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Resistance (to science) is futile

Mohamed Noor ’92, professor of biology and dean of natural sciences at Duke University, is a consultant for “Star Trek: Discovery." (Illustration by Martin Ansin)The following story originally appeared in the spring 2021 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. - Ed.

Are you lost amidst the vast galaxy of streaming television? Tired of going where most have gone before? Consider “Star Trek: Discovery.” It fuses a feature-film aesthetic, peak-TV character arcs, and plenty of ongoing mystery in the farthest reaches of space. And it does so with the scientific advice of Mohamed Noor ’92, professor of biology and dean of natural sciences at Duke University.

More than any other Trek series, “Discovery” centers on how humanity and its spacefaring Federation can preserve noble ideals and surmount trauma amidst conflict, betrayal and scientific conundrums. But it is still undeniably Star Trek. In the franchise’s ever-growing continuity, it slides in after its immediate predecessor (“Star Trek Enterprise”) and before the 1960s original and its follow-up, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The show’s namesake vessel bears more than a small resemblance to (and eventually encounters) the legendary starship of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. The crew of the U.S.S. Discovery has fought the Klingons, visited the Mirror Universe, traveled through time and beamed down and back up off of dozens of planets.

Without a doubt, it’s the only show anywhere where stars of “Rent,” “The Walking Dead” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” can share the same screen.

Since production began on the show’s third season on CBS All Access (recently rebranded Paramount+), Noor has been contracted to serve as the show’s biology consultant, inventing plausible scientific principles that justify the writers’ plot points. He draws on his own top-shelf experience in evolutionary biology and genetics, as well as his lifelong love of the Star Trek franchise. Noor proudly mentions that he saw “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in the theater in 1982, before making sure to credit the real-world impact of “the final frontier.”

“The franchise wants to ground things — to the extent possible — in real science. They’re very much aware of how many real-world scientists are inspired by Star Trek,” he says, talking at least in part about himself. Thousands of scientists, doctors, engineers and countless other professionals credit Star Trek with inspiring their career path, and Noor is working on making more of them.

These are the voyages of a renowned and beloved professor of evolutionary genetics, whose continuing mission is to take his award-winning knack for teaching and expand it via strange new worlds.

Highly biological 

But not every voyage is a smooth one. Exhibit A: Interstate 64 between Williamsburg and Noor’s hometown of Hampton, Virginia. Over and over again. The son of two engineers, Noor began his time at William & Mary as a commuter and “B-average” student.

“I remember telling one of the professors at W&M that it’d be really fun to be the science advisor on a Star Trek show,” Noor says. But as much driving as he did in those days, his first few undergraduate years were a little aimless; one professor suggested he “take easier classes.”

“His problem early on was finding a little direction,” says Bruce Grant, William & Mary professor of biology emeritus. “Once he found what he wanted to do, he just ran with it.” Junior year, Noor signed up to take a class on genetics.

“I put it off because people said genetics was hard,” Noor says. Before long, he had to ask: “‘What are you all talking about?’ I loved it. I loved the logic to it and how it all worked together.”

This led him to enroll in Evolutionary Genetics with Grant, a course Noor describes as “life-changing.” The class was conversational and full of storytelling, quite unlike the rote memorization common in those days.

“I was enraptured,” Noor says. “I recorded his lectures.” Even though he felt he had a strong grasp of the material, he would take his recordings to the gym and listen again. By the end of the first semester, Noor was hooked. He asked Grant if they could work together.

“Do you want a job to get paid, or a research job?” Grant had asked.

“Not knowing the difference, I said ‘both,’” remembers Noor. He washed “smelly” vials of fruit flies for money and also became Grant’s research student. Grant and Noor would research together for long hours in Millington nearly every day, discussing evolutionary geneticists, news events and plots from the latest episode of Star Trek.

“He is one of the fastest learners I know,” says Grant. “He’s a very social guy. He was a disc jockey at the radio station, he was involved with guiding commuter students — he just gives, gives and gives of himself.”

