RALEIGH — Fred Gould started out like the rest of us, playing no more than a minor role in evolution. Now, though, he speeds it up, slows it down and changes its direction to create weapons in some of mankind's most epic battles against insects.
Gould, the William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Entomology at N.C. State University, has become a leader in the emerging field of genetically engineering insects to prevent transmission of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever and to reduce pests' toll on crops. At stake are millions of lives and billions of dollars in health care costs and farmers' income.
Gould, 62, was just elected to the National Academy of Sciences. For scientists, that's the equivalent of being elected to both the baseball Hall of Fame and the All-Star team at once, said Anthony James, a molecular biologist at the University of California at Irvine, himself a member of the academy.
Gould is the ninth current NCSU faculty member elected to the academy, which has about 2,100 members.
Not only is it an honor for a body of work, but it makes you part of a highly respected advisory group on science to the federal government, said James, who works with Gould as the principal investigator of a research project that is modifying mosquitoes to fight their transmission of dengue fever.
What Gould brings to science is not just the requisite high-octane brainpower, but also rigor and an urge to think beyond the basic problem at hand and look at the larger picture, James said.
"He has an excellent analytical mind, and the kind of intensity you like that comes from really caring about what he's doing," James said. "And of course he has really great ideas."
Gould, an energetic man who favors T-shirts, flannel shirts and jeans, and often rides a bike to work, almost didn't go into science. His father, a dentist in New York City, wanted him to be a doctor, and Gould was accepted into medical school. Instead, he did some counterculture wandering, driving a cab, picking grapes, driving a bus for a psychiatric hospital. Even after graduate school he was living in a bread truck for a while.
His doctorate is in ecology and evolutionary biology, and he came to NCSU in 1977 as a postdoctoral student to work on what he called "applied evolutionary biology," using it to improve the sustainability of agriculture.
It was often science in slow motion.
"We were working on how to use classically bred plants to resist a specific pathogen or insect pest," Gould said. "Plant breeders would spend 14 years breeding a (plant species) that was resistant to a particular insect, and then in four years the insect adapted to it and the plant breeders would start all over again."
Then came the revolution in genetic engineering, as scientists developed techniques to manipulate genes to get desired characteristics. Instead of years of breeding plants, scientists could add a gene from a bacterium to crops to make them more resistant to insects.
Suddenly his work and that of the scientists and students working with him had all kinds of new ramifications, and new varieties of plants and insects could be created quickly.
His role with James' project includes creating sophisticated mathematical models that predict the likely results of releasing into the wild modified versions of the mosquito that transmits dengue fever. The models indicate things such as the optimal numbers of mosquitoes to release and over what period of time.
Breaking down walls
Gould also embodies a kind of evolution at NCSU, which has started retooling itself in ways that blur what - in higher education and research - have often been hard boundaries between different scientific disciplines.
In a few days, Gould will move his office for the first time in 34 years, joining two rising stars to form a new, cross-disciplinary program that reflects NCSU's recognition that he has found an important overlap between entomology and evolutionary science.
University leaders announced earlier this year that they would reorganize some departments and schools to adjust to the ever-changing world of science and technology. Gould was already ahead of them. He had persuaded Johnny C. Wynne, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to approve the new program and the hiring of two key faculty members to join him in it.
"He's a visionary," Wynne said.
At the forefront
New faculty and programs might seem out of step with the current climate in higher education, what with the state poised to cut its allocation to the public university system for the fourth consecutive year. But both new scientists brought grants with them, Wynne said, and are expected to attract more research funding.
More to the point, they will help NCSU stay at the leading edge of an emerging branch of science that holds vast promise for improving crops and public health.
That kind of thinking is crucial now because of the increasing complexity that technological advances have brought to science in recent years, James said. Such overlaps in expertise have to be part of sophisticated, multi-disciplinary projects such as creating new varieties of insects to fight disease.
"The way academics was set up, it was all about demonstrating individual competency in a field," he said. "The problems we are working on now, though, are so big and complex that very few people would have the expertise to do everything, so you have to be able to bring collaborators together who are less about working for themselves and more about working on this bigger problem."
A passion to dance
Gould brings the same sort of intensity to his pastimes that he does to his science, said Meg Lewis of Durham, a friend who met him about two years ago at an event organized by the Triangle Swing Dance Society.
He is passionate about dancing generally, and swing dancing in particular. Even in dancing, though, mere technical competence isn't enough, said Lewis, who describes Gould as having a "go beyond" quality. He knows there is more to the whole idea, the big picture of dancing.
"He's not just good, he's fun and sparkly and interactive as a dance partner," she said.
Both share an interest in art, particularly early modern work. And while she has formal training in art and he doesn't, that doesn't prevent him from going far beyond simply enjoyed the beauty of a painting by, say, Joan Miró.
In a museum, he's always trying to infer meaning from the work he's looking at, the motivation for it, the political and social attitudes at play and whatever else can be gleaned from the experience, she said.
"This is someone who loves to investigate, and to seek insight in other things, other people and himself," she said.
email@example.com or 919-829-4526