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Beth Shapiro Awarded Packard Fellowship

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Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Career Development Assistant Professor of Biology at Penn State University, has won a David and Lucile Packard Foundation fellowship to explore the origins and evolution of viruses.

Shapiro's research focuses on how evolution occurs through time, and how evolutionary processes and the models differ depending on the time scale in question. To investigate these questions, Shapiro collects and analyzes genetic data from populations that are evolving measurably; in other words, populations from which genetic data can be sampled over a sufficiently long time period to observe changes in genetic diversity as they occur.

The two major sources of these data are RNA viruses and ancient DNA extracted from plants and animals over the last several hundred thousand years. In contrast to ancient DNA, the RNA viruses can generate large amounts of genetic diversity within only a few decades because they have a rapid mutation rate. Shapiro uses these measurably evolving data to generate better models of molecular evolution.

Shapiro also seeks to use these models to test hypotheses about how and why diversity is lost or maintained within populations. For example, Shapiro's research with ancient DNA seeks to understand why some species survived the mass-extinction event that occurred around 10,000 years ago while other species did not. One focus of her work with RNA viruses is to understand how genetic diversity differs within a single host.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation fellowships were established in 1988 to develop scientific leaders, to further wth work of promising young scientists and engineers, to encourage networking among these researchers, and to support efforts to attract talented graduate students into university research in the United States.