Growing KU's Interdisciplinary Strengths in Genomics

This project aims to unlock the secrets held in genomes to understand where we come from, how we fight disease, how organisms respond to a changing environment/climate, and new bioengineering approaches for sustainable development and health advances. The principal investigators are Rob Unckless, associate professor of molecular biosciences and director of KU’s Center for Genomics, and Lena Hileman, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology. They are joined by faculty colleagues in molecular biosciences, anthropology, ecology & evolutionary biology and engineering.

Project Goals

New faculty will drive innovation and discovery and bring significant research funds to KU. The departmental homes of these hires are also some of the departments and units with the highest enrollment of undergraduates and the highest student-to-faculty ratios, so focused hiring in these areas also supports and grows our teaching mission. The measurable outcomes of this aim are new faculty hires and funded federal grants for those hires. 

At the heart of most genomic efforts is mapping phenotypes (traits) to genotypes (genomic sequences), and understanding how genotypes give rise to complex phenotypes. Recent advances have begun to examine how these changes occur over time, but many of these approaches are in their infancy. Our researchers are finding new variants of viruses in wastewater, looking for pollution-degrading enzymes, understanding demographic histories and selective pressures on genes, unraveling the genetic mechanisms of development and understanding pathogen/host interaction. Therefore, our overarching research aim is to integrate genomics with temporal and spatial information to understand how a changing genome leads to changing phenotypes. While each researcher will take field-specific approaches, there are several general, common concepts.

The KU Center for Genomics supports these cross-disciplinary efforts, and Research Rising funding will allow investment into common resources, such as hiring of a bioinformatics specialist and purchasing of computational nodes. The measurable outcomes are a) productivity of genomics-related faculty (papers, seminars, patents), b) collaboration among faculty, and c) submission of synthetic, cross-disciplinary and capacity-building grants. 

We recognize that a diverse scientific workforce is crucial for representing science, enhancing the exchange of ideas and providing a broad perspective to develop creative solutions. We will therefore develop several initiatives to improve DEIB at KU. These efforts include:

  1. Diversity as a hiring priority (including a commitment for two target of opportunity hires that will recruit faculty from historically marginalized groups in STEM)
  2. Graduate training programs (NIH T32, NSF NRT) in genomics that recruit from underrepresented groups
  3. Outreach and mentorship to increase participation at earlier career stages.

The unprecedented wealth of data about who we are at the genetic level has the potential to be weaponized against people of different races, genders and abilities. Therefore, it will be imperative to work with others to understand what this means for DEIB, and incorporate ethics and responsible conduct training throughout our activities. 

Research Team

Portrait of Lena Hileman
Lena Hileman
Professor and Chair of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Erik Lundquist
Erik A. Lundquist
Associate Vice Chancellor for Research
Portrait of Matthew Mosconi
Matthew Mosconi
Professor of Clinical Child Psychology
Portrait of Maria Orive
Maria E. Orive
Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Portrait of Jennifer Raff
Jennifer Raff
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Portrait of Belinda Sturm
Belinda S.M. Sturm
Professor of Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering
Portrait of Robert Unckless
Robert Unckless
Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences

In the News

New effort will clarify aging differences in males and females of many species

Jamie Walters, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, will join a multi-institution effort to better grasp mechanisms and evolutionary history of sex differences in aging across an array of animal species.

'A Genetic History of the Americas' with Jennifer Raff

Jennifer Raff, associate professor of anthropology, spoke with MSNBC's Chris Hayes about her book, Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas.

Molecular biosciences professor receives NSF CAREER award

Robert Unckless, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, received the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation. The award is the highest honor given by the NSF to young researchers.

From the wastewater drain, solid pandemic data

Belinda Sturm, director of the Kansas National Science Foundation EPSCoR Program, professor and Ross McKinney Faculty Fellow, was quoted in the New York Times regarding her COVID-19 wastewater surveillance.