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MacArthur Fellow

2011 MacArthur Fellow: Sarah Otto, Theoretical Biologist

Ansa Varughese

Theoretical biologist Sarah Otto discusses winning the 2011 MacArthur Fellowship and her research in population genetics and evolution.

Theoretical biologist Sarah Otto discusses winning the 2011 MacArthur Fellowship and her research in population genetics and evolution. Source: MacArthur Foundation

Last month, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named 22 new MacArthur Fellows for 2011. Each recipient will receive $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years. There are no stipulations or reporting requirements. The fellowships provide an opportunity for the recipients to reflect, create, and explore. This week, BioTechniques profiles three new fellows from the life sciences.
In high school, Sarah Otto believed that a rigorous line separated science and mathematics. Although she was interested in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel’s laws of inheritance, she didn’t begin to realize the role of mathematics in biology until her studies at Stanford University.

“Evolution is such a fantastic area for that because there’s so much that we don’t understand, and mathematical modeling can really help give us a more solid foundation,” says Otto.

Now, at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Otto, known as “Sally” to her students and colleagues, teaches zoology and directs the Biodiversity Research Center. In her research, she uses mathematical modeling to answer questions of population genetics and evolution. She has also co-written a book called A Biologist’s Guide to Mathematical Modeling in Ecology and Evolution.

Her models have answered questions about evolution and sexual reproduction. In several studies, Otto and her colleagues found that species with extensive sexual reproduction have multiple copies of genes are continuously placed in new combinations, masking unfavorable mutations. In contrast, less sexual species have fewer gene copies, so unfavorable mutations have a larger effect on the population.

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation announced that Otto will receive a $500,000 fellowship to support her research in modeling evolutionary patterns.

“Evolution is such a wondrous field to study, to piece together these puzzles of how all the living creatures are related to one another and what that tells us about why they’ve evolved the way they have, and by being a MacArthur fellow helps me be a spokesperson for my field,” she said.

Specifically, Otto credits her successful research career to her prioritization of research and creativity time. Otto has been not only a successful researcher but also a supportive mentor to her students.

“I remember her as someone who was very generous with her time, her spirit, and her ideas. Her love of science and what she does is infectious,” says former student Risa Sargent.

“Often beginning students have inklings or intuitions that some standard paradigm is missing a piece of the puzzle. Sally was always able to take my garbled naïve stabs at research questions and tease out something genuinely interesting from them,” says another former student Jana Vamosi.