The Evolution of an Expert

The Evolution of an Expert

Paul Turner

Title: Assistant Professor of Ecology and
Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Education: Ph.D., Zoology, Michigan State University; B.A., Biological Sciences,
University of Rochester

Age: 36

It is expected that by the time Dr. Paul Turner comes up for tenure, the Yale University scientist will have established himself as the world’s “leading expert” on his research in evolutionary biology. In his second year at the New Haven, Conn.-based Ivy League institution, Turner is in the earliest stages of an academic research and teaching track in the ecology and evolutionary biology department that will last roughly 10 years before tenure can be attained.

“It’s a very rigorous process. The result is that by the time someone gets tenure, he or she will be the leading expert on his or her research specialty,” Turner says.

Since completing a doctorate at Michigan State University, Turner has had three postdoctoral fellowships to refine the scope of his research, which includes the evolution of viruses, virus ecology and genetics, and the evolution of infectious diseases. With an interest in the global fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Turner wants to make a contribution to the understanding of how viruses and infectious diseases evolve and reproduce.

“I would like to see my work impact society in some way,” he says.

Turner recalls that during his childhood years in Syracuse, N.Y., he nurtured a deep fascination with science and nature. He credits his minister father for helping instill in him a religiously inspired respect for knowledge and learning. His schoolteacher mother pushed Turner and his siblings to excel academically, he says.

Attending the University of Rochester, a school noted for its science and engineering programs, as an undergraduate proved decisive for Turner, whose original college focus was as a pre-med student majoring in biomedical engineering. Recognizing that courses in genetics, evolutionary biology and microbiology interested him far more than the engineering studies, Turner, at the urging of a University of Rochester professor, decided to pursue graduate work in biology.

Having begun graduate studies in evolutionary biology at the University of
California-Irvine, Turner ended up completing his doctorate at Michigan State after following one of his UC-Irvine mentors to the East Lansing, Mich.-based school. Although Turner focused on the evolution of bacteria as a doctoral student, he turned to research on the evolution of viruses during his first postdoctoral fellowship, which was at the University of Maryland, College Park. He continued the virus research during fellowships at the University of Valencia in Spain and at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Turner explains that the field of evolutionary biology, which is growing, has attracted few Blacks, and he estimates that fewer than 10 African Americans hold academic positions as evolutionary biologists at American institutions.

It is important that while he progresses as a scientific researcher in academia he embraces the task of being a role model for aspiring young scientists, especially for minority students, Turner declares. He makes a point of hiring undergraduates in addition to the graduate students to work with him on his research.

“I like to have undergraduates in the lab to get them exposed to research at an early age,” he says.

— By Ronald Roach



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