Quantrell Award: Michael Wade, Professor and Chairman of
In teaching, as in basketball, winning is an easily acquired taste.
"I definitely hope to two-peat," said Michael Wade, Professor and Chairman of Ecology & Evolution, upon winning the Quantrell Award. "I'm very delighted to win the award, maybe even more than I was to receive tenure. All of our faculty put a great deal of time and effort into teaching, so I think it's a very prestigious award. And undergraduates here can be pretty tough critics."
Wade, who teaches the Common Core course BioSci 107, Evolution by Natural Selection, may face a group of particularly harsh critics. "The overwhelming reason students take my course is that they have to," he admitted, so he tries to make the material relevant but also rigorous. "I try to teach evolutionary biology as a quantitative science, rather than a storytelling science."
Only five evolutionary forces are known, Wade explained, yet the action of these five forces accounts for the tremendous diversity of life we observe. "First we look at each force alone and ask, what would the world look like if that were the only force working? Then, I try to take really interesting questions, ones that are still the subject of active research, from real-life situations where two or three forces are operating simultaneously. Sometimes the results can really hook your imagination," he said.
One example Wade uses is sexual selection. "Why should it always be the male of the species with the elaborate plumage and ornamentation? Whether it's frogs or beetles or fish or birds or mammals, why should the male be spectacular while the female is drab? I try to present that as a puzzle," he said.
Wade is an expert on the evolution of subdivided populations. In his research he performs population-genetic experiments using laboratory colonies of the common flour beetle, looking at populations as small as a handful of individuals or as large, over several generations, as hundreds of thousands. Some of his flour-beetle colonies are more than 50 years old. The central theoretical question behind his work is whether it makes a difference to the evolutionary process if genetically similar individuals are clustered in groups as opposed to being homogeneously distributed like grass in a lawn. For example, Wade has investigated the evolution of cannibalistic behavior. In an unstructured population, beetles that prey on eggs and other young beetles thrive, but when the population is subdivided into small, genetically related clusters, such behavior harms the group -- and the cannibalistic trait is diminished or lost over evolutionary time.
Wade received his B.A. from Boston College in 1971. After receiving his Ph.D. in theoretical biology from Chicago in 1975, he was appointed Assistant Professor in Biology. He was named Associate Professor in 1981 and Professor in Ecology & Evolution in 1986. He became Chairman of Ecology & Evolution in 1991.
-- Bill Burton