Shapiro receives MacArthur Fellow Award

September 21, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- Beth Shapiro, Shaffer Career Development assistant professor of biology at Penn State, has been selected as a MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. According to the foundation, the prestigious award is given to talented individuals, in a variety of fields, who have shown exceptional creativity, originality, dedication to their creative pursuits, and potential to make important contributions in the future.

MacArthur Fellows receive $500,000 grants that come without stipulations and reporting requirements and that offer Fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create and explore. Shapiro is one of 24 new MacArthur Fellows named in 2009 in fields ranging from art to physics. Nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields and never notified of their candidacy, the recipients learn of their selection only when they receive a call from the MacArthur Foundation.

Shapiro plans to use the MacArthur funds to support her research, which she has designed to answer scientific questions about how evolution occurs through time. She also investigates how evolutionary processes, and the models that are required to investigate them, differ depending on the length of time involved. To investigate these questions, Shapiro collects and analyzes information from populations whose 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, 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 ancient DNA research 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.

Among Shapiro's prior honors is a Searle Scholar Award, 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 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 doctoral degree at Oxford University in 2003.

"For nearly three decades, the MacArthur Fellows Program has highlighted the importance of creativity and risk-taking in addressing pressing needs and challenges around the globe,” said MacArthur President Robert Gallucci. "Through these Fellowships, we celebrate and support exceptional men and women of all ages and in all fields who dream, explore, take risks, invent, and build in new and unexpected ways in the interest of shaping a better future for us all."

More information is on the Web at http://www.science.psu.edu/alert/Shapiro9-2009.htm and http://www.macfound.org.

  • Beth Shapiro

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated January 09, 2015