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Past Winner
2001 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Sarah Otto


The University of British Columbia

Sarah Otto
Sarah Otto

Dr. Sarah Otto vividly remembers her first encounter with the complex challenges of mathematical evolutionary genetic theory. It was a fascinating sexual threesome – of brine shrimp. The study of the small crustacean Eulimnadia, in which there are two hermaphroditic female types, had the then undergraduate student at Stanford University wondering how males survive in this sexual mix.

"I took to it like a fish to water," says Dr. Otto, a down-to-earth theoretician who insists on being called Sally. "I love the combination of putting math and biology together, and the ability to think broadly about evolutionary questions."

This passion for evolutionary genetics has led to a decade of groundbreaking research for which Dr. Otto recently received a 2001 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Steacie Fellowship – one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.

The University of British Columbia associate professor has tackled some of the most challenging questions in evolutionary biology, including why sex exists at all. In the process, she's both mathematically proven and overturned long-held convictions about the process of evolution.

Characteristic of Dr. Otto's taste for an intellectual challenge was her 1997 mathematical validation of the Fisher-Muller hypothesis. The hypothesis is an attempt to explain the evolutionary benefits of sex and the recombination of genes in the creation of sperm and eggs.

Though the hypothesis was proposed in the 1930s, Dr. Otto was the first to use rigorous mathematics to demonstrate its validity. Sex and genetic recombination is advantageous for a population because it increases the chance that beneficial genetic mutations will come together in an individual.

Dr. Otto's current research tackles a broad range of theoretical questions about the evolution of genomes – the whole of an organism's genetic material. For example, why do various species of animals and plants have different numbers of chromosomes? And, how do changes in an animal population's size, such as those caused by human activities, influence its rate of evolution? This question is critical to an understanding of how to best conserve endangered species.

Given her taste for a broad range of questions, Dr. Otto, whose early years were divided between Peru and various U.S. states and who became a Canadian citizen last July, says that the University of British Columbia is an excellent environment for her research.

"What has made UBC such a productive place for me is that we have a fantastic community of evolutionary biologists who study everything from fish to trees, bacteria to mathematics," says Dr. Otto. "Canadians should be proud of having one of the best groups of evolutionary biologists in the world."