caltech alumni book club


Bookworms Unite! The Caltech Alumni Association offers an online book club for Caltech alumni and the Caltech community including Associates and parents. A new book will be chosen every other month by our alumni, faculty, or staff hosts. Hosts, along with our team, will post interesting and thought-provoking questions on our private discussion boards which are always open. You can chat, participate, and add to the conversation whenever it is convenient for you. You do not have to read every book--there are no tests or quizzes here. Sign up, create your profile and you’re ready.


April 2019

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
by David Quammen

Hosted by Suzy Beeler, PhD Candidate

About The tangled tree

Nonpareil science writer David Quammen explains how recent discoveries in molecular biology can change our understanding of evolution and life’s history, with powerful implications for human health and even our own human nature.

In the mid-1970s, scientists began using DNA sequences to reexamine the history of all life. Perhaps the most startling discovery to come out of this new field—the study of life’s diversity and relatedness at the molecular level—is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the movement of genes across species lines. It turns out that HGT has been widespread and important. For instance, we now know that roughly eight percent of the human genome arrived not through traditional inheritance from directly ancestral forms, but sideways by viral infection—a type of HGT.

In The Tangled Tree David Quammen, “one of that rare breed of science journalists who blends exploration with a talent for synthesis and storytelling” (Nature), chronicles these discoveries through the lives of the researchers who made them—such as Carl Woese, the most important little-known biologist of the twentieth century; Lynn Margulis, the notorious maverick whose wild ideas about “mosaic” creatures proved to be true; and Tsutomu Wantanabe, who discovered that the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a direct result of horizontal gene transfer, bringing the deep study of genome histories to bear on a global crisis in public health.

“Quammen is no ordinary writer. He is simply astonishing, one of that rare class of writer gifted with verve, ingenuity, humor, guts, and great heart” (Elle). Now, in The Tangled Tree, he explains how molecular studies of evolution have brought startling recognitions about the tangled tree of life—including where we humans fit upon it. Thanks to new technologies such as CRISPR, we now have the ability to alter even our genetic composition—through sideways insertions, as nature has long been doing. The Tangled Tree is a brilliant guide to our transformed understanding of evolution, of life’s history, and of our own human nature.


About Our Host

Suzy Beeler.jpg

Suzy Beeler originally came from a small rural town in southern Illinois, where she spent her childhood before migrating to the west coast. She completed her undergraduate degree at Harvey Mudd College, with a major in Mathematical and Computational Biology. While in college, Beeler started exploring how E. coli regulates the expression of its roughly 4000 genes, a problem she hoped to continue to pursue while in graduate school. Her desire to investigate biology from a quantitative perspective made her well-suited to join Rob Phillips' group here at Caltech, where she has now also thrown physics into the mix to better understand bacterial gene regulation. Outside of the lab, Beeler enjoys taking advantage of opportunities to teach and engage with the larger Caltech community. Specifically, she has enjoyed being involved with the recent Caltech alumni trips to New Zealand and the Galapagos, both of which included a "molecular biology bootcamp" where we introduced the alumni and their guests to the hidden world of DNA sequences.

Suzy Beeler

By the book - book club host profile

Q. What are you reading or listening to now?
A. I'm currently reading The 826 Quarterly, which is a compilation of stories, essays, and poems written by children in the San Francisco area. 

Q. What is your favorite genre? Who are your favorite writers in that genre?
A. I really enjoy reading biographies about biologists, much like The Tangled Tree. Given how quickly the field of molecular biology has advanced even during the short time that I have been doing research, I find it valuable to gain a more historical perspective of where the big discoveries came from. 

Q. What genres do you avoid?
A. I generally don't like reading fantasy books as I find it hard to get immersed in a world I can't imagine. 

Q. What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A. I somewhat embarrassingly own Modelland by Tyra Banks. It actually has a lot of sentimental value for me because several students I was mentoring in my undergrad lab gave it to me as a gag gift, but they also left some heart-warming notes for me in the front cover. 

Q. How do you organize your bookshelf?
A. I try to organize my books from smallest to largest, but a few oddly shaped books give me a bit of trouble. 

Q. What was the most influential book you have read?
A. The 8th edition of Campbell and Reece's Biology was my high school biology textbook, and I consider it a large part of why I decided to pursue biology in college and ultimately become a researcher. 

Q. Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?
A. It's been a long time since I've read any fiction, but I will go with Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. 

Q. Your favorite antihero or villain?
A. I really appreciate that Count Olaf in the children's books The Series of Unfortunate Events almost always gets his way. I think it serves as a good lesson that the good guys don't always win. 

Q. You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
A. I'm going to cheat a little bit and pick three scientists who have written about and studied evolution deeply: Charles Darwin, along with Peter and Rosemary Grant.