The National Science Foundation has awarded a biologist and specialist in evolution, computational biology, and phylogenetics at Southeastern a grant of $1,125,000. Phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relationships among biological entities—often species, individuals or genes.

Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences April Wright received the five-year grant to integrate information from the fossil record with data collected from living species to infer phylogenetic relationships.

The grant was one of only two CAREER grants awarded in the state. The National Science Foundation CAREER awards are in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research and education, and the integration of these endeavors in the context of their organizations’ missions.

“This is a big deal. CAREER awards are the most prestigious grants awarded by NSF, and they typically go to researchers at Research I universities, not at a regional principally undergraduate university like Southeastern,” said College of Science and Technology Dean Daniel McCarthy. “This is a testament not only to the world-class level of Dr. Wright’s research, but also to the novel educational approach she is taking with this project.”

The project will focus on the use of posterior predictive methods for assessing which models are most appropriate for a particular dataset. The work will provide practical guidance and research software tools for researchers to perform more complex model assessment in systemic biology, Wright said.

“I will be working with statistical methods to integrate fossil data with extant molecular data to estimate dated phylogenetic trees,” said Wright. “Phylogenetic trees are one of our key ways of understanding the evolution of organisms, form, and function. And fossils are often our only direct source of information about past organisms. What we’ll be doing in the lab is evaluating different mathematical models for estimating phylogenetic trees from joint fossil and molecular data.”

“This grant will allow us to grow into a nationally recognized university for Computational Biology, which is an exciting and rapidly changing field,” McCarthy said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for Dr. Wright, Southeastern, and especially for our students.”

Wright said she is looking forward to the educational component of the grant.

“To do the work I do, researchers have to be competent at statistics and computation,” she said. “We’ll be taking a look at ‘code-to-learn’ approaches where students use code to discover insights about biology. This should help us integrate more crucial skills development into lower-level curricula without losing biological information.”

Wright intends to formally study if teaching lower division coursework using code-to-learn principles causes students to learn less biology. She also plans to study if early exposure to computation in the classroom can lead to improved student retention by helping students develop important research skills early in their careers.

“Retention of underrepresented minority students is at the heart of my educational plan. As an assistant professor, I observe very clearly the issues with retention of vulnerable students,” she said. “I propose to leverage existing recruitment networks for vulnerable students to identify those who are interested in scientific computing.”

Both the research and educational missions of the project will substantially improve their respective fields, Wright added.

“The research objectives of the project will inform researchers of how to appropriately model complex and heterogeneous data in a hierarchical model,” she explained. “The educational components also address key gaps in the literature on how to incorporate computation in undergraduate biology education. In particular, code-to-learn approaches are currently understudied in biology.

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