Research Spotlight: Searching for an Evolution Solution

Propelled by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, students and faculty in the Mathematics Department are studying the rate of evolution in spatially structured populations using evolutionary graph theory.

In 2017, Associate Professors of Mathematics Benjamin Allen and Christine Sample were awarded nearly $300,000 over three years from the National Science Foundation to engage with students in the study of evolution as a mathematical process. In addition to collaborating with undergraduate students on this important project, the team hopes the research will aid in the understanding and treatment of cancer, which can be seen as unwanted evolution occurring inside the body.

“The award proved what we have long known—that the Emmanuel faculty engages students in the very highest levels of scientific research,” Dr. Sample said. “The skills and experience they gain in our labs set them apart in whatever field or career they choose.”

Their current group of student researchers, which includes Patricia Steinhagen ’20, Matthew King ’21, Julia Shapiro ’20, Timothy Hedspeth ’21 and Megan Goncalves ’20, work with Drs. Allen and Sample throughout the academic year and over the summer. This fall, they presented to the Emmanuel community their most current work on evolutionary dynamics and mathematical biology.

“Evolution occurs when there are genetic changes in a population over time,” the group explained in a project abstract. “These genetic changes, or mutations, impact an individual’s ability to survive and reproduce. We examined how the spatial structure of a population affects the rate at which mutations accumulate, as well as the balance of weak selection versus neutral drift.”

In fall 2019, the group traveled to present their work at an undergraduate research conference of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, TN. A previous cohort, which included Steinhagen, Robert Jencks ’19, James Withers ’16, Lori Brizuela ’20, Joshua Kolodny ’19 and Darren Parke ’16, also celebrated publication of an article in PLOS Computational Biology this spring.

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Research Spotlight: Searching for an Evolution Solution

Propelled by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, students and faculty in the Mathematics Department are studying the rate of evolution in spatially structured populations using evolutionary graph theory, which may inform the estimation of important events in our evolutionary past, such as when humans split from our closest primate relatives.

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