Doctoral student wins top award in evolutionary biology

Clemens Lakner

A doctoral student who studies DNA sequence data has won a prestigious award in evolutionary biology, marking the first time a Florida State student has received the award.

Clemens Lakner, who is pursuing a doctorate in biology, received the Ernst Mayr Award for research in which he explored the accuracy of statistical models of protein sequences, which are used for determining evolutionary relationships between species. The Ernst Mayr Award is given to the presenter of the outstanding graduate student paper at the annual meeting of the Society of Systematic Biologists. The award includes a $1,000 prize.

"This is one of the most sought-after student awards in the field of evolutionary biology, so it is a great honor for me to receive it," said Lakner, who hails from Austria and hopes to earn his doctorate in 2010. "It would not have been possible without the outstanding resources of the Department of Scientific Computing."

Statistical models are used to mimic mutational processes over time, but scientists disagree about the consequences of the large number of simplifying assumptions that the models make. Lakner’s research incorporated structural biology, computer science and evolutionary biology to show that the models perform well at a basic level and that there may be other, more serious reasons that conflicting results often occur.

"He took a complex problem and made it very accessible, while showing some compelling results," said Gavin Naylor, who said the award recognizes both the quality and importance of Lakner’s research. Naylor, an associate professor in the Department of Scientific Computing, is Lakner’s major professor.

"While it has long been acknowledged that this would be an important direction to pursue, no one has yet had the courage to take on the task because it requires expertise in so many disciplines," Naylor said. "Clemens has not only taken on the challenge, but he has done so with a thoroughness so compelling that people have no choice but to sit up and listen."