New faculty profile: Betül Kaçar explores astrobiology and the origins of life

Betül Kaçar joined the UW–Madison faculty on September 1, 2021 as an assistant professor in the Department of Bacteriology.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. My family was originally from the part of Turkey near the Eastern Black Sea and that’s where I spent most of my childhood summers.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I’m coming to UW–Madison from the University of Arizona where I was a member of both the astronomy and molecular and cellular biology departments, and as you might guess from this my background is very cross-disciplinary. My work spans molecular evolution, systems and synthetic biology, and biogeochemistry. Professionally, I’ve also worked with people across many different fields and sectors including government (NASA), private (Harvard), public (UA, Georgia Tech) and international (Uppsala University, Tokyo Institute of Technology) institutions.

How did you get into your field of research?
I’m obsessed with understanding life’s very early history. I love evolution, and I love studying mechanisms. I also really like mysteries, and there is no larger mystery than the origins and early evolution of life.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
I will be directing my research group and a new NASA-funded multimillion-dollar astrobiology research consortium (MUSE: Metal Utilization and Selection Across Eons) focusing on the evolution of element use in biology across geologic time at the UW–Madison starting this fall. I am also getting ready to co-lead one of the newly established NASA Research Coordination Networks on Early Life for the next five years. Broadly, I aspire to demonstrate that the molecular mechanisms of biological adaptation in deep time can be studied experimentally, and that a thorough understanding of ancient biology is fundamental for life detection. Most importantly, my research program aims to train the next generation of biologists to boldly tackle questions related to life’s emergence and evolution, and possible existence elsewhere in the universe. In Carl Sagan’s words: Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
UW–Madison attracts outstanding students, its departments have a long history of commitment to explore all domains of life, and it invests in fundamental hard questions of life as a general phenomenon. The UW–Madison Department of Bacteriology is the mothership for anyone interested in understanding the foundational properties of microbes. This is the place to dive deeper and start this new work on the molecular foundations of ancient life.

What was your first visit to campus like?
My first visit was very inspirational, meeting remarkable people across so many different departments from biochemistry to astronomy and seeing such exceptional facilities for research. I just wanted to get started immediately!

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope students walk away with an appreciation, and an awe, for what a billion years of change looks imprinted in life, and how these imprints can completely reshape things on our planet. We know almost nothing about these foundational events in our past, and yet we rely on them to survive with each passing day, minute and second.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I’m on Twitter at @betulland. Beyond social media, I do about as much direct outreach and community work as I do research – presenting to the UN Panel on the Status of Women was particularly impactful for me, in terms of describing the importance of making sure everyone has a fair shot. I will be delivering an astrobiology lecture at the Library of Congress in the fall, and I look forward to that.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
A core concept in my work is the idea that past forms of biological molecules were not always simpler or less efficient than those found today, and that we might discover that such molecules solved problems in unique ways. Consistent with the Wisconsin Idea, I really believe that we should be studying these molecules with an open mind as to how they might be applied to solve problems beyond academic conundrums, extending to medical and agricultural challenges that human societies are currently facing.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
We could realistically be looking at candidate life-bearing planets through telescopes within our lifetime, and making sense of them will come down to understanding how life here on Earth started in the first place. If we can replicate the phenomenon of life here, we can understand the probability of its occurrence almost anywhere with much greater confidence!

What are your hobbies and other interests?
Lately, I enjoy playing with toy garbage trucks with my son, and following real garbage trucks around town to see how they work when we’re out on the streets. I also love reading poetry and watching terrible sci-fi movies.