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Tales From The Crib

Living life with a famous mother

The only test I ever failed in college was one that had three questions about my mother&

s theories on it.

Her theory of symbiosis &

accompanied by an outdated picture &

was in my high school AP Biology textbook. I felt sad looking at the picture. My mother, totally engaged with her work and often overseas on lecturing and researching, lived in Boston. I lived with my father in Newton. I remember missing her more when I knew she was in town.

One month after my 17th birthday, I started college. Although my early graduation from high school impressed my teachers, it did little to boost my self-esteem. I knew that I was not as smart as my mother; though I had drive and talent and some of her incessant energy, I had no theories in my head to change the course of modern thought. I was already behind. My mother went to college at 14, met her first husband (astronomer Carl Sagan) when she was 16, graduated from college at 18, married at 19, and gave birth to my oldest brother at 21.

No matter what I did, I could not catch up.

When I told my advisor I liked biology, she suggested I take the course for majors in order to keep my options open. But there was a not-so-hidden agenda in Biology 101 to weed out as many premeds as possible by making the tests so difficult that at least half the class would fail.

The next semester I took &

Baby Bio,&

a course for nonmajors with a much more engaged professor. Soon enough, Margulis&

theory of symbiosis &

also known as the Endosymbiotic Hypothesis &

was being explained to us in black marker on an overhead projector.


It is well-established now,&

enthused the professor, &

that the organelles of more complicated cells were once free living organisms and became the mitochondria and chloroplasts of those cells.&

She wrote down words that as a kid I knew better than different flavors of ice cream: eukaryotic, prokaryotic, nucleus, cytoplasm.



the professor continued, &

I cannot understand how Margulis could suggest that the tails of sperm were themselves independent and that all complex cell mobility has symbiosis at its origin. There, really, Margulis is going too far.&

Often accused of going too far, my mother doggedly pursues her hypotheses despite the criticism, funding cuts and downright rejection.

Despite the ridicule, she has earned a Presidential Medal of Science from Bill Clinton and election to the National Academy of Science, and her once-controversial idea of symbiosis is now in every textbook.

My brother and I played a game when we were little. We would go into a room where my mother was, close our eyes, and see if we could find her by the sound of her voice, decibels above everyone else&

s. We always could.

As a child I wished I were adopted and had a real mother somewhere else. As an adult, however, I find myself admiring her keen intellect and tireless devotion to her work. I realize now that I am able to make heterodox decisions about parenting because I&

m my mother&

s daughter. Her example helped give me the confidence to have my second child at home, to wait an extra day before starting antibiotics, to turn down a tenure-track job in order to stay home with my children.

Once, during a hurried dinner when both my daughters needed immediate attention and were voicing their desires in urgent whines, my mother said quietly, &

I wish you were my mother instead of the other way around.&

Sometimes I wish that too. But as a teacher, scholar and lover of science and nature, she has taught me to appreciate her world of organisms too small to see: proctoctista, fungi, amoebae. She has taught me to look closely at jelly-like blobs, termite guts and sulfurous mud.

While my mother cultivates microscopic bacteria in petri dishes, I work to nurture the tiny organisms my husband and I have created. Unlike my daughters, the creatures of the microcosm do not talk back. But in their essence, if you take the time to listen, the secrets of the world are revealed.

earned a BA from Cornell University, an MA from UC Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from Emory University. Her mother, Lynn Margulis, has made several fundamental contributions to science, including the Endosymbiotic Hypothesis, and, with James Lovelock, the Gaia Hypothesis. Her latest book, &

Acquiring Genomes,&

posits a new theory of the origin of speciation.