We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our 2020 early career scientist advocates.

Jacob L. Steenwyk
Communications & Outreach Subcommittee
Howard Hughes Medical Institute James H. Gilliam Fellow
Biological Science Department, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

Research Interest

Broadly, I am interested in understanding the tempo and modes of evolution. Understanding these processes in diverse systems can help us address some of the greatest biological mysteries and challenges. For example, why are some microbes deadly pathogens while others are relatively harmless or even beneficial to human affairs?

To address these and other questions, I have three main research projects: (1) understanding the genomic consequences of losing DNA repair genes in an ancient lineage of budding yeasts, (2) examining the genomic and functional outcome of hybridization in a lineage of pathogenic filamentous fungi, and (3) developing methods and tools that help infer and understand the tree of life.

Other projects I have led include examining signatures of rapid evolution in yeast used for wine-making and unraveling the evolutionary history of biotechnologically and medically relevant filamentous fungi.

To date, nearly all of my work has been focused on organisms from the fungal kingdom. In the future, I hope to expand my work to other branches in the tree of life.

As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What career paths interest you the most?

I hope to become a research professor at a top-tier research institution in the United States. I believe I will be able to establish and carry out an ambitious research program studying rapid evolution across the tree of life as well as the functional genomics of microbial pathogens.

While doing so, I plan to provide a positive mentoring experience for trainees. I have experienced excellent mentorship from my mentors Antonis Rokas (PhD thesis advisor) and John G. Gibbons (Master’s thesis advisor), who have advocated and supported me in numerous ways. I value and appreciate their efforts to help me grow as a scientist and member of the scientific community, and I want to pass on these positive experiences as a mentor of equal caliber and class.

 In addition to your research, how else do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?

As a member of the scientific enterprise, I plan on continuing to be an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, participating in community service and outreach, and using science communication as a tool to bridge the gap between scientists and the broader community.

Matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion are near and dear to me, in part because as an underrepresented minority, I have encountered both unjust and inclusive practices. In light of my experience and the experiences that colleagues have shared with me, I plan on continuing to promote and pass on the positive aspects of my experience in the scientific enterprise and beyond. In line with this goal, I am the acting president of the graduate student-led organization Inclusivity in the Biosciences Association, which proudly advocates for diversity and proponents of inclusion. Similarly, I serve as the Inclusion Coordinator for the Evolutionary Studies Initiative at Vanderbilt University.

As an active participant in community service and outreach, I have been vice co-chair and co-chair of MEGAMicrobe, a half-day event in Nashville, TN, that features interactive and informational booths aimed at teaching people ages 6-14 about the wonders of microbes. Additionally, I have participated in multiple art shows and given talks about the intersection of science and art. Two examples of my science-influenced art (sciart) are The Abstract Art of Algorithms and an abstracted portrait of sun-bathing frogs. The latter sciart is an ode to the frogs that have died due to a deadly fungal disease. For more information about my sciart, see a recent interview organized by Kathryn Royster.

Now, I am thrilled to be a co-chair of the Communications & Outreach Subcommittee working alongside great members of the science communication and outreach community at the Genetics Society of America, including my fellow co-chair Angel Fernando Cisneros Caballero, Adelita Mendoza, and many others!

As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?

Within the Communications & Outreach Subcommittee, I hope to help foster an inclusive and productive environment and facilitate the subcommittee’s members’ abilities to write and publish popular science articles on topics they are passionate about. I also aim to publish my own popular science articles with fellow subcommittee members.

Many of us have similar goals but entirely unique perspectives that can enrich and inform one another. Beyond the Communications & Outreach Subcommittee, I aim to help build bridges between the different early career subcommittees and other groups within the Genetics Society of America.

Previous Leadership Experience:

2019–Present: Inclusion Coordinator, The Evolutionary Studies Initiative at Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

2019–Present: President, Inclusivity in Biosciences Association, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

2019–2020: Co-chair, MEGAMicrobe, Vanderbilt Institute for Infections, Immunology and Inflammation, Nashville, TN

2018–2019: Vice President, Graduate Student Association, Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

2017–2018: Scientific Consultant, Little Harpeth Brewing, Nashville, TN


Keep up with Jacob L. Steenwyk through various social media and other platforms!

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

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