UO provost awarded $1.8 million to study evolutionary genetics

First published in Around the O on September 10th, 2019. Patrick Phillips, professor of biology and the UO’s recently named provost, has received a $1.8 million Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Patrick Phillips

The prestigious five-year grant will provide funding for researchers in Phillips’ lab to examine the complex interactions within organisms between multiple genes and the environment, which have critical implications for human health. The grant comes from the NIH Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award program.

The Outstanding Investigator Award provides support for research that falls within the mission of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and gives investigators flexibility to conduct research without a specific predetermined project.

It gives busy researchers like Phillips freedom to pursue creative and cutting-edge science with less time applying for grants. It also enables investigators to devote more time and energy to mentoring trainees in a more stable research environment, something Phillips feels strongly about.

“Getting this award is definitely an honor and is really testament to the great work so many undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and laboratory assistants have done over the years,” he said. “Everything that we have accomplished has been a team effort.”

Phillips’ research team typically includes up to a dozen or so undergraduate students, and last year four of them completed undergraduate honors theses. He currently has two doctoral students in his lab and has mentored an additional 21 graduate students who have gone on to serve in academia or industry.

He has two postdoctoral fellows serving in his lab and has previously trained 12 postdocs, most of whom have been placed in faculty positions. Phillips’ doctoral student Katja Kasimatis was the featured graduate student speaker at the UO’s June commencement ceremony.

“Patrick has fostered a collaborative environment not only within his own lab, but at the University of Oregon,” said Zach Stevenson, a graduate student in the Phillips lab who will be working on the NIH project. “As a graduate student at the UO, I have access to world-leading experts in many avenues of science. The open community makes it possible for collaborative and innovative work.”

As part of the recent award, investigators in the lab will apply a broad research framework to address fundamental questions related to genetics, genomics, molecular biology and experimental evolution. By taking a systems approach, researchers can examine the variation and function of all genes simultaneously in multiple environments. The lab has pioneered the use of tiny roundworms known as Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans, to address a wide array of evolutionary questions.

When Phillips started doing work with C. elegans in the early 1990s, most researchers using the model system were seeking answers to questions about how animals developed or how a particular gene worked. Phillips was seeking to answer different kinds of questions, such as how a particular behavior evolves or why sex is beneficial to evolution.

Today, many labs around the world use C. elegans worms to answer questions about how evolution works. Researchers in the Phillips lab use worms to answer questions in fundamental biology of evolution, Alzheimer’s disease, aging and other areas.

Prior to being named provost in July 2019, Phillips served as acting executive director of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. He previously served as the director of the UO’s Institute for Ecology and Evolution, head of the Department of Biology and associate vice president for research.

Balancing roles as a university administrator and running a major lab can be a challenge.

“I am very fortunate to have amazing senior leadership in my lab, some whom have been with me for 15 years, who help keep everything moving along,” Phillips said. “My time helping get the Knight Campus started taught me how to structure my lab so that we can get all of the great science done while also allowing me time to directly supervise large administrative projects.”

Research and working with students plays a critical role in shaping how Phillips approaches his new role.

“My real success as a researcher began in earnest when I moved to the University of Oregon in 2000,” Phillips said. “At that point, I decided that I should just go for it and start thinking big and taking risks in my research. Turned out to pay off pretty well. I’m hoping to bring a similar approach to strategic thinking in my current role. Staying strongly connected to the research mission at UO and continuing to interact with and mentor students every day helps keep me grounded in the core mission of the university and provides a great perspective for my work as provost.”

—By Lewis Taylor, University Communications