Beth Shapiro: Evolutionary Biologist

Discover how this pioneering scientist time travels—sort of.

Biologist Beth Shapiro may not have a fictional PANDA unit, a device that Cruz and his classmates use to identify ancient artifacts and human remains. But her research did help inspire the fictional gadget!

Scientists usually explain the mass extinction of mammoths, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats 10,000 years ago as caused by human overhunting or major changes in climate and vegetation. But Shapiro’s work retrieving DNA from ancient plants and animals tells a different story. Using DNA to trace changes in diversity and populations over time, she’s been able to prove that the true start of this huge extinction happened before the arrival of humans or the peak of the last ice age, the last time Earth’s climate abruptly changed.

Shapiro’s research inspired the PANDA unit featured in Explorer Academy: The Double Helix. The fictional gadget basically scans any artifact for ancient DNA and pulls up a realistic hologram of the source it came from. And recent developments in technology might make it possible for scientists like Shapiro to use something similar to a PANDA unit in the future.