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UW Botany Professor Wins Society for the Study of Evolution’s Dobzhansky Prize

October 8, 2015
woman on a stage doing a presentation on a screen
Catherine Wagner, who started at UW this fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Botany and UW’s Biodiversity Institute, won the 2015 Theodosius Dobzhansky Prize, which is awarded annually by the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) to recognize the accomplishments and future promise of an outstanding young evolutionary biologist. Here, she makes a presentation on her research at the SSE’s 2015 annual meeting. (Scott Taylor Photo)

A new University of Wyoming faculty member recently took home a prestigious young investigator award from the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE).

Catherine Wagner, who started at UW this fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Botany and the UW Biodiversity Institute, won the 2015 Theodosius Dobzhansky Prize, which is awarded annually by the SSE to recognize the accomplishments and future promise of an outstanding young evolutionary biologist. Each year, the SSE awards the prize to one researcher, who has completed no more than four years of research after receiving his or her Ph.D.

“I accepted the prize at the society’s annual meeting in June which, this year, was held close to Sao Paulo, Brazil,” Wagner says. “I am tremendously honored to receive this award, especially given the long line of remarkable evolutionary biologists who have won it before me.”

The Dobzhansky Prize is accompanied by a check for $5,000, as well as an all-expenses paid trip to the annual SSE meeting, where Wagner presented a talk about her research. 

Wagner studies the process of evolutionary adaptive radiation, where one species diversifies into many ecologically diverse species.

“Adaptive radiations provide a rich setting for studying evolution,” Wagner says. “They are cases where species have often formed on rapid time scales and, yet, exhibit important differences in the way they interact with each other and with resources in the environment.”

Wagner’s research focuses on cichlid fishes in African lakes, which form some of the most diverse freshwater fish communities on Earth. At a genomic scale, Wagner studies how diverse clades of cichlids differ from other, less diverse fish.

According to a SSE press release, the committee “was impressed by Dr. Wagner’s breadth of her work, which has illuminated the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of adaptive radiation, and has given us a greater understanding of evolutionary processes that generate diversity. More specifically, in her research, Dr. Wagner has addressed long-standing questions: What is the role of microhabitat patchiness in divergence? Why are there radiations in some settings, yet not others?”

The prize was established in 1981 in memory of Dobzhansky, a renowned evolutionary biologist, by his friends and colleagues, and reflects his lifelong commitment to fostering the research careers of young scientists.

Wagner has published a range of papers in top-tier journals, including Nature, Nature Reviews Genetics, Evolution and Molecular Ecology. At UW, she and her lab focus on using genetic and ecological data to study the evolution of biodiversity, primarily in freshwater fish. Her research uses population genetic, genomic, phylogenetic and comparative methods to study diversification, from speciation processes to macro-evolutionary patterns of biodiversity.

Wagner received her Ph.D. from Cornell in 2011, and was a postdoctoral research associate at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), prior to starting as an assistant professor at UW this fall. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology and geology from Whitman College.


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