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Ken Halanych

Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
College of Sciences and Mathematics

Ken Halanych is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics whose research is focused on genomics and evolution of marine invertebrates. He is part of an international team of scientists who recently made a groundbreaking discovery in the field of evolutionary biology. For more than a century, scientists believed sponges represented the earliest living lineages of the animal tree. Thanks to modern genomic sequencing techniques, Halanych and the team of collaborators discovered that ctenophores, or comb jellies, are actually at the base of the animal kingdom. The discovery shakes the very foundation of evolutionary understanding of the animal kingdom.

Halanych's research has led him to the earth's southernmost continent, Antarctica. In addition to the biodiversity of the Antarctic seas, Halanych is conducting studies pertaining to the environmental impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He is currently the co-director of the Molette Biology Laboratory for Environmental and Climate Change Studies at Auburn, a research board member of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and the inaugural recipient of the Stewart W. Schneller Chair in the College of Sciences and Mathematics.

1. Change can be tough for people to accept. Do you think you will be, or have you been met with any resistance to your recent discovery that comb jellies are actually at the base of the animal kingdom, not sponges? If so, how do you handle such resistance?

I fully expect there to be resistance, as I experienced a similar situation when I was a graduate student. Back then it also involved rewriting part of the animal tree of life. At issue is that some have learned, and lived their entire lives, with a given assumption. Being told after a career's worth of work—in some cases 30 to 40 years—that a basic assumption (which one never questioned) is incorrect, is hard to accept. In such cases it is often hard to step outside the proverbial box and look in. This is true not only in science but in life as well. Fortunately, in our case we have several sources of corroborating data and even another study by an independent team that is consistent with our findings.

2. How did you become so deeply involved in the study of genetic diversity in marine invertebrates?

Like many, I got into biology because I love animals. While I have always had a love of water, I can trace my specific interest in marine systems back to educational opportunities that I had in high school on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. This interest continued at Wake Forest University during my undergraduate career, but exploded at the University of Texas in graduate school when I spent summers at marine field stations. I was fortunate enough to start graduate school just as this super new enzyme called Taq polymerase hit the commercial market and started the genetic revolution. Since graduate school, molecular tools have been a vital part of helping me understand the diversity of marine animals.

3. Having sailed the Antarctic seas, do you recall a specific moment that took your breath away, and if so, what was it?

As I like to say, I have my "Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom Moments." (If you are not familiar with it, it was a TV series in the 1970s; see Google.) I have had certain times in my career when I am completely taken or captivated by the setting and organisms around me. It has happened several times in the Antarctic.

For example, once I was on the R/V Laurence M Gould and we were headed into an incredibly scenic passage, the Lemaire Channel. There were high, steep, snow-covered cliffs, but in front of the boat the water began to boil with the swimming bodies of hundreds upon hundreds of crabeater seals. They were so amazingly loud! There have been other times as well. A manta ray with an 8-foot wing span swimming right at me then over my head, barely! Then it came back for more. Or being 1,500 meters down off the coast of California in the sub Alvin and looking out my porthole to see two Humboldt squid looking back at me.

4. It seems like you always have several research projects going on at the same time. What is it that drives you in your work? What is your motivation?

I enjoy it, plain and simple. The idea of constantly learning new things is very appealing to me. That said, there is a balance—I would rather be on a scientific cruise to the Antarctic or in a sub at the bottom of the ocean looking at organisms than in my office. I view my primary jobs to be research and teaching. As such, one of my most valuable assets is time to read and think. As I talk to previous generations of scientists and think about the future, I worry about the bureaucracy and the difficulty of obtaining funding for the next generations. More committees, needless paperwork and ancillary duties keep one from being creative and innovative. The more I can keep these at bay, the more I can focus on research and teaching and maintain my drive and motivation.

Additionally, I must credit my parents and upbringing with my motivation and work ethic. Both my parents worked hard, pushed me and most importantly, let me know when I needed to try harder or do better. One crucial problem that I have with the modern social outlook is that most people only want to give or receive accolades, but it is constructive criticism that will help one improve and strive for more.

5. What advice do you have for students who are interested in pursuing a career in the field?

The more interested and excited you are about what you undertake, the better job you will do. Those people who succeed are passionate about what they do. Avail yourself of opportunities. I also hear students talk about how crazy-busy they are. Life will only get more busy, period. Learn how to manage your time and become an active participant, even if you need to volunteer. Get some experience, even if it is only loosely related to your main goals.

May 27, 2014