But generosity went both ways. “The amount of time [Grant] invested in me was amazing,” Noor says. “People don’t get that at many universities: investment in a random undergrad. It felt like we’d talk for an hour or more, many, many days of the week.” He pauses and thinks some more. “At least, I loved it so much, that’s what it felt like.”

Mentorship was not new to Grant. As an undergraduate in Pennsylvania, he encountered a transformative professor of his own in a genetics class, setting off a chain reaction that has irrevocably shaped the field of evolutionary genetics.

“Teaching is important,” Noor says, “not just in the context of people knowing the material. Teaching is what inspires people to go into the research.” To commemorate the impact Grant had on his career and that of so many others, Noor co-wrote a 2005 peer-reviewed article with colleague Norman A. Johnson ’87 for the journal Genetics titled “A Kingpin of Academic Inclusive Fitness: The History and Contributions of Bruce Grant.” The article concludes: “If our scientific worths ever amount to half that of Bruce Grant, or others who have similarly inspired such a great many future scientists, we can retire knowing we have had truly successful careers.”

That’s Mohamed being Mohamed, according to Grant, who retired from W&M in 2001. Noor is never the one to take credit for his success, Grant says; he’s always giving credit to those around him. “Students have spent a lot of time thanking me as their mentor,” he says, “but it is I who should thank them for making my life so fulfilled.”

W&M Professor Emeritus Bruce Grant, Mohamed Noor ’92, Jerry Coyne ’71 and Daniel Ortiz-Barrientos, Noor’s first Ph.D. student, give Noor’s signature thumbs up. (Courtesy photos)Live long and prosper, and prosper...

By senior year, Noor was helping Grant grade his Evolutionary Genetics papers, getting Grant’s advice about graduate school and trying to get his parents to watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with him. With Highest Honors in Biology and publication for his honors thesis in hand, he connected with Jerry Coyne ’72, a now-renowned professor of ecology and evolution emeritus at the University of Chicago. Coyne was the first member of the Grant evolutionary genetics family tree.

Years before Noor’s arrival, Grant had helped inspire former philosophy major H. Allen Orr ’82, M.S. ’85 toward adding a second major in biology and continuing on for a master’s degree. Orr became the first to go from Grant’s classroom in Millington to Coyne’s lab in Hyde Park. Orr and Coyne would go on to write a seminal book together (“Speciation”) and dedicate an important article in the journal Evolution to Grant. Today, Orr is a tenured professor of biology at the University of Rochester and an accomplished researcher in his own right. The Grant-to-Coyne pipeline was already growing.

“There’s a lot of William & Mary in the field,” Noor says. “The community of evolutionary genetics is not huge, but there are a lot of people who know Bruce Grant who never went to William & Mary.”

At Chicago, Noor and Coyne studied Drosophila, known to most as fruit flies. If you’re wondering why someone would go to grad school to study insects that pester your overripe bananas, consider that Drosophila and its numerous species are the basis for a stupendous amount of our knowledge about genetics.

Drosophila has chromosomes comparable enough to humans’ to provide useful genome data. Crossbreeding the flies can produce variations in succeeding generations. For humans, this takes millennia, but fruit flies can become grandparents in about two weeks. When genetic changes arise and spread through generations of children, new species begin to take shape. These genetic changes lead to natural selection and evolution.

Noor’s 1996 doctoral thesis charted the courtship behaviors of hybridized fruit flies and their success mating with flies of either individual species. Outside his laboratory, he met his wife while earning his Ph.D., sharing episodes of “The Next Generation” together.

“Dating someone who hates Star Trek?” Noor says. “It would have been a problem.”

His success in Coyne’s lab led him to a postdoctoral position at Cornell, a tenure-track position at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and eventually to the faculty at Duke in 2005. Along the way, he was published in Science, Nature, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PLoS Biology, Genetics and Evolution, to name a few of the most prominent journals in the entire field.

For his “major advances in evolutionary biology,” Noor was one of only 13 scientists to receive the prestigious and rare Darwin-Wallace Medal from the Linnean Society in London in 2008. Yes, that Darwin. The medal was historically bestowed in small groups, first in 1908, again in 1958, and finally in 2008 before becoming a yearly award to a single scientist. Along with fellow awardee Allen Orr, Noor had made his mark on the field he discovered at William & Mary, but he had too much energy to rest on his laurels. There was, after all, still class to teach and a book to write.

