Beth Shapiro selected as National Geographic Emerging Explorer

May 19, 2010

University Park, Pa. — Molecular biologist Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer career development assistant professor of biology at Penn State, has been selected as an Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic Society.  She is among 14 visionary, young trailblazers from around the world named to the 2010 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers. The new Emerging Explorers will be featured in this June's issue of National Geographic magazine.  A Web feature at includes comprehensive profiles of the explorers.

National Geographic's Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists, photographers and storytellers making a significant contribution to world knowledge through exploration while still early in their careers. The Emerging Explorers each receive a monetary award to assist with research and to aid further exploration.

Shapiro studies ancient DNA to give new insight into the fundamental processes of evolution. This new field uses genetic information gleaned from ancient animals and plants to discover how evolution happens over time and territory. By analyzing DNA samples from species at many moments in time, Shapiro can trace changes in populations and overlay those changes with concurrent environmental events.

"We can pinpoint when a species' genetic diversity changed and see if that change may have been influenced by a specific event such as a new predator or a shift in climate," she said.

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.

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 and a Searle Scholar Award, both of 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 Ph.D. degree at Oxford University in 2003.

National Geographic Emerging Explorers may be selected from virtually any field. In addition to Shapiro, who is a molecular biologist, the 2010 Emerging Explorers include environmental scientist Saleem H. Ali; mobile technology innovator Ken Banks; wildlife biologist Aparajita Datta; agroecologist Jerry Glover; bioarchaeologist Christine Lee; research scientist and engineer Albert Yu-Min Lin; paleontologist Bolortsetseg Minjin; educator and activist Kakenya Ntaiya; electrical engineer Aydogan Ozcan; musician and activist Feliciano dos Santos; wildlife researcher and conservationist Emma Stokes; herpetologist-toxinologist Zoltan Takacs; and marine biologist and conservationist Jose Urteaga.

"National Geographic's mission is to inspire people to care about the planet, and our Emerging Explorers are outstanding young leaders whose endeavors further this mission. We are pleased to support them as they set out on promising careers. They represent tomorrow's Edmund Hillarys, Jacques Cousteaus and Dian Fosseys," said Terry Garcia, National Geographic's executive vice president for Mission Programs. PNY Technologies is a presenting sponsor of the Emerging Explorers Program and a National Geographic Mission Partner for Exploration & Adventure. The program is made possible, in part, by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, which has supported the program since its inception in 2004.

For more information contact Shapiro at 814-321-8389 (cell), 814-863-9178 (office), or; or Barbara Kennedy at 814-863-4682 or

For fuller bios of the 2010 Emerging Explorers, visit or contact Caroline Braun at National Geographic at or 202-862-8281.

  • Molecular biologist Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Career Development assistant professor of biology at Penn State, has been selected as a 2010 Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic Society.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 09, 2015