January 31, 2019 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! The Elephant Who Asked Too Many Questions

How an inquisitive young elephant inspired a scientist’s imagination to soar.

Robert Dunstan, senior research fellow, AbbVie Bioresearch Center

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Robert Dunstan, senior research fellow, AbbVie Bioresearch Center.

Robert Dunstan has traveled the world, biopsied a killer whale … even helped Scotland Yard solve a murder. Random twists of fate? Or the result of an early obsession with one probing young elephant’s quest for answers? See how one imaginative fable inspired this research fellow to follow his inquisitive soul into a lifelong career in science.

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

I believe it was in my genes. In Rudyard Kipling’s story, How the Elephant Got Its Trunk, a young elephant with insatiable curiosity asked one too many questions of a crocodile, who then ended up biting its (once short) nose and permanently stretching it. As a child I was that young elephant. Having insatiable curiosity may not be wise in all situations, but satisfying it is what makes science fun. I cannot remember not doing science; some of my favorite activities back then consisted of toy microscopes, chemistry kits, collecting reptiles and timing lightning-bug flashes.

If we were to ask your family what it is that you do, what would they say?

My family knows that I “do science”. When they ask what I do specifically, I say I look at diseases in different ways so we can better understand why and how people get sick so we can better treat them.

I once asked my son if he wanted to follow in my footsteps and he said, “No, Dad, you work too hard”. Although my family knows I work hard, they also realize that I find great joy in my work. What could be better than having your greatest hobby turn into your vocation?

If you could talk to the 10-year-old version of yourself, what would you tell yourself about your career?

Your career is going to take you directions you never dreamed would be possible: you will travel the world; you will reinvent yourself several times; you will biopsy a killer whale and help Scotland Yard solve a murder. Trust me … it will all be great fun!

So … you really helped solve a crime for Scotland Yard? Can you tell us more?

When I was on the faculty of Texas A&M, we were doing research on dog hair growth. I worked with a researcher who used a machine to measure the length, diameter and texture (crimp) of sheep wool hair. We applied this technique on dog hair and found out that we could accurately identify breeds of dogs by hair clippings.

There was a murder case in the United Kingdom, where a woman’s body was discovered wrapped in a duvet that was covered in dog hair. The chief suspect had a dog, so Scotland Yard, who heard of my work, flew two inspectors over with hair samples from the duvet and from the suspect’s dog. We did the analysis and demonstrated that the hair on the duvet was not the same as the suspect’s dog, which exonerated the suspect. The inspectors at Scotland yard then turned to another suspect who, hearing of the methods being used, killed and buried his dog. When they finally approached him saying they were going to compare the hair from his dead dog to that on the duvet, he confessed. I have an honorary police cap from Scotland Yard for my services.

What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?

As kids, there are always times when things don’t go as expected. I remember not making a travel baseball team or not getting a role in a school play. In so many ways these are the perfect training grounds for science. Science is built on failed experiments and “great” ideas that cannot be proven. Science is also built on getting back in the lab day after day after a failed study, re-evaluating and trying again. I have learned that no matter what you do, the only value in getting educated is to make a living doing something you love. If you find you have an inquisitive soul, then science is the career for you!

What’s one thing that you think is surprising about your job (i.e., something no one would realize you did)?

I am a pathologist and I like to convert the microscopic changes of disease into abstract art. The role pathologists play in medicine and science is to identify microscopic features of disease in tissue. We examine these tissues stained with a variety of colorful slides; however, the changes themselves may not be appealing to the non-scientist’s eye. I find converting them abstractly allows others to appreciate that even in disease there is structural beauty.

Any outside hobbies you’re interested in that colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?

I have had a lifelong fascination for tortoises, noble animals that move slowly and yet have outlived the dinosaurs. I raise Western Hermann’s tortoises; an endangered species, these creatures are small and only consume a plant-based diet. I have raised larger species of tortoises (one that reached 50 pounds), but they are impractical in New England as tortoises do not do well in snow.

And I am not alone in my love of these adorable creatures. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that over 5 million people keep tortoises as pets.

What keeps you coming to work every day?

At 66 years of age, I have been at this a long time, but still believe that my work is making a difference. At AbbVie, I have been given the task of looking at diseases in a different manner to help devise new treatments. Every day I go to work, I believe I can find something others have missed or find something via new technology that will change our understanding of disease.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science Rocks for multiple reasons: 1) you never get bored as a scientist’s job is fast-paced and ever-changing; 2) your job allows you to be creative, to look at problems in ways others have not; 3) it’s a team sport so you are always working with a group of dedicated scientists who will help you improve your ideas and 4) its ultimate goal is to improve our understanding to help make the world a better place. Science in the pharmaceutical industry especially rocks because our goal is to improve human health.

Fun Facts About Me:

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