By:  Shaina Tromp

Had fate taken a different turn, Maurine Neiman might have become a jockey or veterinarian rather than an evolutionary biologist and an associate professor with the University of Iowa’s Department of Biology.  

Growing up in Minneapolis, Neiman says she considered those and other career paths before choosing to become a scientist.  

“I once wanted to be a horse jockey but I became too big. Then I wanted to be a vet, but I shadowed a vet for a day and was too sensitive; I couldn’t handle dogs in pain,” Neiman said. “Then I realized I could combine my love for animals with my interest in science, and decided to be a scientist. I love my job. I honestly don’t know what I would do otherwise..”  

While she can still be found running with her dog or hanging out with friends and family, her work life is dedicated to studying how organisms make offspring and how an organism’s genome structure affects its evolution and ecology. Specifically, her research focuses on using sexual and asexual freshwater snails native to New Zealand to ask the question “Why do animals and plants use sex to reproduce?”

Neiman has made several interesting discoveries.  One involves what Neiman calls “Happy Water” and the population of snails in an ecosystem.  If Neiman places her snails into a high-density population of snails, they will increase their offspring production.  

“We discovered that you can actually mimic this reaction by taking water from an area with a high-density population and putting it in a low-density population.  The snails then behave as though they were in a high-density population and make more babies.  So there is something in the water.  It’s the same if you put the low-density water into a high-density population, the reproduction drops,” Neiman said. 

When Neiman was 20 years old her interest in this field of study was sparked by the science book The Red Queen by Matt Ridley. Although she was already interested in learning why organisms are sexual, a chapter in the book called “Sexless Snails”—about the sexual and asexual snails Neiman now studies—solidified her interest in the topic.  “I was really interested in pursuing this line of work and just thought it was fascinating,” Neiman said.

Sex is required to prevent the accumulation of harmful mutations and the spread of beneficial mutations.  “Evolutionary theory suggests that if organisms reproduce asexually mutations are going to occur more frequently, so we can use asexual snails to study the buildup of harmful mutations,” Neiman said.  

Studying these mutations can lead to greater understanding of human health concerns and why mutations cause human diseases.  “We still know very little about how mutations affect health in humans or in other organisms, but mutations are the raw material that produce all of our traits, good and bad,” Neiman said. 

Additionally, by discovering the active ingredients of “Happy Water” Neiman and her fellow researchers say the information could be even be used to control populations of invasive snails or help save endangered species. 

Neiman said her enthusiasm stems as much from the opportunities to collaborate as from the research itself. 

“I’d say that’s the best part of the science I do is its interactive and collaborative nature. I think that’s my favorite part, seeing students get engaged in and excited about becoming experts in what they are doing,” Neiman said. 

Her advice to young researchers?

“Make sure that you don’t get too discouraged by failure because that’s going to happen. Also make sure that you are doing something that you are really excited and passionate about because science is incredible and fun if you love what you are doing,” she said. “You don’t have to love it every day, but underneath you really need to be passionate about the work that you are doing.”