Assistant professor Beth Shapiro named a Searle Scholar

Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Career Development assistant professor of biology at Penn State, recently was named a Searle Scholar. The Searle Scholars Program was established at the Chicago Community Trust in 1980 in honor of John G. Searle, grandson of the founder of G.D. Searle & Company Pharmaceuticals, and his wife. The program annually recognizes 15 exceptional young faculty members and supports independent research in medicine, chemistry and the biological sciences.

Shapiro's research focuses on how evolution occurs through time, and how evolutionary processes and the models that are required to investigate them differ depending on the time scale in question. To investigate these questions, Shapiro collects and analyzes genetic data from populations that are evolving measurably; in other words, populations from which genetic data can be sampled over a sufficiently long time period to observe changes in genetic diversity as they occur. More information is on the Web at http://www.science.psu.edu/alert/Shapiro10-2009.htm.

The two major sources of these data are RNA viruses and ancient DNA extracted from plants and animals over the last several hundred thousand years. In contrast to ancient DNA, the RNA viruses can generate large amounts of genetic diversity within only a few decades because they have a rapid mutation rate. Shapiro uses these measurably evolving data to generate better models of molecular evolution.

Shapiro also seeks to use these models to test hypotheses about how and why diversity is lost or maintained within populations. For example, Shapiro's research with ancient DNA  seeks to understand why some species survived the mass-extinction event that occurred around 10,000 years ago while other species did not. One focus of her work with RNA viruses is to better understand genetic diversity and how that diversity differs within a single host.

Shapiro's prior honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, which she received in 2009. Prior to joining Penn State in November 2007, Shapiro was director of the Ancient Biomolecules Centre at Oxford University. Also during 2007, she was named a Smithsonian Magazine Young Leader and was a visiting fellow at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences. She was honored with a University Research Fellowship at Oxford University from The Royal Society in 2006, a research fellowship from The Wellcome Trust in 2004 and senior and junior research fellowships from Balliol College in 2006 and 2002, respectively. In 1999, she was among 32 Americans to be selected for a Rhodes Scholarship. She has coauthored more than 40 scientific papers in published peer-reviewed journals and has presented several invited talks. Shapiro received both her master's and bachelor's degrees in ecology from the University of Georgia in 1999. She earned a doctorate at Oxford University in 2003.

Today, 147 institutions are invited to participate in the Searle Scholars Program, and since its inception, 467 Scholars have been named and over $89 million has been awarded.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010