AUSTIN, Texas—David Hillis has had a love of life’s diversity and a craving to learn more about it since as early as he can remember. He is the kind of fearless researcher who follows his heart and mind wherever they might take him, and has spent his career as a molecular biologist trying new approaches to old problems.
In its annual search for creative geniuses, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has discovered this University of Texas at Austin professor and awarded him a “no strings attached” $295,000 fellowship to use as he pleases. Hillis is one of 32 people receiving the fellowships this year and the only one from Texas.
The awards, which range from $200,000 to $375,000 over a five-year period, are given to free creative individuals from economic pressures and encourage them to pursue research or artistic endeavors. The list this year includes a human rights leader, two chemists, two physicists, a historian, a foreign policy analyst, a musician, a playwright, an anthropologist and several artists.
“Hillis has developed new molecular genetic analyses that contribute to our understanding of the history of life on earth,” said a statement from the MacArthur Foundation, which announced the fellows Tuesday (June 22). “He has shown that the relationships among species can be inferred from small differences in their DNA sequences, revealing both the order and timing of evolutionary processes.”
“I’ve been fascinated by the relationships and shared evolutionary history among living organisms since I was an undergraduate,”said the 40 year-old Hillis. “I went into the area of phylogenetic analysis (the study and inference of the evolutionary history of life) just because I found it intellectually exciting. At the time, a lot of people told me I was crazy to work on phylogenetic analysis, because there were major technical obstacles to overcome, and there were not many applications for phylogenetic information then.
“I made the lucky guess that advances in molecular biotechnology and computer science would largely solve the technical obstacles, and once they were solved, the applications of phylogenetics suddenly became almost endless.”
Phylogenetic analyses have turned out, said Hillis, to be enormously predictive of everything from molecular structures to the course of epidemics of human diseases. “In addition, they have become critical for interpreting almost any biological dataset that concerns more than one species. As biologists have become more comparative in their research, they have had to turn to phylogenetic analyses to interpret their data,” he said.
“The entire UT Austin family is proud of David Hillis,” said University President Larry R. Faulkner. “He is one of the leading researchers in the country in molecular genetics, and we are pleased that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized his outstanding work. I might also add that he is an exceptional teacher, much respected by his colleagues and the graduate students and postdocs who collaborate with him.
“He has been deeply involved in the life of the University as a thoughtful spokesman and leader. The University is grateful to David Hillis for his excellent contributions to this campus and for his remarkable accomplishments in the field of DNA research and the evolutionary process. We look forward to the new explorations his MacArthur Fellowship will make possible.”
Hillis holds the Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professorship at UT and is director of the University’s new School of Biological Sciences. “I can’t say enough good things about David Hillis,” said Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the School of Natural Sciences. “He is a widely respected scientist and dedicated to creating a better environment for everyone. David also is wonderfully generous with his time, having recently taken on the job as director of our new School of Biological Sciences. I couldn’t be more pleased about this marvelous honor.”
Nominations for the MacArthur Fellowships are accepted only from invited nominators, approximately 100 people at any given time who serve as “talent scouts” for the program. Nominators work anonymously and are selected for their expertise and the ability to identify exceptional creativity.
Hillis said the call from the MacArthur Foundation came “as a complete surprise. I guess it was fortunate that I wasn’t in when they called because my first thoughts when I got the message were that one of my colleagues was pulling my leg, or else the foundation was just calling me for a reference on someone else. I didn’t know that I’d been nominated, and I have no idea who nominated me or who the nominators are.”
Since he just learned of the award, Hillis said he hasn’t had time to fully formulate plans. “However, it is clear that this stipend will give me the freedom to explore research paths that the standard granting agencies might consider too risky. So far in my life, those paths have always been the most productive and exciting ones.”