For Noor, teaching and research are a critical interplay that allows him to pass to a new generation the lessons he learned starting in Grant’s classes. At Duke, he’s won awards for mentoring postdocs and teaching undergraduates, along with recognition by the graduate program and the medical school for his instruction.

“I like asking students what’s working for them and what’s not,” he says. “I’ll just take them one-on-one and ask them: ‘Do you think people are following?’ ‘Is it paced too fast or paced too slowly?’ It seems to help me adjust my style to work more effectively for them.”

In addition to his coursework at Duke, Noor has also worked on massively open online courses (MOOCs) through Coursera. One-on-one was not an option. With so many students working at their own paces, Noor “flipped” the class and had them review the course’s content on their own time. He spent his class time instead on Q&A and formative assessments, to maximize his effectiveness as an instructor.

“I’m not trying in the dark,” he says. “I’m using techniques based on what people have told us is a more effective method.”

One observer of his classes at Duke said, “He definitely does have humility and huge enthusiastic energy. He focuses that energy outside, which makes him a good teacher.”

Noor began using science-fiction examples in his classes after seeing his Duke colleague Eric Spana speak at the DragonCon pop-culture convention in Atlanta. Noor’s MOOC, along with that convention, helped lead him to another avenue for reaching a large audience with science education: Star Trek.

Energy fields

The rest of this article contains mild spoilers for “Star Trek: Discovery.”

DragonCon lit the way for Noor to speak at sci-fi conventions about genetics and evolution. The talks aren’t really about Star Trek, but they use the franchise as a doorway to real-world scientific concepts. For example, in the “Next Generation” episode “Evolution,” Ensign Wesley Crusher unleashes self-replicating microscopic robots called nanites. Noor’s approach to Trek education charts out how these fictional nanites might pass traits down through several successive rounds of reproduction.

He uses the same strategy at Duke, teaching a class called “Genetics, Evolution, and Star Trek.” Noor’s teaching prowess already had a reputation: he didn’t need the pop-culture brand to fill the class roster. Half the students didn’t know the show at all. For the final project, however, some students were inspired to film “scientifically accurate scenes of Star Trek,” in one case with volunteer student actors outlining exactly how an alien race visually identical to humanity might still have evolved super-strength.

Using Star Trek as a pathway to sophisticated scientific concepts became the model for his 2018 book, “Live Long and Evolve.” Noor sat down with all 700-plus episodes from all the franchises and many of the films to delve into speciation, reproduction, DNA and the nature of science fiction itself. He kept a spreadsheet going, too: one row for each episode, one chapter topic per column. When a tardigrade (the only known animal to survive direct exposure to the vacuum of space) proves critical to the navigational systems of the U.S.S. Discovery, Noor’s book breaks it down — exploring the strong science and the science that gets stretched a little too far.

“The idea of the book was to mirror a general introduction to evolutionary genetics,” he says, since “they can’t have an episode where someone is giving a seminar explaining something. That would be incredibly boring.”

And Noor doesn’t do boring. In 2020, he established a YouTube channel called BioTrekkie Explains that takes his Trek-framed concepts off the page and the convention circuit and into cyberspace. He writes, edits and narrates all the videos himself, whether it’s based upon human-Vulcan interbreeding (the kind of thing that produced Mr. Spock) or the infamous episode of “Star Trek: Voyager” where the captain and pilot “mutate” into greasy salamanders.

“He’s a tireless worker, with some kind of drive and enthusiasm,” says Bruce Grant. “Energy is the word. His middle name should be energy, or energetic.”

Unconventional 

So: two Klingons and a Starfleet Admiral walk into a lecture. It sounds like the setup to a Star Trek joke, but it sets up something entirely different. As Noor was giving a presentation at DragonCon with astrophysicist Erin Macdonald, actress Jayne Brook and her castmates showed up in the back of the convention hall. Brook, a Blue Devil herself, played Admiral Katrina Cornwell on “Discovery” and made a Duke connection with Noor after the talk. They traded emails, and a few months later, he invited her to stay with his family and speak to his class in Durham.

