Beth Shapiro is an assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University and is a widely acclaimed researcher in the brand-new field of ancient DNA. She was recently a featured scientist in a special Smithsonian magazine section, "37 Under 36: America's Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences" for her work analyzing the DNA of the long-extinct dodo bird.
Ancient DNA research analyzes the genes of extinct plants and animals, letting scientists trace the evolution and extinction of species with a precision unimaginable just five years ago. By comparing dodo DNA with the genes of five other species, for example, Dr. Shapiro's research established that the flightless bird was a distant relative of the pigeon. Her 2004 paper in Science argued that the bison decline began much earlier than suspected - about 37,000 years ago - and was thus not caused primarily by human hunters in North America.
As a Rhodes Scholar in 1999, Dr. Shapiro apprenticed with Oxford University's Alan Cooper, a pioneer in ancient DNA research, and in the six years since, she has risen to the top of the field. She would eventually replace Dr. Cooper as the head of Oxford's Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre where she stayed until her appointment at Penn State this fall.