COSAM News Articles 2023 April Auburn biologist receives $1.2 million NSF CAREER award for work testing evolutionary biology theory

Auburn biologist receives $1.2 million NSF CAREER award for work testing evolutionary biology theory

Published: 04/25/2023

By: Maria Gebhardt

Matthew Wolak, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, is a recipient of a $1,268,000 National Science Foundation, or NSF, CAREER award from the Division of Environmental Biology to conduct the first causal test of an evolutionary biology theory in almost an entire century.

“In the 1930s, a verbal statement in the field of biology set-up an expectation on ways populations should adapt to the environment,” said Wolak.

 The idea has not been formally tested in the lab but has become a standard.

“This theory created specific mathematical equations on how natural selection works on populations,” Wolak explained.

But what do these equations really predict?

The NSF CAREER award, Empirical Tests of the Fundamental Theorems of Evolution and Natural Selection, gives him the ability to dive into these formulas over the next five years.

“My work will enable us to see what parts of this theory work and what areas need refinement,” Wolak said.

How will he do this?

In his lab, the Wolak Research Group at Auburn University, he and his team plan on studying approximately 15,000 seed beetles.

“Seed beetles are a natural pick because their populations can be replicated in the lab and the genetic variability can be experimentally manipulated,” he added.

These beetles, similar to the size of just a ladybug, will be set-up in cycles to create entire populations.

“We will also be able to analyze sexual conflict to examine the different strategies females and males use to maximize reproductive success and how this affects the ability of a population to adapt to the environment,” Wolak said.

Wolak, who joined Auburn in 2017, will be able to use the NSF CAREER award to further grow his lab group by adding a postdoctoral scientist, research technician, and undergraduate and graduate students.

“We need a lot of people to help stay organized with so many beetles and to keep track of the genetic history, or pedigrees, of all 15,000 beetles,” he said.

“The outreach element of the NSF CAREER award is a terrific opportunity to make a direct impact on education and future generations of scientists,” Wolak added.

During the summers, Wolak will invite high school teachers into his lab to participate in experiential learning.

“I will help them learn how to develop curricula for hands-on science experiments in their classrooms,” he said.

Additionally, high school students and Research Experience for Undergraduate students or REU can also participate in this summer experience through the work on this beetle empire.

“If a high school teacher is interested in the behavioral differences in beetles, it could be a great chance for him or her to get experience in our lab conducting research that can then be applied back in the high school setting,” he said.

Wolak, who has always been interested in science, enjoys teaching biology on the Plains. He leads a Principles of Ecology class for undergraduate students and Evolutionary Ecology course for graduate students.

“In graduate courses, you get the ability to help prepare students to make discoveries and use the scientific framework to propose new ideas,” Wolak said.

He also teaches students to understand the incredible amount of diversity in the environment in Auburn and the state.

“Seeing students appreciate the wealth of biodiversity in the state of Alabama is rewarding as a professor,” he said. “This state is one of the top places for biodiversity in the entire nation with the large number of documented species.”

A native of Virginia, Wolak received his Bachelor of Science from the College of William and Mary. He then earned his doctorate from the University of California Riverside and completed a postdoctoral position in Scotland.

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