Alumni Profile: Daniel Duzdevich

October 11, 2021

’09CC, Biophysics

M.A. ’12, M.Phil. ’13, Biological Sciences

On Darwin’s 205th birthday (February 12, 2014), Indiana University Press published your first book, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Modern Rendition. How did the idea for this book come about?

I’ve known for a long time that I want to be a biologist, so I tried to read On the Origin of Species in high school. But I couldn’t get through it—the writing was too convoluted. I came back to it in college, when it was assigned reading for a class taught by Professor Walter Bock. I have a habit of notating what I read, and I realized that I was making mostly stylistic changes to the text—changes that made the language clearer. Professor Bock suggested that I try ‘translating’ one chapter. I was happy with the result, so I kept working on it.

Has this been done before—a “translation” of the entire Origin into modern language?

No, but other writers have handled the Origin in different ways—for example, annotating it with detailed notes and references, or layering modern science onto it. But no one had addressed the language directly, which was very surprising to me.

Take me through your writing process.

My goal was to translate the Origin into stylistically lucid and clear text, without sacrificing content. I started with a paperback copy and broke it down into sentences and paragraphs with penciled-in notations, working piece by piece. This was slowly translated into the working manuscript. Then I meticulously cross-checked against the original to make sure I hadn’t altered content or Darwin’s meaning. After that: many, many rounds of re-reading and re-checking. I also asked biologists and non-specialists to critique the manuscript, which was very helpful.

What was your biggest challenge in this project?

In many ways, I’m an outsider. I’m a molecular biologist, not an evolutionary biologist—but I actually consider that an advantage because I approached theOrigin without too many preconceptions. Also, I’m just a student ‘messing with’ a masterpiece. But I didn’t undertake this project to challenge Darwin. I did it to give him a voice for a larger audience.

Did you have a hard time balancing this project with all your obligations as a Ph.D. student?

Yes, definitely. But I was careful not to compromise my graduate-school responsibilities. I’m an insomniac, so my habit was to work on the book late at night or early in the morning, after I had finished all my other work. I enjoy the ritual of writing, of having something else to turn to.

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist and award-winning writer, wrote the foreword for your book. How did that come about?

Olivia Judson is one of my science-writing heroes. She has a style that is immediately engaging, but also scientifically rigorous. I contacted her with the manuscript, and after some correspondence and feedback, she agreed to contribute. She wrote a terrific foreword with great details that will give someone who’s unfamiliar with the Origin all the necessary background.

The dedication of your book is: “Nagyszüleimnek. Akik ismerik az élet lényeges dolgait.” What does it mean?

It’s Hungarian. It means, roughly: “To my grandparents, who know about the important things in life.” My Hungarian and Croatian family have had a huge influence on me. I’m endlessly fortunate to have spent my early childhood and many of my summers with them, and I got my fascination with the world—with the universe—from my grandmother.

The Hungarian language itself is an influence too. It’s decidedly distinct in many ways, and not related to the Indo-European cluster found in all the areas surrounding Hungary. And then growing up in Queens—surrounded by so many different cultures—made my love of language. It’s another reason this project appealed to me.

Having studied at both Columbia College and GSAS, how would you compare the two experiences?

They’re very different. I chose the College for the Core Curriculum, and all those humanities classes—with students from every department mingling and arguing—were a highlight of my undergraduate years. As for the sciences, it was important for me to be at a research university, to be taught by active scientists.

In graduate school, my focus is on research, engaging with the scientific community, designing experiments, and exchanging ideas. It’s a wonderful intellectual environment.

What is your Ph.D. research on?

I work at the Medical Center campus in the lab of Professor Eric Greene. Overall, we study how biological molecules interact with DNA, and my focus is on systems that manipulate DNA in complicated but very regulated ways. Using a technique originally developed by Professor Greene called “DNA curtains,” I can actually watch these interactions happening between individual molecules. Everyone in the Greene lab uses this technique, but we study different biological systems.

How did you first get interested in biology?

My passion happens to be a grade-school subject, so it was easy to discover. I was lucky to have teachers who brought enthusiasm to science classes, or otherwise encouraged me. At some point in high school I realized that scientists get todiscover things. That did it for me.

Coming back to On the Origin of Species, what are some of the ideas in it that struck you the most?

Darwin begins by discussing domestication—artificial selection in plants and animals. Modern readers often get thrown by this, but it’s important to remember that Darwin needed to ease his audience into unfamiliar intellectual spaces. So he chose something commonplace as a gateway. It’s a very clever approach and makes the transition to natural selection much easier.

The Origin is very dense in concepts and ideas, but I have a personal favorite. Darwin argues that the reason certain groups of species can be classified together—based on similarities—is because they are related through common ancestry. He posits that all the species of a genus, for example, share a common ancestor. If this is the case, then perhaps all the genera of a family (a larger taxonomic grouping) also share a common ancestor, and so on. He concludes that perhaps all living things are directly related through time, right back to the origin of life on our planet. Darwin had this insight based on just the observational organismal biology of his time. Biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology… none of these existed. But he figured it out, and gave us a bold and striking comprehension. It’s so beautiful.

— Interview conducted by Andrew Ng