John Novembre, PhD, a computational biologist who studies the evolutionary history and genetic diversity of human populations, has been named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow.
Awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to individuals for their exceptional creativity, significant accomplishments and potential for important future achievements, MacArthur Fellowships are among the most prestigious honors in academia and the creative arts. Often referred to as a “genius grant,” the fellowship comes with an unrestricted stipend of $625,000 over the next five years that provides recipients the freedom to pursue creative endeavors.
Novembre, associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics, is one of 24 new MacArthur Fellows drawn from diverse fields ranging from stem cell biology to puppetry. He is the 34th current or former UChicago faculty member to receive the award.
“It is a profound honor to be named a MacArthur Fellow and I look forward to living up to the Foundation’s call to fulfill our creative potential,” Novembre said. “I’m still processing it all, but I hope to use the fellowship to fuel my creativity and explore exciting new projects, such as collecting and analyzing ancient DNA data.”
Novembre’s research focuses on the development of powerful mathematical and statistical algorithms that shed light on the evolutionary history of populations, particularly on the processes that shaped human genetic diversity and disease. To this end, his work often relies on anthropology and human history as much as it does on genome sequencing and computation, in order to decipher the subtle genetic signatures that appear when species undergo major events such as population bottlenecks, large-scale migration or dispersal events, or the development of resistance to disease.
Among Novembre’s most prominent discoveries was the finding that genes almost perfectly mirror geography in Europe – an individual’s DNA can be used to determine the area where they were born, often to within a few hundred kilometers. This built upon insights drawn from earlier work Novembre conducted as a post-doctoral fellow with then mentor, and now close colleague, Matthew Stephens, PhD, professor of human genetics and statistics at the University of Chicago, in which they uncovered vulnerabilities in a classic statistical tool used to analyze the geographic distribution of genetic diversity and large-scale migration events.
Novembre has applied his computational approach toward investigations in many other areas, including human migration, the causes of genetic disease, recombination rates — the mixing of genetic material as it is passed from parent to offspring – and even the genetic origin of domesticated dogs.
“Much like physicists who study trace signatures left behind by particles that are difficult to observe directly, we study the genetic signatures left behind by important moments in population history,” Novembre said. “Sometimes obscure and difficult math can lead to new insights about the evolutionary process and our human origins. It’s one of the things I love most about our work.”
While still carefully thinking about how best to utilize the MacArthur stipend, Novembre is excited for upcoming projects focusing on ancient DNA, particularly in human populations from within the past 10,000 years. The fellowship could enable improved data collection and generation, as well as archaeological field work and site visits that would have been difficult to accomplish before. A current project that could benefit, for example, is work with collaborators that explores how gene frequencies change and how unique genetic events such as the evolution of partial malarial resistance evolved in inhabitants of the island of Sardinia.
Novembre first learned of his award in early September while teaching a course on quantitative approaches for incoming students of UChicago’s Biological Sciences Division at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. Like many fellows, Novembre ignored several calls, as well as one puzzling text, from unknown phone numbers and senders, before a team from the MacArthur Foundation was able to break the news. Novembre finally accepted the call while catching up on some work at a restaurant bar in Woods Hole.
“It was an incredible feeling, and I’ve been in this surreal limbo state for the past few weeks because the Foundation asks you only tell one person about the fellowship,” Novembre said. “I had to make up a cover story when they sent a film crew to the university, so that my students wouldn’t get suspicious. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m looking forward to being able to share this with my family, friends, colleagues and students.”
Novembre is well aware that his MacArthur Fellowship also enables a wide range of opportunities outside of the lab. Popular science writing and other creative projects have crossed his mind, but a small amount of the stipend will first go toward home office improvements. An avid cyclist, outdoorsman and firm believer in grand adventures (he once took a month off from his PhD program to help sail a 31’ sailboat from Tahiti to Hawaii as part of a three man crew), Novembre looks forward to tackling new challenges. For now, he is taking in the moment and is most excited to meet the other MacArthur Fellows.
“In the past, I have learned so much from talking with peers, and I imagine though we have disparate specialties there will be lots of notes to swap about how to sustain creativity in one’s work,” Novembre said. “You can’t be afraid of things outside your comfort zone. My research has led me down many unfamiliar paths – deeper math, obscure aspects of language families, archaeology, genetic processes, and more. I would encourage others to pursue the questions that arise from their work, because you never know where it will take you.”
“I also want to express my gratitude to my collaborators,” he adds. “As a computational biologist, my work depends on access to great data and our best research projects have involved close collaboration with excellent empiricists.”
Novembre received his BA in biochemistry from Colorado College in 2000, and his PhD in Integrative Biology and Computational Biology/Genomics at the University of California-Berkeley in 2006. After completing a NSF postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago, he joined the faculty of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California-Los Angeles, before moving to the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago as an associate professor in 2013. Novembre has received numerous awards and honors, including an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and appointment as a Searle Scholar. His research has been published in prestigious journals such as Nature, Nature Genetics and Science.
“John Novembre’s outstanding and deeply creative work is shedding light on our shared evolutionary history, with applications that could one day improve the treatment of genetic diseases around the world,” said Kenneth Polonsky, MD, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Chicago and dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine. “The University of Chicago Medicine is extremely proud that he has received this well-deserved honor.”