Sean Carroll joined the University of Maryland’s Department of Biology on June 1, 2018, as the inaugural Andrew and Mary Balo and Nicholas and Susan Simon Endowed Chair. He is the first Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator to take a faculty position at UMD.
“Maryland creates great opportunities. The people in my lab are excited for a whole new group of colleagues and a whole new set of collaborators. And I am looking forward to contributing to the mission of this great public university,” said Carroll, who will also continue to serve as vice president of HHMI’s Department of Science Education, based on the institute’s Chevy Chase, Md. campus, and as head of its film production unit Tangled Bank Studios.
In 2015, Andrew Balo (B.S. ’70, microbiology) and Nicholas Simon (B.S. ’76, microbiology), two Terps turned successful biotech entrepreneurs, teamed up to create the university’s first endowed chair in the life sciences.
“The thought behind it was that we needed a bigger commitment if we really wanted to bring on a top-notch faculty member and really enhance the life sciences at the University of Maryland,” said Simon, who is managing director of Clarus, a health care investment firm he co-founded in 2005.
Their donations received an equal match from the state’s Maryland E-Nnovation Initiative Fund (MEIF), which aims to spur private donations to universities for applied research in scientific and technical fields by matching such donations.
“We embraced the opportunity to give back to the university that enabled us to get to where we are today in our careers,” added Balo, who is executive vice president of clinical, regulatory and quality at Dexcom, a startup that developed a continuous glucose monitoring device for people with diabetes. “We hope our gifts will enable future life science students at Maryland to have even more opportunities than we did and to become leaders in the life sciences.”
Carroll is a pioneer and international leader in the field of evolutionary developmental biology, also known as “evo-devo.” His research has shown that the diversity of animal life is largely due to the different ways the same body-building and body-patterning genes are regulated, rather than changes to the genes themselves. Carroll joins UMD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he first established his lab in 1987 and was the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics and Medical Genetics.
“We are delighted that Professor Carroll is joining the University of Maryland,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of the UMD College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS). “He is among that rare group of distinguished scholars who not only carry out groundbreaking research, but also share their knowledge with others in an inspiring way. His presence on campus will be instrumental in further strengthening our scientific edge in the area of evolutionary developmental biology.”
Early in his career, Carroll studied how fruit fly bodies and body parts are specified by a special set of genes. Then, he translated this fundamental knowledge into an understanding of how the bodies of many different animals are made.
“I decided that butterflies were the right model to start asking questions about divergence and diversity because their body patterns are different than the fruit fly. That was the switch into the evo part of the evo-devo for me—and that launched a 20-year adventure!”
Comparing fruit flies and butterflies, Carroll’s team discovered that new patterns, such as butterfly eyespots, evolve when “old” genes are used in new ways, rather than evolving entirely new genes. Through further studies, his team uncovered the same principles at work in the evolution of body segments, limbs, sensory hairs and coloration.
At Maryland, his team’s work will head in new directions.
“The origin of novelty is one of the central questions in biology, but the origin of morphology is just half the story,” Carroll said. “We would also like to understand the origin of new molecules that carry out new important functions. For that, we are exploring the origin of snake venoms. We are trying to understand to what degree their toxins are new entities, versus ‘old’ proteins with a new job.”
During his career, Carroll has published more than 125 peer-reviewed journal articles and mentored more than 60 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. More than 35 of his lab alumni now lead their own academic labs.
In addition to his research, Carroll is passionate about storytelling and spends considerable time focusing on science education and communication. He has written seven highly acclaimed books, including his newest, “The Serengeti Rules,” and his 2005 book, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom,” which offers a framework of the then-emerging field. From 2009 to 2013, Carroll wrote a column for The New York Times called “Remarkable Creatures,” where he highlighted discoveries in biology.
“I think stories work because they can better reflect the actual process of science,” Carroll said. “What inspires people to look at a question? How do they actually tackle that, what are the stumbling blocks, where were the mistakes? Some discoveries are so profound, they shape our view of the world. You’ve got to know what they’re made of.”
As the architect of HHMI’s science filmmaking initiative, Carroll has been the host or executive producer of more than a dozen feature or documentary films—including “The Farthest,” “Amazon Adventure,” “The Lucky Specials,” “Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond,” “Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink,” and “Your Inner Fish”—as well as numerous short films for the classroom.
Carroll has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and an associate member of the European Molecular Biology Organization.
He has also received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science from the Franklin Institute, the Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science from The Rockefeller University, the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers, the Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Award from the Society for Developmental Biology and the Kovalevsky Medal from the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists.
Carroll earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Washington University in St. Louis in 1979 and his Ph.D. in immunology from Tufts University in 1983. He was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Minnesota and Tufts University.
Including the Andrew and Mary Balo and Nicholas and Susan Simon Endowed Chair, CMNS has received $6.3 million from the MEIF to match private donations establishing four endowed professorships in computer science and three endowed chairs in computer science, the life sciences and mathematics.
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About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 9,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college’s 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $175 million.