Professor Robin Kolnicki’s eyes light up as she thinks back, transporting herself out of the empty Hemenway lecture hall from which her biology class has just departed.
Despite more than 20 years separating this average Tuesday in 2015 from that one Thanksgiving night at a friend’s house during her graduate school years in the early ‘90s, the memory has not faded.
In the relaxed atmosphere after dinner, Kolnicki observed a chess match while others read or chatted, when Carl Sagan – famed astronomer and author and host of 1980’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” – strolled into the room.
“Robin,” Kolnicki recounted, putting on her best impersonation of his voice – deep, confident and dashed with a hint of sarcasm. “You’re a biologist … I would love to get your opinion on something.”
Taking her into a side room, Sagan sat her down, took a spot close next to her, and popped a tape into the VCR.
“I really would like to get your opinion on this,” he repeated with a smile. “As a biologist…”
Describing the video Sagan showed her that night as on par with “the worst science fiction film you’ve ever seen,” Kolnicki recounted watching, while trying to maintain an air of scientific objectivity, the full autopsy of a stereotypical “alien” specimen allegedly recovered from Roswell, New Mexico.
Kolnicki explained how Sagan used this video as a type of humorous catechism for his biologist friends. Able to recognize the hoax by the clumsy, unsystematic nature of the autopsy (and the fact that it was a video of an alien autopsy, after all), Kolnicki had satisfied Sagan’s inquiry.
So, what exactly, Kolnicki reflected, returning from her reverie back to Hemenway 212, does it mean for a scientist to sit and share such a moment with one of the most beloved scientists of the past half century?
Not as much as one might think, she revealed, for, in the end, it was simply two people sharing a passion for rigorous scientific thinking, having a bit of fun in the process. She explained how to be affected by celebrity – to be “star-struck” – goes against the ideals of science itself.
“I do always enjoy meeting famous scientists,” Kolnicki said, recalling her attendance of astrophysicist Frank Drake’s 70th birthday party or talking with TV personality Jeff Corwin when he landed his first hosting job. However, she added, “There’s no authority in science.”
This idea of science as an equalizer is one that has defined Kolnicki’s journey through and passion for the lifestyle that is “science” since her earliest years, and on into adulthood. Great mentors and fellow scientists have only made the experience more vibrant along the way.
This passion for knowledge – to recognize a mystery, solve it and pass on what was learned – makes the great scientists nothing more than great mentors to the world, she said, and drives her to pass on what she knows to her students each day as best she can.
Born near Lake Charles, Louisiana – right in the heart of the Bible Belt -Kolnicki’s inquisitive nature clashed with her Southern Baptist and Catholic background, often leading her to “question strict religious dogma,” she said.
“I had problems, and I would try to talk to the elders,” she recalled, “but often I would get an eye roll and ‘God works in mysterious ways.’”
It was not long, however, until Kolnicki – part of a military family, which often needed to uproot and move to a different part of the country – found herself living in Massachusetts in second grade. Here her scientific curiosities could run free, enhanced by spending summers in the wilderness of Vermont, as well as by a high school teacher who not only brought her class on frequent outdoor adventures of discovery, but also secured Kolnicki a scholarship to help her afford higher education.
“She took us white-water rafting and spelunking – doing things that we would never ordinarily have the opportunity to do,” she said. “That was exciting.”
And so, after a slew of different specializations in college, including veterinary work, law enforcement – albeit of the wildlife protection variety – and finally education, Kolnicki found herself unable to repress the scientific itch any longer once her children were grown, and began working on projects in biology.
“I was actually much more successful in biology than I had anticipated,” she said.
So much so, in fact, that she had gained the attention of biologist Lynn Margulis, who had become famous for her theory of symbiogenesis – essentially, the idea that the complex living cells of today’s organisms had evolved out of the interrelationships of their simpler constituent parts.
“Lynn inspired us to view life as being intricately connected as a larger biosphere,” Kolnicki said. “Current research continues to shift the paradigm from a view that microbes and viruses are enemies towards our understanding of their important involvement in the health of humans and other creatures, as well as in ecosystems.”
Margulis died of a stroke in 2011 to the widespread grief of the scientific community.
Kolnicki said she had met Margulis when she nervously approached her after one of her talks at the Hitchcock Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Margulis recommended – or more so insisted, as she often did – that Kolnicki take her course on environmental evolution.
This course, naturally, led to another, followed by another, followed by another, until Kolnicki was in a position to gain her Ph.D. in biology, which involved crisscrossing the African heartlands and exploring lemur-filled Madagascar for research over the course of a decade.
“It really wasn’t my decision to return to college and get that degree,” she joked. Rather, Margulis’ passion for scientific progress proved infectious, and by this point Kolnicki was assisting Margulis on her own projects, being the only student under her wing who specialized in mammals.
Perhaps more importantly, however, far from the nervous idolization Kolnicki felt originally, Margulis had become a close friend and personal (as well as scientific) mentor.
“Lynn was the most generous person I’ve ever met,” Kolnicki added, recounting Margulis’ insistence on feeding her students homemade dishes and paying for them to attend extracurricular trips with her. “Her students were her extended family.”
Ultimately, Kolnicki joined Margulis’ family for real when she began dating Margulis’ son Jeremy, whose father was Carl Sagan. Margulis and Sagan had been married decades earlier, separating but remaining friends until his death in 1996.
This opened the way for Kolnicki’s brief but memorable friendship (tinged with some unavoidable veneration) with Sagan near the end of his life.
Despite his iconic, larger-than-life persona to some, to Kolnicki, her moment on the couch with Sagan playfully analyzing pseudoscience was merely a case of two science junkies converging to share a laugh at the holidays.
As Sagan reminded his readers and viewers in “Cosmos,” quoting Democritus, “A life without festivity is a long road without an inn.”
However, for Kolnicki, the bottom line remains that the endeavor of science is primarily a serious one – as she described it, an “obligation” of the human species to the planet, especially in this time when the environmental impact of humanity is becoming increasingly understood, and accepted as both significant and perilous.
Kolnicki said she does everything she can to pass this sense of urgency onto her students, as her mentors did for her.
She said, “If we don’t understand what we’re doing and try to prevent it, we’re not only harming ourselves, but so many other creatures. Science is a way to know things. … It makes you a better global citizen.
“It’s better to know,” Kolnicki said, “than to live life in ignorance. Science is a way of knowing the world.”