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A genius in our midst: U of U Health geneticist awarded prestigious MacArthur Fellowship

Elde, an evolutionary geneticist, lauded for his creativity and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity.

PHOTO CREDIT: Charlie Ehlert, U of U Health.

Nels Elde.

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Nels Elde, evolutionary geneticist at University of Utah Health, has been awarded a 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 in 2020 who come from a variety of fields, each receiving $625,000 in stipends with no strings attached. The fellowship is considered an investment in a recipient’s potential to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society. Elde says he may invest some of the funds into a storytelling project that highlights the ingenuity and humanity of science heroes.

“Dr. Elde has achieved a hallmark in the scientific community,” says Michael L. Good, senior vice president for Health Sciences and CEO of U of U Health. “His innate ability to think creatively about unsolved problems inspires all of us to do the same in our quests to advance knowledge. University of Utah Health is extremely proud of him and his accomplishment, which is representative of our faculty’s desire to improve the world.”

Elde learned about the award in a phone call arranged under the pretenses that he would comment on another candidate who was up for the fellowship. Instead, the caller revealed that Elde had been awarded the honor. “I couldn’t have been more surprised,” Elde says. “I am overwhelmed and happy, humbled and honored.”

In 2011, Elde joined the U as an assistant professor. Since then, his laboratory has studied the ultimate experimentalist: evolution. Their 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 provides insights into how the body’s defenses, including the immune system, are built and how they work.

Elde is taking this line of research a step further by comparing how animals that reside on far-off branches of the family tree defend themselves against viral infections. Learning why some succeed while others fail could ultimately inform new kinds of interventions to prevent, or treat, viral infections that are harmful to humans.

“We’re figuring out how to squeeze biological meaning out of genome-scale data,” Elde says. “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.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Charlie Ehlert, U of U Health.

Elde’s whiteboard discussions are legendary. Pictured with Cedric Feschotte and Edward Chuong.

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As Elde talks about his research, he seamlessly shifts from one topic to another: growing tomatoes, podcasting about evolution, raising pets, hiking in the foothills with colleagues, a chance meeting with a local celebrity chef. In the course of conversation, you get the sense that the many facets of his life are part of an inseparable continuum, with each experience enriching the other.

That’s one of the things that makes Elde stand out, says his postdoctoral mentor, Harmit Malik, a professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Elde has a gift for making connections that seldom few can. “An entire roomful of people will be listening to the same scientific talk and he has the insight to ask the one question that no one else is asking but that everyone should be asking,” Malik says. “It’s not fair to call him ‘outside the box’ because he is so far beyond that.”

Elde credits his inquisitive nature to his Minnesota upbringing in a family of artists, scientists, and ministers. Growing up in a little-known Swedish church, he spent countless hours eavesdropping on theological discussions and philosophical meanderings. From his mom and sister, he learned the joy of artistic expression, which he infuses into his descriptions of science. “Listening to him, one might be tempted to think you were in a midst of an exciting novel you cannot put down,” Malik comments. And from Elde’s dad, a neuroscientist, he inherited an incessant curiosity of the unknown.

These foundations have served him well. Elde has earned numerous honors, including being named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences, Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator, Kavli Foundation Fellow and the Mario R. Capecchi Endowed Chair in Genetics from 2011-2017. Research from his lab has been highlighted by The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired Magazine and National Geographic.

While he is proud of his achievements, Elde says his finest accomplishment is the success of his trainees. Just as his favorite mentors did for him, he encourages them to see science as an endless playground to explore.

“Utah continues to be a fun place to cultivate creativity,” Elde says. “I’m excited to see what will happen on the scientific adventures ahead.”

In addition to Elde, six other University of Utah faculty have received MacArthur Fellowships. They are developmental biologist Susan Mango (2008); evolutionary biologist Eric Charnov (1997); biologist Sharon Emerson (1995); evolutionary ecologist Jon Seger (1987); poet and writer Mark Strand (1987) and evolutionary biologist Michael Ghiselin (1981). Elde proudly points out that he is the 10th native Minnesotan to be awarded the honor.