“He approaches every other mind he comes in contact with as another person who he’s curious to hear from,” Brook says. “That is an environment in which you learn naturally, just by enjoying the other person’s presence and what they know.”

Brook and Noor met up again at another Star Trek convention in Las Vegas and struck up a lasting friendship. She connected him with the “Discovery” writing staff, which led to his contract as their biology consultant.

Noor is reluctant to choose favorite characters on the Star Trek series, but at least one show has an obvious choice.

“So many of them are so radically different, it’s like picking your favorite plant. Do you mean fruit, or vegetable or tree?” Noor says with a laugh. “But I liked [Brook’s] character a lot even before I met her.”

Throughout their encounters, Noor and Brook looked for ways to collaborate. When COVID-19 locked everyone in their houses, they finally had their chance. BioTrekkie with the Admiral is a recent series of YouTube videos where they dissect and discuss the latest episodes of “Discovery.” The clips live amidst Noor’s other science-focused BioTrekkie videos, but they have the added benefit of Brook’s experience with the show’s production and what Noor describes as “her wonderfully curious and inquisitive nature.” And their banter and chemistry is genuine.

“We had so much fun just having a conversation back and forth,” Brook says. “It’s this enjoyable dynamic of discovering these cool secrets about our world — things we don’t think about. I can’t look at fireflies the same way again.”

Making it so

Now, we go to the distant future. The crew of the U.S.S. Discovery have selflessly flung themselves centuries into the future to keep critical information out of evil hands. They have arrived in the year 3189 to a Federation they barely recognize and a sick bay full of deathly ill aliens called the Kili. To make matters worse, Noor is the one who got them sick. Sort of.

The season three episode “Die Trying” revolves around a risky quest to find a cure for the Kili people. Because it’s the only ship that can get there in time, Discovery jets off to a seed vault that might hold the key. Noor was asked to propose a non-communicable disease caused by the Kili diet, curable by one of the seeds. His answer? Prions. Though in animals, prion-based diseases usually come from meat (like mad cow disease), it wasn’t impossible to think that alien plants could harbor similarly dangerous misfolded proteins. These kinds of plausible stretches are a big part of what Noor (and his fellow consultant Macdonald) do for “Discovery,” and it’s up to the writers how much detail to include.

“They’re going to use it or they’re not. No hard feelings,” he says. “I’m just happy to be asked.”

And yes, he reads fan theories online during the season. Noor and Macdonald collaborated on the true cause of season three’s central mystery, and he knew “nobody is ever going to guess this one.” True to form, “Discovery” found a surprising way to connect solid science with its core of compassion in its season finale.

'A different kind of human'

“I feel very thankful and very fortunate for the opportunities people have given me,” Noor says. “I’m very grateful for that.”

When he takes his family to visit his parents in Hampton, Noor is eager to visit Williamsburg and take a walk around campus. His kids insist on sampling the offerings at the Peanut Shop and the decidedly unfuturistic bread ends with house dressing at the Cheese Shop. And even though his old haunt, Millington Hall, has given way to the Integrated Science Center, “I love William & Mary,” he says. “I love coming back and visiting.”

It’s a place that set his career in motion and put him on a path toward scientific renown and the most hallowed science-fiction icons. But more than that, Noor has made an indelible and remarkable impression on his colleagues and friends in academia, in Hollywood and around the world.

“I think he’s just a really good man,” says Jayne Brook. “People believe that when you’re really good at something, it makes you a different kind of human. For some people, maybe it does. But maybe Mohamed has gone so far in science that it makes him humble. Maybe his knowledge is so vast that he’s aware of the even greater mysteries out there that scientists have not yet tackled.”

For Noor’s part, one has to dig into his own research output — the Genetics paper about Bruce Grant — to see him take much credit for his own dizzying success. His career, as he wrote with characteristic modesty, has been “pretty good.”