Van Cleve Receives NSF CAREER Award to Promote Evolutionary Biology, Teaching

By Jenny Wells

Jeremy Van Cleve, an assistant professor of biology in the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, is the recipient of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. The program will provide Van Cleve with $780,000 over five years to conduct research in evolutionary biology and develop a teaching program to promote scientific research to students of all ages. The two projects will be integrated to support the core goals of the grant. 

With the CAREER award, Van Cleve will develop new mathematical and computational tools to study the history and function of genes that affect social behavior and group living in organisms.

Animals, plants and microbes that live in groups can accomplish tasks together that individuals cannot do alone (think ants, bees, hyenas and humans). By leveraging the recent abundance of DNA sequence data, which has revolutionized how scientists understand the influence of genes on human disease and social behavior, Van Cleve hopes to not only shed light on the evolutionary origins of cooperation and conflict, but to help biologists dissect the genetic basis of group living. This is important for understanding the mechanisms by which changes in the social environment might negatively impact human health.

“Stress has a big impact on health, and since humans are innately social, changes to our social environment can reduce or increase stress," Van Cleve said. "A core part of this grant is developing tools to help find genes that may be involved in shaping our social environment.”

Additionally, students of all ages will be supported by this research and gain important mathematical and computational training. 

“The grant will enable me to develop resources for teaching the tools of data science and computational biology to local high school students and to UK undergrads," Van Cleve said. "Students can then use these tools to dissect variation in genetic data or to predict how these variations might evolve over time.”

Van Cleve, originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, received his doctorate from Stanford University. He then worked as a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute and was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center at Duke University. He came to UK in 2015.

The grant contributes to a long-term research direction for Van Cleve centered on building mathematical and computation theory to understand evolution in complex populations and environments. The field emerging out of the intersection of genetics and the study of social interactions (like social networks), sometimes called "sociogenomics," has a pressing need for this kind of theory, according to Van Cleve.

"Specifically, we lack insights about how genetic architecture, in the form of linkage, recombination, and epistasis, shapes the evolution of genomic variation when genes affect social behavior," Van Cleve said.

He hopes his CAREER award will bridge social evolutionary theory with population genomics by allowing him to create necessary tools that will specifically address these areas.

The CAREER program is a foundation-wide initiative that offers NSF's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. This award was co-funded by Evolutionary Processes in the Division of Environmental Biology, Behavioral Systems in the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion two years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. The Chronicle of Higher Education judged us a “Great College to Work for,”  and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for three straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.

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