When Nels Elde, PhD’05, arrived at the University of Chicago in 1998, he found himself in an exciting research environment—one that combined an “incredible tradition of academics” with an amazing group of collaborators in his fellow graduate students.
But it wasn’t just UChicago’s reputation as a research powerhouse that bolstered Elde’s scientific career. In the lab of his graduate advisor, Prof. Aaron Turkewitz, he also found the space to have fun.
“In Aaron’s lab, it wasn’t just great science; it was also creative science,” said Elde, now an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah, where he is an associate professor of human genetics. “He encouraged us to follow our curiosity and have fun. Aaron is also a skilled artist and potter. It was a really inspirational, foundational lesson about mixing art and science that taught me how to center creativity in my work.”
As a PhD student in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at UChicago, Elde researched the evolution of cellular mechanisms across different species. Now, 15 years later, his innovative approach to research has landed him a MacArthur Fellowship, which provides a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits. He is one of 21 people honored in this year’s class, which also includes former UChicago sociologist Forrest Stuart.
Elde’s dissertation research at the University was focused on understanding how distantly related species evolved unique solutions to solve similar cellular problems, looking far out on the branches of the evolutionary tree to combine cell biology with evolutionary genetics.
“Virtually all mainstream cell biologists had previously assumed that the mechanisms cells are using to function are so complicated that they could have evolved only once, and then they must have been conserved in all species after that,” said Turkewitz, a professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at UChicago. “But Nels realized that there are times when, completely independently, cells figured out how to solve some problem—not conserving the same mechanism, but solving the same problem twice in different ways.
“So now instead of asking, ‘How did cells solve this particular problem?’, you could ask, ‘What is the principle that cells are using to solve this problem? What do these solutions have in common, and how do they differ?’”