February 11, 2000

In others' words: Jimmy Spearow

William Rice/Illustration Services

Jimmy Spearow’s colleagues describe him as someone devoted to making a difference in the world–both through his science and the way he lives his life.

A compact, bewhiskered man with an intent gaze and ready laugh, Spearow puts in marathon hours in the lab, studying the genes that control reproduction in mice.

"My work focuses on mapping and characterizing genes that, one, control six-fold genetic differences in how females respond to fertility drugs and ovulate eggs; and two, regulate over 16-fold genetic differences in sensitivity to the inhibition of reproductive development by estrogens," says Spearow, an assistant researcher in the neurobiology, physiology and behavior section.

Those genes, Spearow believes, hold keys for protecting the environment, preserving endangered species, raising livestock more efficiently, controlling human overpopulation and helping infertile couples conceive.

In an article published last August in the journal Science, he and reproductive endocrinologist Marylynn Barkley reported findings that genetically different strains of laboratory mice vary dramatically in their sensitivity to estrogen. The findings called into question the validity of current laboratory-animal-based safety tests of estrogen-like chemicals and suggest that an individual’s genetic makeup should be considered when prescribing estrogen and related hormones for medical purposes.

Barkley, an associate professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior, says she thinks of Spearow as an adopted brother. "He is truly exceptional in his dedication to scientific endeavor," she says.

When he’s not at the lab bench, Spearow frequents the Coffee House and other cafes, often with laptop computer in hand. He’s also a regular at the Davis Farmers Market and the Whole Earth Festival. He shares a house with Amy Barlow, Enoch Baldwin and their 2-year-old daughter, Annapurna.

When are you the happiest?

Probably contra dancing, backpacking or cross-country skiing. And I really like making a scientific discovery. You’re working this hard and you’ve found it. It’s just a thrill. My idea of perfect happiness is to be in a very close relationship and have enough time to do what you need to do to make the world a better place, trying to solve problems that need to be solved.

What’s your idea of utter misery?

Just being overwhelmed and having too much to do, with all these mice to care for and reports to write up, and having to write grant proposals and letters and everything.

What’s your greatest extravagance?

I got invited to give a talk in Europe this May. It’s going to be extravagant for me. I also was invited a couple of months ago to give a talk in New Orleans.

What’s always in your refrigerator?

Vegetables–probably too many vegetables. We buy organic vegetables from the farmers market and Jeff and Annie’s Good Humus Farm.

Do your friends and colleagues have a nickname for you?

"Spinner." I like to dance.… I like doing spins as a part of the dance. To me a good dance is a three-shirt dance. I do contra dancing … an old-style formal dance that evolved from Scottish and English line dancing back in the 1700s and 1800s from the immigrants that came here. You and your partner dance with another couple in a line. You end up dancing with everybody in the entire line….The swings are where you can really get spinning. It’s very intense because you’re looking your partner right in the eye as you spin or otherwise you get dizzy. In a way, it creates very much more of a sense of community that in other forms of dancing. You’re definitely acknowledging the other person is there, and you’re actually supporting each other as you’re dancing. It’s a great sense of dance, a great sense of community, and it’s good exercise."

That and "Mouse Man."

What’s your hidden talent?

I play hand flute. Or singing, I like to sing harmony. You can’t bike very well while whistling on your hands, so I tend to sing a lot.

–Kathleen Holder

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