UBC Evolutionary Biologist Named Top Young Canadian Scientist

A University of British Columbia researcher whose work investigates how populations change over time has been awarded the 2007 Steacie Prize in the natural sciences, Canada’s top award for young scientists and engineers.

Sarah Otto, 40, a professor in the Department of Zoology, has won international acclaim for her work in applying mathematical models to understanding how species evolve. Prof. Otto analyzes how factors including mating system, genome composition, population size and ecology are able to channel evolutionary transitions in certain directions but not others.

For example, Otto has shown that transitions from asexuality toward sexual reproduction are possible in populations of limited size but not of infinite size, as had been assumed in previous models. This work has helped to resolve the mystery of why most animals and plants reproduce through sexual means. In essence, genes that promote sexual reproduction produce offspring with a wider variety of possible gene combinations, which fuels the process of natural selection.

Otto has also been named director of UBC’s Centre for Biodiversity Research.

“The excellence and innovation of young investigators like Prof. Otto contribute greatly to UBC’s reputation as a global leader in research,” says John Hepburn, Vice-President, Research. “Their vigour and new ideas strengthen UBC’s research, and enable us to attract similar stellar talent and the best students from around the world.”

Twelve UBC faculty members have received the Steacie Prize — worth $15,000 — since it was first given in 1964, putting the university in second spot nationally for this honour. Each year, the Canadian award recognizes exceptional contributions from a scientist or engineer of 40 years of age or less. Winners are selected by a panel appointed by the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fund, a private foundation dedicated to the advancement of science and engineering in Canada.

“The Steacie Prize is a great honour. Investigating the inner workings of evolution — teasing it apart with mathematical tools — is incredibly fascinating and fun,” says Otto. “I am grateful to UBC, which has been extremely supportive and is home to arguably the strongest community of evolutionary biologists worldwide.”

Otto earned a PhD from Stanford University in 1988. She then held a Miller Post-doctoral Fellowship at University of California Berkeley (1992-94) and a Science and Engineering Research Council (UK) post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh (1994-95). In 1995, the American Society of Naturalists awarded Otto the Young Investigator Prize. In 2001, Otto received a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Steacie Fellowship — one of Canada’s premier science and engineering prizes. In 2006, Otto was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

UBC researchers, who conduct more than 6,600 investigations annually, attracted research funding that exceeded $399 million in 2006/2007.

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