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Patrik Nosil

Darwin successor wins gold medal

June 1, 2007

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By Carol Thorbes

The breadth and impact of Patrik Nosil’s doctoral research into how plant and animal species diversify may have some scientists wondering whether they should be studying his genetic makeup for evidence of evolving human intelligence.

Nosil is one of two SFU 2007 recipients of the Governor General’s Gold Medal, a national award for the top academic students in graduate school. Nosil has published 26 papers in some of the world’s most leading scientific journals, including Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

The Croatia-born biologist and Burnaby resident has analyzed something evolutionary pioneer Charles Darwin concluded but never documented rigorously. Darwin theorized that plants and animals evolve and diversify into different varieties, races and ultimately species through a process of natural selection. But he never documented how ecological differences exert divergent pressures on populations, forcing them to mate selectively, reproduce in isolation because of genetic barriers, and eventually evolve new species.

In his doctoral thesis, Nosil seamlessly integrates theory, molecular-genetic data and fieldwork to show how predation has influenced the evolution of the stick insect’s physical traits, food preferences and mating choices. Nosil’s studies are already discussed in major textbooks about evolution. His work is one of the first comprehensive genome-to-field analyses of insect speciation.

Bernard Crespi, Nosil’s doctoral supervisor, predicts that the gold medallist’s work will serve as a model of the processes involved in the diversification of all animals. "Patrik has some sort of supernatural skill at keeping up with current literature, collecting large amounts of data, and writing rapidly and effectively, with a focus on the most important unresolved questions in evolutionary ecology," marvels Crespi. "He is already one of the world leaders in evolutionary biology and he will continue to excel."

Nosil’s doctoral work has earned him the American Society of Naturalists’ Young Investigator Award and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at UBC. He has also accepted a tenure-track assistant professorship at the University of Colorado.

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