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Feb - Matt Pennell

Speaker: Matt Pennell

Talk Title: Learning about evolutionary dynamics from molecular phylogenies

Event Details


Thursday, February 20th, 2020 6:00pm



Gordon & Leslie Diamond Theature, BCCRC Main Floor (675 W 10th Ave, Vancouver, BC V5Z1L3)

Affiliation: Assistant Professor, Department of Zoology, UBC

Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity Theory and Informatics


Dr. Pennell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and a Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity Theory and Informatics. Prior to his appointment as assistant professor, Dr. Pennell was an Izaak Killam Memorial and NSERC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Zoology at UBC. He also worked as a Graduate Fellow at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, NC. He received his PhD in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Idaho and his bachelor’s degree from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. He received a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Naturalists in 2016 and the Theodosius Dobzhansky Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution in 2019.

He is fascinated by life’s variety and seek general explanations for how it arose and how it is maintained. A basic premise of his research is that these two aims are interdependent: what we see today is the result of ecological and evolutionary processes operating in concert across ‘deep time’. In his research, he builds theory, statistical methods, and computational tools to investigate how the interactions of these processes have played out over history. He has a particular fondness for phylogenetic trees, the historical pattern of branching that connects organisms to one another, and work to understand what these can tell us about the long-term dynamics of evolutionary change. To complement this work, he also develop general informatics tools for handling, manipulating, and sharing biodiversity data.


A central challenge in evolutionary biology is to understand why some lineages contain so much diversity while others have so few; ultimately this means estimating and explaining variation in rates of diversification — the rate at which lineages split and go extinct. This is not only a major problem in macroevolutionary research (where my background is) but is also important for characterizing the dynamics of viral epidemics and cell division within development, including antibody diversification and cancer proliferation. In this talk, I will discuss recent progress in applying statistical models to estimate diversification dynamics from phylogenetic trees constructed from genomic data. While there has been tremendous excitement about this line of research, there has also been persistent questions about the reliability of evolutionary inferences made from molecular phylogenies alone. I will address these questions by presenting some brand new work from my research group in which we clarify precisely what information about evolutionary dynamics can be obtained by comparing genomic sequences. I will end by discussing how these new results might be applied to help us better understand epidemics and cellular proliferation.

Link to slides:

to be posted after the talk

Introductory Speaker: Hossein Sharifi-Noghabi (SFU – Ester Lab)

Talk Title: Transfer Learning for Drug Response Prediction

Link to slides:

to be posted after the talk

Webcast Link:

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