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DNA melding into phylogenetic tree

Dean's Letter - Summer 2020

27 July 2020
Dean Douglas Cavener

Dear Friends of the College,

The origin of life on Earth is among the greatest mysteries in all of science. Researchers in the Eberly College of Science are employing an array of strategies to uncover how life began, how it has evolved, and what this knowledge can tell us about how to sustainably live on the planet we inhabit. In this issue, we touch on a few of those efforts, beginning with work led by Phil Bevilacqua and Chris Keating to understand the role of RNA and protocells in the origins of complex life. In the next feature, we explore how Tim Jegla, Melissa Rolls, and Sally Assmann use a variety of complimentary approaches in separate organisms to study ion channels, whose evolution may have been a critical turning point for complex nervous systems. 

Whereas previous issues of the Science Journal have been printed magazines with an online companion, this issue appears entirely online. We have made this decision to be fiscally responsible in the light of uncertainties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that future issues can return to print since we know that many of you still like to receive this magazine.

Although COVID-19 has disrupted our usual teaching and research routine in the college, our students, faculty, and staff have shown great strength, creativity, and resilience in the way they have adapted to remote locations and continued teaching, learning, and making discoveries. I want to specifically congratulate our 2020 graduates. We are empathetic to the experiences and traditions that they lost. I can speak for the faculty and staff when I say that we miss them very much and hope to see them back on campus when the time is right. I also want to extend my sincere gratitude to those alumni, faculty, staff, and friends of the college who have supported the student emergency fund that has helped many students facing financial hardships weather this crisis.

As the situation has changed and with the guidance of our elected leaders, health officials, and our own experts, we have begun to ramp up activities in some essential areas. Some of our research has refocused on COVID-19 related issues like testing, personal protective equipment, and understanding disease spread. The Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD) at the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, which has many Eberly Science researchers among its ranks, has grown in prominence for the value of its work. In fact, Associate Professor of Biology Matt Ferrari, who applies quantitative modeling to disease data to inform public health policy, has been actively advising the University on plans to deal with the virus on our campuses. All research has been impacted in some way: Some continued with special precautions, some could be done remotely, and others shifted to work that could be accomplished from home.  

At this writing, summer is well underway at University Park, but it is very different. The campus is mostly empty, with summer classes and programs like New Student Orientation being held remotely. However, as we prepare for an eventual return to face-to-face instruction, the University is preparing for any eventuality and will proceed with the safety of our community as our priority. Already, the University has procured a half-million masks and will put hand sanitizing stations at every building entrance and at the entry of every classroom, and other measures will surely come soon.

I typically conclude this letter with words to encourage you to read the contents of the issue of the Science Journal, and I sincerely hope that you will read about our exciting research. However, today I want to repeat how proud I am of our scientists. It is in moments like these that we show the world the positive impact that science can have on our communities. I also want to wish you and those you care for good health. 


Douglas R. Cavener

Verne M. Willaman Dean