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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 17:30 EDT

Casey Dunn To Receive NSF Waterman Award

March 15, 2011

Brown University biologist uses sophisticated genomic and computational techniques in a study of deep-sea creatures to examine the origins of a diversity of life

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has named its awardee for this year’s Alan T. Waterman Award: Casey Dunn, a biologist at Brown University.

Dunn’s work involves genome analyses to better understand relationships between groups of animals.  He investigates the origins of biological complexity through work with deep-sea creatures called siphonophores. His research holds clues about how complex multicellular organisms, including humans, were formed.

Dunn will receive $500,000 over three years to continue his studies of animal evolution.

“The Waterman Award is designed to recognize outstanding young researchers like Casey Dunn,” said NSF Director Subra Suresh. “His research has already made substantial contributions to our understanding of the origins of a diversity of life. His insights should further this important field of study in the years to come.”

Dunn serves as assistant professor of biology in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University where he also runs the Dunn Lab, which investigates how evolution has produced a diversity of life.

The lab primarily studies morphology, a branch of biology that deals with the form and structure of animals. Research there also pursues learning about the actual history of life on Earth, as well as the general properties of evolution that have contributed to life’s historical patterns. The type of questions the lab asks require marine, laboratory and computational work.

Central to Dunn’s work is the development of phylogenetic tools–that is, tools that aid the study of how groups of organisms are evolutionarily related, which is discovered through molecular sequencing data, morphological data and the application of these tools to particular groups of organisms. The Dunn Lab also studies development from a descriptive and functional perspective because the diversity of form has been realized through the evolution of developmental mechanisms.

Dunn is the tenth scientist in the biological sciences category to be honored with the Waterman Award in its 36-year history. The annual Waterman award recognizes an outstanding young researcher in any field of science or engineering supported by NSF. Candidates may not be older than 35, or seven years beyond receiving a doctorate on the year of nomination and must stand out for their individual achievements. The selection committee is made up of 12 appointed members from academia and industry.

Dunn said the award was especially timely, as he has a “shovel-ready project” to collect siphonophores, marine organisms that live at great depths in the open oceans. Once he can collect specimens, Dunn wants to use new genomic tools to learn which genes are responsible for similarities and differences among these multi-celled organisms.

“I’m really excited because with this award I can go after some animals that I would not have been able to get otherwise,” said Dunn, whose organism collection expeditions may include the waters off the coast of France and in the Pacific Ocean.

“We have already run the first analyses and were just starting to look for funding,” Dunn continued. “The timing could not have been better. We’re ready to start these projects.”

This interdisciplinary research requires field work at remote locations to collect specimens, new laboratory-based tools for collecting genome data and large analyses that require a supercomputer. The work will be facilitated by recent investments made by Brown University to upgrade DNA sequencing tools and scientific computing infrastructure.

NSF funding in another area will enhance Dunn’s research. This summer, Brown University received over $1 million through NSF’s Research Infrastructure Improvement Inter-Campus and Intra-Campus Cyber Connectivity (RII C2) program. Part of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), this program supports states that have less extensive scientific infrastructures and have historically received fewer federal research dollars, like Rhode Island

Brown University is using this RII C2 funding to enhance access to a high-performance computing and their bioinformatics facility that supports life science research. The award will also provide high-speed connections from Brown University campus sites to the University of Rhode Island and to collaborators at the state’s nine primarily undergraduate institutions.

“The genome sequencers are down at Ship Street, and the supercomputer is here on [the Brown University] campus,” said Dunn. “The enhanced connectivity supported by NSF’s EPSCoR is critical for moving the data from acquisition to analysis.”

In addition to conducting his research, Dunn has created a popular website that reveals the unexpected world of deep-sea animals through innovative animation, podcasts and text. The site has been featured by various media, including National Public Radio’s Science Friday website. He also has just co-authored a book to teach scientists how to work with large datasets, entitled “Practical Computing for Biologists,” published by Sinauer Associates, Inc.

The Waterman Award will be presented to Dunn at a dinner ceremony held in Washington, D.C., on May 10. He will also deliver a lecture at NSF on May 9.

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