Computational Biology Institute Director Honored for Advancing Science

Keith Crandall has been named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his contributions to the field of evolutionary biology.

Keith Crandall
Keith Crandall, director of George Washington University’s Computational Biology Institute
November 26, 2013

Keith Crandall, director of George Washington University’s Computational Biology Institute, has been named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his contributions to phylogenetics and evolutionary biology, particularly for broad applications to natural history and infectious disease studies.

He is among 388 new fellows recognized for their distinguished efforts to advance science.

“The recognition is quite special. Because AAAS is a broad science society, it signifies that your colleagues from a variety of disciplines think that your research has been of value to the community, and they hope to see more of it,” said Dr. Crandall, who was hired to lead the institute when it was founded in 2012. “It speaks to the quality of faculty being hired by GW, especially to lead these new university-wide initiatives.”

AAAS is the world’s largest scientific society, which publishes Science, a weekly peer-reviewed journal. The tradition of the fellows began in 1874, and members can be considered for the rank if nominated by their peers.  

Computational biology combines computer science and biology to better understand how complex biological systems operate and evolve. The Computational Biology Institute is interdisciplinary in nature and continues to build its team of researchers from the fields of biology, computer science, engineering, math and statistics.

Dr. Crandall said the institute is “pushing the envelope” when it comes to interdisciplinary research and has helped GW think about changes in policy and infrastructure that will break down some of the barriers between academic fields.

“The interdisciplinary research arena affords you the opportunity to continue learning new skills and meeting new people who oftentimes have very different ideas than you do,” Dr. Crandall said. “And that makes everyone’s science better—when you’re thinking about things from different angles, as well as bringing new tools and ideas to the table.”

Dr. Crandall’s lab develops and tests methodology through computer simulation of methods for the analysis of DNA sequence data. Researchers at the institute collect and analyze “really exceptional data sets” to identify pathogens in a variety of systems, he said.

The first application of this methodology is in examining the genetics, historical demography and molecular ecology of freshwater crayfish. In North America, there are around 400 species of freshwater crayfish, and more than half of those species are endangered, said Dr. Crandall. His data can not only gain insight into evolutionary processes, but it can also relate to broader conservation issues, such as diagnosing species and the relative importance of different sources of information regarding conservation priorities.

The second focus of Dr. Crandall’s research is the evolution of infectious diseases. Recently, he, along with GW and Boston University researchers developed new software called Pathoscope, which identifies pathogenic genetic sequences from infected tissue samples. The method could help lead to earlier detection of disease outbreaks and pinpoint effective treatments more quickly.

“This is a research project that comes from the marriage of computer science and biology,” Dr. Crandall said. “We’re developing software applications to tackle a particular question in biology, developing mathematical procedures, implementing them in a piece of software, applying them and testing them using computer simulation against a variety of other approaches.”

Dr. Crandall has also explored the population dynamics of HIV—learning how viruses evolve and then capitalizing on that knowledge to design better drugs and to implement better treatment.

Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said Dr. Crandall being named an AAAS fellow is a testament to the various contributions he has made to the university and beyond.

“This is an important career achievement for Dr. Crandall that is well deserved,” Dr. Chalupa said. "Since arriving at the university in 2012, he has led a number of cross-campus, interdisciplinary projects that have positively impacted the fields of evolutionary biology, computer science and medicine.”

Dr. Crandall said his interest in the intersection of computers and biology stemmed from his undergraduate education. Dr. Crandall completed a double major in mathematics and biology at Kalamazoo College, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in population and evolutionary biology and a master’s degree in statistics, both from Washington University in St. Louis.

“I’ve been doing this from the beginning, even before computational biology was really a field,” he said.

New fellows will be presented with a certificate and rosette pin on Feb. 15 during the 2014 AAAS annual meeting in Chicago.