The conference is part of a larger programme on evolution funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. The project – which is led by Professor Simon Conway Morris – includes two post-docs; Dr Sylvain Gerber and Dr Jen Hoyal Cuthill, who are investigating complexity and convergence. In addition, an outreach team comprising Dr Victoria Ling (science communications) and Dr Mags Leighton (science writer), are developing a new website resource to introduce and explain evolutionary principles, and present these big questions in an accessible way, as well as workshops and science festivals.
Simon Conway Morris is a Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology in the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St. John’s College. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1990. His principal academic interests are in the “Cambrian explosion” (especially the Burgess Shale, and summarized in The Crucible of Creation [CUP]) and evolutionary convergence (addressed in Life’s Solution [CUP] and The Runes of Evolution [Templeton]). He has won various awards including the Walcott Medal from the National Academy, as well as Honorary Degrees from the Universities of Uppsala and Hull. He is active in public outreach of science and delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1996 and has made many television and radio appearances. He is also involved in the science and religion debates, and delivered the Second Boyle Lecture. When undisturbed he can usually be found reading something by G.K. Chesterton or the Inklings, with a glass of wine (or something stronger) close to hand.
Dr Sylvain Gerber received his PhD in evolutionary palaeobiology from the University of Burgundy (Dijon, France) in 2007. After postdoctoral positions at the University of Chicago and the University of Bath, he is currently research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. His main research interests focus on patterns and processes of phenotypic macroevolution and aim at bridging the gap between palaeontology and evolutionary developmental biology. His work combines morphometrics, phylogenetics, and theoretical approaches, to describe and understand the large-scale dynamics of biodiversity. His contributions include the study of developmental disparity in ammonoids (molluscs), the detection of mosaic patterns of evolutionary developmental changes in trilobites (arthropods), the contrast of morphological integration and disparity in crinoids (echinoderms), and the testing of patterns of early-high disparity in metazoan clades.
Dr Jen Hoyal Cuthill
I use phylogenetic techniques to look for macroevolutionary patterns, particularly those related to homoplasy – the repeated evolution of similar characteristics, as inferred on phylogenetic trees. I’m interested in whether we can see consistent evolutionary patterns that hold across lineages and species, despite their idiosyncratic histories and habits. Exactly what sort of patterns am I talking about? One great thing about phylogenetic methods is that they can be applied across a wide range of taxa and character types and I have worked (for example) on general patterns of host switching among viruses of mammals, the role of coevolution in Müllerian mimicry among Heliconius butterflies, and the mathematical properties of homoplasy under the principle of parsimony. More generally, I am interested in palaeontology, the evolutionary biology of extant organisms and molecular biology, and have done postdoctoral research in the School of Information Technologies at the University of Sydney (2010 – 2013) as well as the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Cambridge, where am currently based and also took my PhD (2006 – 2010).
Victoria has a BA in Archaeology from the University of Winchester, and an MPhil and PhD in Biological Anthropology from the University of Cambridge (King’s College). Her specialisation is the Lower Palaeolithic hominin colonisation of Europe. She is the Science Communications Officer for the project. Victoria likes the Rolling Stones and Douglas Adams, and dislikes writing about herself.
Mags is our science writer for ‘Evolution: a new agenda’. Mags’ journey into writing has taken her through academia, environmental consultancy, teaching and stand-up comedy. A botanist by trade, her research career, via the universities of Liverpool and Durham, has considered how organisms interact with their environment from the molecular level, through cell biology and development, to their broader ecological context. Unusually for a plant molecular biologist, her extensive field experience means that she can recognise her main model organism (the ‘plant Drosophila’, Arabidopsis thaliana) outside its natural academic habitat (a greenhouse).
As a research scientist, Mags found that explaining her work to non-specialists brought clarity to her thinking, made her a better scientist and reconnected her with the passion that first compelled her into biology. Her outreach activities range from workshops for school-age children to writing and performing for adult audiences. Indulging her passion for talking serious science through comedy theatre won her a place at the national final of Famelab (a science communication competition) in 2012. Watch her routine here.
Mags’ personal mission is to facilitate a meaningful dialogue between scientists and the wider world, so that their questions become also our own. Her articles, written in accessible prose for non-specialists, are available through our web-based information resource. Our outreach website will provide a journey experience through three levels of complexity. Evolution develops from first principles, adapts through areas of current debate, and converges into the ‘big questions’ beyond. Our users are driven by curiosity through this matrix of stories, drawn directly from recent research.