It’s a dog-eat-dog world and, in the struggle for existence, organisms interact with each other and their environment in a myriad of ways. Along that journey, they adapt, or perish, as they’re exposed to peril at every turn.
“Evolution can appear random, even when driven by the deterministic process of natural selection, because we often aren’t aware of all interactions that affect Darwinian fitness,” says Utah State University biologist Zach Gompert. “We really don’t yet know how seasonal, yearly or longer-term changes and fluctuations in the environment affect these interactions and the evolutionary process.”
Gompert is exploring this puzzle and recently received a boost to ramp up his research. The assistant professor in USU’s Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center is the recipient of a 2019 Faculty Early Career Development ‘CAREER’ Award from the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s top grant program for early career development of junior faculty, CAREER awards are given in recognition of demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and the integration of education and research. Gompert’s award provides a five-year grant of more than $1 million.
“We’re excited Zach has received this highly competitive and well-deserved recognition,” says USU College of Science Dean Maura Hagan. “He’s asking questions at the core of evolutionary science and creating meaningful learning opportunities for his students.”
Gompert will use computer simulations and a massive data set of genome sequences from more than 7,500 Lycaeides butterflies collected in the western United States over the past 30 years to investigate the causes and consequences of natural selection that varies across space and time.
“It’s the ‘time’ component of this project that’s unique,” he says. “We know that selection can cause rapid evolution, but when selection varies in time, it can also erode or maintain variation for individual traits and genes. Our study will attempt to address key knowledge gaps.”
CAREER awards require educational opportunities that expand the funded research’s public outreach. Gompert’s project includes curriculum and activities to integrate into introductory and advanced undergraduate courses that will afford students opportunities to design their own simulation-based experiments and pursue experiments parallel to the butterfly research, using such organisms as ants, caterpillars and spiders. In addition, Gompert plans a citizen science program to involve people beyond the campus community.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity, which will allow my students and I to delve into big, evolutionary questions,” Gompert says.