University geneticist wins MacArthur Genius Grant

Associate Professor John Novembre won a MacArthur fellowship for his work on human evolutionary history.

By Peyton Alie

John Novembre, associate professor of human genetics, was named a MacArthur Fellow last month.

Awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, MacArthur Fellowships, commonly known as “genius grants,” consist of $625,000 paid out over five years. They are awarded annually to between 20 and 40 individuals from a wide range of disciplines. There are virtually no restrictions on how the grant money may be used, giving fellows a great deal of creative and intellectual freedom.

Because one cannot apply for the fellowship, fellows often only learn that they were nominated when they win the grant.

“I was completely blown away. I was very surprised, staggered, and stunned. Just amazed. It was really a treat,” said Novembre.

Novembre is a computational biologist who researches human evolutionary history. His work has demonstrated the crucial role of location in determining DNA patterns by connecting common ancestral geography to human genetic similarity. One of his most important contributions is his discovery that genes are almost perfectly linked to the geography in Europe. As a result, the ancestral origins of individuals of European descent can often be located within a couple hundred miles through the use of genetic information.

Novembre has also researched the causes of genetic diseases, the ways in which genetic variants are shaped by natural selection, and the roots of genetic diversity.

As an academic, Novembre was initially interested in molecular evolution, but he was soon drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of evolutionary history.

“Because molecular evolution can be studied in humans and related to our geography, history, and anthropology, I began to realize that I could work in this research field that integrated all these areas of study,” said Novembre.

Currently, Novembre is working on a variety of projects, including conducting research on developing new methods for analyzing the genetic data of a population, estimating the age of particular genetic mutations, and determining the implications of recent rapid human population growth.

As a computational biologist, Novembre focuses on developing and applying methods of data analysis and works closely with collaborators who gather the data. He hopes to use the fellowship’s funding to become more directly involved with people in the field when starting new projects.

“We’re interested in doing more work in the field of ancient DNA, which is risky research, because you never know if you’ll get DNA out of the bones or not, and there isn’t as clear of a stable source of funding for that yet,” said Novembre.

Novembre is the 34th current or former UChicago faculty member to be awarded the MacArthur Fellowship. He joined the faculty in 2013.