Fellow in Focus: Sarah P. Otto, FRSC

Evolution has shaped the world around us. From the depths of the sea, to the highest mountain peaks, species have evolved adaptations to survive in virtually all regions of the globe. But not all species have evolved in the same ways. Dr. Sarah P. Otto has devoted her career to understanding the paths that evolution takes and why those paths diverge, leading to the diverse array of species we see today.

"Having a clear understanding of how species evolve is important for predicting how diseases react to antibiotics, how the range of species is affected by a changing climate, and how invasive species cope in a new environment," says Dr. Otto, professor and director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia.

“My research uses mathematical models to clarify how features of an organism affect its potential for and rate of adaptation. I also step back to address why such features vary in the first place. Why is it that some species produce offspring primarily by cloning themselves, whereas others never do? Why do some species have large genomes with many chromosomes, while others are streamlined?”

Dr. Otto's recent work has led to novel statistical methods to estimate the impact of such features on historial rates of speciation and extinction. This information helps us to address important questions about extinction rates; for instance, how do current extinction rates compare to historial ones? And how are humans altering the qualities of species that can persist?

“I hope to provide a richer understanding of the natural world,” says Dr. Otto about her work.

Initially drawn to biology by way of a high school teacher, she read The Origin of Species shortly after and became truly hooked. In addition to her love of biology, she's always maintained a similar passion for mathematics.

"Initially I was interested in becoming a genetic engineer because I thought there must be a lot of math involved in this field. But I eventually discovered it involved a lot of mixing of chemicals and not a lot of math and I became slightly discouraged with my career choice. Luckily, my professors were excellent mentors and guided me towards evolutionary biology."

Her expertise in the area of evolutionary biology led to her selection as an Expert Panel member for the Council's most recent assessment, Canadian Taxonomy: Exploring Biodiversity, Creating Opportunity. Taxonomy is the research that discovers, distinguishes, classifies and documents living things and is foundational to biodiversity science. The report found, among other things, that although Canada has a history of world-class contributions to taxonomic research, its data sharing efforts compare poorly internationally.

"Research depends critically on having data available. Unless that data is open and out there it becomes virtually impossible to access and use," says Dr. Otto. "Canada lags behind, however, on providing the resources to database the information that we have already gathered, reducing the efficiency and accuracy of scientific findings."

For her work on speciation (the evolutionary formation of new biological species) and extinction rates, Dr. Otto has ensured that all of the software being developed is open source and freely available and is sharing research methods from the project with colleagues.

Dr. Otto is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and has received both the Steacie Prize and a Steacie Fellowship. She is the author of over 100 articles and her recent book with Dr. Troy Day, A Biologist's Guide to Mathematical Modelling in Ecology and Evolution, was received to wide acclaim.

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