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Douglas Cavener named Huck Chair in Evolutionary Genetics

14 October 2021
Doug Cavener

Douglas R. Cavener, Penn State professor of biology and former Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science, has been named Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Distinguished Chair in Evolutionary Genetics by the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. 

Cavener came to Penn State in 2000 as professor and head of the biology department, and served in that role until 2015, when he took on leadership of the college as dean. In 2020, Cavener stepped down as dean in order to resume teaching and research full time in the Department of Biology. 

Internationally recognized for his research in molecular biology, genetics and evolutionary biology, Cavener’s past work has focused on the causes of human diseases, including diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders. Most recently, Cavener led the design of a proof-of-concept for a new approach to gene editing that employs the CRISPR/Cas9 system to bypass disease-causing mutations in a gene. This method enables treatment of genetic diseases linked to a single gene, such as cystic fibrosis, certain types of sickle cell anemia, and other rare diseases. 

In addition to all this, Cavener has also achieved major advances in the genetics of the the fruit fly, the Masai giraffe, and the African savannah elephant. The unusual breadth and variety of his research is not lost on Huck leadership, or Cavener himself.

“When discussing with Doug our intention to honor his contributions to the field with this title, he joked that perhaps a better name for it might be ‘Huck Chair in Vagabond Biology,’” noted Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “He has made such significant impacts across such a wide range of areas, we’re thrilled at this opportunity to recognize him and to continue working with him on phenomenal science. Let’s just see where he goes next!’ 

“It’s fortunate that I have a rather unique name, or otherwise people would certainly think that there must be several Doug Caveners,” Cavener remarked, “one who works on fruit fly developmental genetics, one who works on translational control of protein synthesis, one works on molecular-cell biology of insulin synthesis secretion and diabetes, and one who works on population genetics of elephants and giraffe.” 

Within the Huck Institutes, Cavener is engaged at the Center for Cellular Dynamics, the Neuroscience Institute, and the Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Biosciences graduate program. As dean of the Eberly College of Science, Cavener helped to spark a transformation of teaching in the classroom by focusing on the engagement of students in active learning. His passion for the integration teaching and research with a focus on learning, discovery and problem-solving shows no sign of stopping. 

“Doug has been instrumental in facilitating innovative research and teaching over many years of college leadership,” said Tracy Langkilde, who succeeded Cavener as Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science in October 2020. “He has amazingly managed to simultaneously maintain a robust and diverse research program and an exciting study abroad course in Tanzania. I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes now that he can devote his full working attention to his research and teaching.”

Cavener is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a recipient of the Dobzhansky Prize from the International Society for the Study of Evolution. He holds a bachelor of arts in biology from Pasadena College, a master of science in genetics from Brown University, and a doctorate in molecular and population genetics from the University of Georgia.

The Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences supports interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research by offering interdisciplinary graduate programs, operating shared core facilities, supporting strategic research initiatives through faculty co-hires and cluster hires, and supporting dozens of research centers and institutes.