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Prof. St. John Developing New Tools to Study Evolution

January 29, 2010

Professor St. John and her students working on the NSF grant.

What do family trees have to do with creating new flu vaccines? Everything, according to Mathematics and Computer Science Prof. Katherine St. John. She's working on a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop new tools that will help model evolutionary changes, like those taking place in the flu virus.

"Each year, 36,000 people in the U.S. die because of the flu," says Prof. St. John, "but scientists understand that the flu virus continues to evolve and that next year's strain will be different. They build phylogenetic trees to anticipate what that next round of flu will look like."

Just like a family's geneaology, these trees show shared ancestry—the common links—among various biological groups. Working with 12 of her undergraduate students, Prof. St. John will develop new mathematical and computational tools that will enable scientists to compare, optimize, and visualize the various trees.

"If I have fifty different animals, then the number of possible trees tracing their ancestry would be more than the number of atoms in the observable universe," she explains. Her goal is to use innovative math techniques to understand what such a space with all those trees would look like. That would improve a search engine's ability to find the right information. This research has implications not only for understanding more about the underlying changes that take place from one flu season to the next but also for analyzing character evolution, gene expression, and many areas of conservation biology.

The $221,150 grant is provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Undergraduates working with Prof. St. John are funded through that grant, as well as through the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, an NSF program that seeks to increase the quality and quantity of students successfully completing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics baccalaureate degree programs.

A graduate of Smith College, Prof. St. John holds a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Lehman faculty in 1999.