Ken Halanych's everlasting enthusiasm for science inspires exploration of animal lineages

Published: March 20, 2018
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From the beginning of his career, Ken Halanych has been turning evolutionary biology research on its head.

In 2014, he helped overturn dogma that had stood for more than a century. Researchers thought sponges were the earliest living lineages of the animal tree. Halanych proved otherwise when his lab demonstrated that comb jellies, not sponges, are actually the first lineage of the animal kingdom.

“My lab has been very involved with changing our current understanding of some of the earliest animal lineages,” said Halanych. “That’s fairly basic science, but it has a large influence on our understanding of the evolution of everything from nervous systems to muscles, which has major implications for understanding human biology and human health.”

Halanych is the Stewart W. Schneller Endowed Chair in the College of Sciences and Mathematics’ Department of Biological Sciences and the co-director of the Molette Biology Laboratory for Environmental and Climate Change Studies. For his efforts, he was named the 2018 recipient of the Auburn University Creative Research and Scholarship Award. The award recognizes Halanych’s work in the fields of molecular systematics, phylogeography and evolution of marine invertebrates.

“I’m very honored to receive this award, which is a nice capstone to the broad range of research I’ve been able to conduct here at Auburn,” he said. “I have been fortunate to have good collaborators, students and support, which allows me to be very productive and lucky enough to have manuscripts appear in top journals.”

Halanych said he was also honored to receive the award because it recognizes creativity.

“People think of scientists as people that follow linear steps to answer a question, and there’s really a lot more to it,” he said. “I think it’s fundamentally important that people understand how science works and how crucial science is to our everyday lives, especially now that science is generally under attack in the U.S.

“The creative part of science involves setting up a series of steps to get you from the question to your answer, and there are many different ways to explore any given question — some are efficient, some are inefficient, some are creative and insightful and others may or may not work. Creativity is important to recognizing what questions to ask and how to ask the questions in the right way.”

Halanych has been successful in creating research projects and developing results for dissemination, and his lab is both nationally and internationally known for their expertise in investigating the relationships among major animal groups.

“Depending who you talk to, there are 34 to 36 major animal groups,” he said. “We’re still trying to understand the relationships between groups and the early evolution of animal life on this planet. Much of this work is now done with modern genomic tools. We undertake a lot of DNA sequencing and evaluation of genomes and transcriptomes. Using this information, we are able to come up with much more objective and definitive answers to questions that have been argued for hundreds of years.”

From the time he was a doctoral student at the University of Texas, Halanych has enjoyed a vantage point at the leading edge of evolutionary biology research.

“I was very lucky,” he said. “I was using new molecular tools and techniques right as they were developed. I was part of the genomic revolution when it started. As a doctoral student, I got a result while looking at the major relationships of animals that totally turned everything upside down. Fortunately for me, the results were published in the journal Science. It was such a revolutionary finding that if you open up biology textbooks, you will see these ideas that I introduced back in the mid-1990s. That’s pretty humbling and remarkable as well.”

In addition to working in the lab, Halanych also conducts extensive fieldwork.

“Most people get into biology because they like playing with plants, animals or other organisms, not to sit behind a computer,” he said. “Even though I sit behind a computer now, my reward is getting out into the field and collecting samples. And in marine research, a lot of my work involves going out on ships. I’ve been able to travel to Antarctica six times, which is pretty amazing. I’ve dived to the bottom of the ocean multiple of times. I’ve seen volcanoes that are literally at the bottom of the ocean. It’s just phenomenal. There’s nothing that’ll ever be able to replace those memories, those feelings of awe. The fieldwork really instills a sense of wonder about the planet. It is phenomenal.”

Halanych said his enthusiasm for science has been a constant for as long as he can remember, but it wasn’t until fifth or sixth grade that he discovered his preference for biology over other scientific fields.

“In high school, everyone thought a biology degree led to being a medical doctor, but I knew fairly early on that I didn’t want to be a medical doctor. Then I discovered research and academia, and it became clear that was the course I wanted to take.”

One of his most defining moments was an experience as a high school student working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“I spent a week in an old hunting lodge on a salt marsh island, and every day we went out and looked at animals and organisms,” he said. “That really introduced me to marine research and from that point on I was hooked.”

Halanych received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wake Forest University, followed by a doctorate in biology from the University of Texas. He was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Pretoria in South Africa and Rutgers University.

He held his first permanent position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and then joined the Auburn University faculty in 2003 as an associate professor and was promoted to full professor in 2009. He has also taught at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, University of Bergen in Norway and a number of international workshops ranging from the White Sea Marine Station in Russia to the Smithsonian Institution’s Bocas del Toro Research Station in Panama.

“One of the things that has been wonderful at Auburn is I have been able to attract very good students,” said Halanych. “A lot of what I do wouldn’t be possible without great students and great postdocs. And my students have gone on to be successful. All of my students and postdocs are still in science or a science-related field, which is pretty amazing.”

Halanych’s research has resulted in more than 150 articles, numerous keynote lectures and presentations, and upwards of $10 million in grant funding from organizations like the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition, Halanych also conducted National Science Foundation-supported research evaluating the environmental impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and is on the Research Board of Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative that has awarded approximately $500 million to study oil in the Gulf.

In 2010, he was named the College of Sciences and Mathematics Dean’s Faculty Research Award recipient. In 2006, he was named an Auburn University Alumni Professor and received the college’s Outstanding Advisor Award. Halanych was also the inaugural Stewart W. Schneller Endowed Chair, he served approximately nine years as the marine biology coordinator at Auburn and he has held leadership positions for the Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium based at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Additionally, Halanych is editor-in-chief for one of the oldest journals in the country, Biological Bulletin.

For more information about Halanych, visit his website at http://www.auburn.edu/cosam/faculty/biology/halanych/index.htm

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