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Professor recognised for his work about evolution of life

Canterbury professor recognised for his work about the evolution of life

July 14, 2014

University of Canterbury’s Professor Mike Steel, who is using mathematics to help biologists discover more about the evolution of life, has been recognised for his work with the university’s Research Medal.

Professor Steel is best known for his leading work in phylogenetics, or the science of reconstructing evolutionary trees and networks from genetic data. He says his research methods are used every day to study how different strains of bacteria and viruses like influenza and hepatitis are related to each other.

``They’re also used to help figure out where some newly discovered organism fits in the tree of life, or how much biodiversity is at risk from current high levels of extinction.

``Phylogenetic techniques are also starting to be applied in medical research to reconstruct the tree of cell divisions in a tumor, and in linguistics the methods are used to understand how languages developed and diverged.

``Mathematics is really essential since it gives a way of systematically exploring the huge space of possible evolutionary scenarios. Since evolution is a random process, probability models play an important role” he says.

More recently, Professor Steel has been working on models of earliest life, using mathematics and computing in new ways to investigate networks.

His research is attracting wide international interest and has led to collaborations with leaders in the field of origin of life research. The algorithms developed have also been recently applied to study metabolic pathways in bacteria.

In a light-hearted approach, Professor Steel has also given away cash prizes to help solve solutions. In the last decade he has set many mathematical challenges with $US100 for each correct solution.

``The hardest challenge took a team of three smart guys from Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology many months to find a correct proof – but eventually they did.

``The reward is really much greater than $US100 as each one of the solved questions has always led to a published paper by the solver, sometimes in a high profile journal like the Science magazine.

Professor Steel was recently named as one of four principal investigators to win a $695,000 grant for a three-year research project, Terraces, Large Trees and Trait Evolution, funded by the US-based National Science Foundation.

He is director of the Biomathematics Research Centre, hosted within Canterbury’s School of Mathematics and Statistics. He is deputy director of the Allan Wilson Centre, and a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Between his MSc and PhD he briefly enjoyed a quite different career – completing a journalism diploma at the University of Canterbury before working as police reporter on a national Sunday newspaper.


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