A Genius in our Midst


Nels Elde has a new accomplishment to add to his résumé: certified genius. The evolutionary geneticist was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a “genius grant.” The highly regarded honor goes to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Elde is one of 21 Fellows for 2020, each receiving $625,000 in stipends. Elde says he may invest some of the funds into a storytelling project highlighting the ingenuity and humanity of science heroes.

“Dr. Elde has achieved a hallmark in the scientific community. His innate ability to think creatively about unsolved problems inspires all of us to do the same in our quests to advance knowledge,” says Michael Good, senior vice president for Health Sciences.

Elde has been with the U since 2011, and his investigations stem from the fact that an organism’s genome—the complete set of genetic instructions—bears evolutionary changes that have occurred over millennia. Viruses drive many of these changes as animals evolve new ways to survive microbial infections. Studying how these virus-animal conflicts have changed biology is providing insights into how the body’s defenses, including the immune system, are built and how they work.

“Someday we may get to a point where we can look in the genetic medicine cabinet and select genes off the shelf that will short-circuit a virus,” Elde says. He’s previously been named a Pew Scholar, and research from his lab has been highlighted by The New York Times, The Atlantic, and National GeographicRead more about Elde's accomplishments and what he plans to do with the funding from the grant.

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