for de-extinction, the modern term for the Crighton-esque proposal to bring long-extinct species back to life.

“It’s really cool to investigate the DNA of an animal that’s thousands of years old, and to think about whether modern technology might be able to bring it back.”

But what’s even more exciting and meaningful to Shapiro, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is using this same biotechnology to introduce ancient traits—those discovered while mining the genomes of long-dead species—into living species to help make them more resilient to climate change.

One example she will discuss is using DNA from the frozen remains of extinct woolly mammoths along with advanced gene editing technologies to alter the genome of Asian elephants, potentially making them adapted to Arctic climates, for example with thicker hair and other cold-resistant characteristics. By reintroducing mammoth-like creatures into the region, some scientists hypothesize they can ultimately reverse the effects of climate change by slowing the thaw of Arctic permafrost and restoring natural Arctic grasslands.

Biodiversity and conservation are central to Shapiro’s work, and her involvement in the nonprofit Revive & Restore is an important extension of her research. Its mission is “to enhance biodiversity through genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species.” She is a member of the organization’s Board of Directors and advisor of the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback Project. The project’s goal is to bring back the Passenger Pigeon, a keystone species for North American eastern forests that went extinct in 1914, in an effort to help restore the ecology of these forests.

Surprisingly, science wasn’t Shapiro’s initial career path. Like many young people growing up in the 1980s, Beth Shapiro spent a lot of time outdoors near her home in Georgia, exploring the forest, collecting rocks, investigating the world around her and making up stories to amuse her friends. In fact, she says, she always wanted to be a journalist. In high school, she was hired by the local TV station to do a local news segment—which led her to study broadcast journalism at the University of Georgia (UGA), where she became news director at a local radio station during her freshman year.

But it was a UGA intensive summer program combining geology, anthropology and ecology that piqued her interest in science. Camping out at national parks across the country—including the Grand Canyon—she gained an interdisciplinary understanding of the natural processes that shape our environment, and how adaptations to ongoing change will ultimately reshape life on Earth.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Shapiro.

She decided to continue studying science in order to become a better science journalist. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ecology at UGA, spending time performing ecological research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. It was there that her passion for being a scientist intensified.

But it wasn’t until 1999, when she was selected as a Rhodes Scholar and began working on her PhD at the University of Oxford, that Shapiro stumbled on ancient DNA and the idea of de-extinction. Still in its infancy, Shapiro joined the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at the University of Oxford under the direction of Alan Cooper and began exploring the DNA of ancient woolly mammoths, steppe bison and arctic horses buried in the frozen tundra of Siberia and Alaska. “That was super cool,” she said, as the fascinating research combined history, geology and genetics.

After receiving her doctorate from Oxford, Shapiro went on to academic positions at The Pennsylvania State University and then UCSC. She has received several prestigious fellowships and awards—including a MacArthur Fellow and Packard Fellow—and has published hundreds of scholarly articles in scientific journals, including Scienceand Nature. She hasn’t lost her passion for journalism, however. Shapiro has also authored several popular books for non-scientists, including “How to Clone a Mammoth” and “Life as We Made It,” blending her scientific pragmatism with compelling storytelling and advocacy. Her books will be available for sale after the keynote presentation.

These days, Shapiro is Director of Evolutionary Genomics for UCSC’s Genomics Institute and co-directs UCSC’s Paleogenomics Lab, a group of graduate students, post-doctoral scholars and senior scientists who study molecular evolution from a paleo perspective. She teaches courses in Evolutionary Biology, Molecular Ecology and Paleogenomics.

“Get outdoors!” Beth encourages aspiring scientists in the Flagstaff community.

She encourages young people to go hiking or bike riding and explore the world, and to actively participate in science by using tools like iNaturalist (a social network of scientists and citizen scientists who map and share observations of biodiversity) and resources such as Merlin Bird ID (a smartphone app that can instantly identify bird species through photos and sounds).

Shapiro will deliver the W. L. Gore & Associates Keynote Presentation Friday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. in NAU’s Ardrey Auditorium. Visit for more information and to reserve a seat.