O’Meara Receives NSF CAREER Grant for Research on Species Evolution

Brian_OMearaAn evolutionary biologist at UT is developing methods that will use information from species alive now, and potentially extinct species, to understand how and why species have changed through time.

Brian O’Meara has received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award for this work. The award is given to promising young faculty members as a way to support particular areas of research.

O’Meara, a newly tenured associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, joins two other recent CAREER grant recipients from UT— Cong Trinh, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Donatello Materassi, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Evolutionary biologists have long investigated questions related to how and why species have changed over time. They devise models to describe the process and then estimate aspects of the model.

“However, for many of these questions, developing the models has been intractable, leaving these questions largely unanswerable,” O’Meara said. “This project will develop tools to make creating these models much easier.”

Through the five-year, $738,000 CAREER grant, O’Meara will develop computer software that will allow people to create and test realistic models matching their hypotheses without having to know many details of computer coding.

The work will be enhanced by hackathons, intense meetings where scientists and developers gather to create or extend software, which also serve to increase the programming skills and tools of biologists.

“An additional outcome of this project is the creation of an open course to teach cutting-edge methods for understanding the past by using family trees of current and extinct species,” O’Meara said.

O’Meara also investigates methods used to infer how species have moved across a landscape over the past several thousand years, which may help scientists understand how climate change will affect them. He uses a new approach that incorporates models developed for evolution within species over several generations to understand evolution over millions of years. And he seeks ways to make this knowledge, especially about the timing of key evolutionary events, more usable for later work.

To learn more about O’Meara’s research, visit his website.

More information about the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and its researchers’ work is available online.

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)