All in the Family
Researcher Followed in Her Father’s Footsteps, Now They Walk Together Into New Frontiers
By Laura Wagner
Evolutionary biologist Amy Baird doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in science, thanks largely to her father.
“He was definitely a huge influence,” said Baird, Assistant Chair & Professor in UHD’s Natural Sciences Department. Baird’s father, Dr. John Bickham, himself an evolutionary biologist, was a Professor at Texas A&M while Baird was growing up. Birthday gifts weren’t limited to biology-related items, however. Baird received chemistry sets, rocks, dinosaur fossils—“Pretty much anything you see in a natural sciences museum gift shop, I once got as a birthday gift,” she joked.
Bickham would also bring home research-grade equipment for Baird to use in preparing her science fair projects in middle school. “I was able to look at chromosomes and explore other in-depth science that was not typical for kids in seventh and eighth grade,” she said.
That fed her interest in evolutionary biology, reinforced by field trips with her father and his grad students to collect bats for study. On weekends, she would spend time in his lab while he worked. “I’d get the turtles out of their tanks and race them across the lab floor,” she remembered, “I really got to see the fun side of science, without all the worry and work that actually goes along with research.”
Following a Familiar Path to College
When it was time for college, Baird chose Texas Tech, where she performed undergraduate research in the lab of the late Dr. Robert Baker, the same scientist who had been her father’s Ph.D. advisor years before. “Dad didn’t push me in any direction, but he was definitely excited for me to work under Dr. Baker, who was just an incredible scientist,” she said. (Photo shows Bickham left, Baker center, Baird right.)
She first invited her father to collaborate with her on her undergraduate research. They traveled to Chernobyl (see photo) to study the genetic effects of exposure to radiation on the natural populations of certain rodents.
Finding Her Own Way
Baird went on to forge her career in her dad’s field of vertebrate evolutionary biology, with a particular interest in bat speciation. She came to UHD right as her father was retiring. True to his history of gift-giving, he gave her three freezers full of bat specimens.
They collaborated on her bat studies for several years, with Baird ultimately discovering a new species and naming it after her father—which was a bit ironic, given an event that happened during her seventh-grade science fair days.
“My dad gave me some slides of chromosomes from bats from a couple of different areas, and I was counting the chromosomes in each cell. I found that a bat from one area had a different number of chromosomes from a bat that was supposed to be the same species, but living in another area,” she said. “So I said to Dad, ‘This means this is a new species, right?’” Her father said no, giving her another reason for the anomaly.
While working on her doctoral dissertation, Baird tried and failed to remember Bickham’s rationale for quashing the idea. “I asked him to remind me why he thought the bat with the different number of chromosomes wasn’t a new species. He went quiet for a bit before admitting that another scientist had recently described that very bat as a new species!” she said. (Photo shows Baird and Bickham in a Guatemalan hotel room, where they set up a “mini-lab” to check the chromosomes of two potentially new bat species, research that resulted in Baird discovering the bat species she named after her father.)
Partners in Research
Baird continues to invite her father to take part in her work. She currently leads a study of population genetics of bowhead whales and her father works on the project as a consultant. Sentimentality or something else?
“He’s been in the field for so long, he’s seen techniques go from looking through a microscope at whole chromosomes to sequencing genomes for $1,000. That’s a tectonic shift in the technology, and he’s participated in all of it,” she said. “It gives him a very valuable perspective, and I appreciate having that context.”
Their current collaboration actually involves genome sequencing. “We recently met with a sequencing facility to understand their process, and beforehand, we discussed potential projects and came up with ideas together,” she said. “That’s how we work now.”
With all their similar interests, where do they differ? “My dad’s career concentrated mainly on research, which makes sense at a research-focused institution like A&M,” Baird explained. “I’m at UHD because my research experience as an undergrad was so profound, I wanted to share that with students. My career is about teaching and doing research that I can do with my students. That’s what I love doing.”
Credit may need to be given here to Baird’s mother, who was a career elementary school teacher. “My extended family is also full of teachers and professors,” Baird said. “Learning and teaching are very strong values for me.”
Baird is keeping it all in the family in another way: including son Charlie in her lab work and field collections. “He’s pretty into it,” she said. “He and my dad and I went out to collect gopher samples, and he loved it.” (Photo shows a young Charlie learning the skills of the dig with his grandfather; opposite, Charlie communes with a snake on a field trip.)
And if Baird had chosen a different career, as an investment banker or a nurse, would her father have objected? “I definitely benefited from having such a supportive parent for my research, but if I’d gone into another field, he would have been equally supportive as long as I was happy,” she said.
Baird noted that for UHD’s student population, it’s critical to educate parents on what scientists do. “CST’s open houses are so important. Parents, students, and prospective students can come to the school and learn about faculty and student research and see firsthand what some of the science is about,” she said. “It’s a chance to show parents the practical value and applicability of a degree in Biology or another area.” And most important, Baird said, “It’s a chance for us to support our students in their passion for research.”
For more information on Dr. Baird’s research, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.