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'Genius Award' Goes to CC Alumnus

Novembre Among ‘Extraordinarily Creative People’

John Novembre, a computational biologist who graduated cum laude from Colorado College in 2000, has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius award." In announcing this year's award recipients, the MacArthur Foundation described them as "24 Extraordinarily Creative People Who Inspire Us All."

Novembre, an associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, develops novel data visualization and analysis techniques to investigate the correlations among genomic diversity, geography, and demographic structure. His work sheds new light on human evolutionary history, population structure and migration, and the etiology of genetic diseases.

"I'm tremendously honored to have received the award," Novembre said. "One of the first things I did this morning was to email Ralph Bertrand (professor of molecular biology) and Jim Ebersole (professor of organismal biology and ecology) to thank them for the mentorship they gave me at Colorado College and beyond."

Novembre said it was at CC, doing projects on the genetics of oaks in Colorado, that he developed the interest in population genetics that he pursues today. "When I reflect on what is special about Colorado College and how it has served me two great things jump to mind: The liberal arts tradition - with its emphasis on broad learning, problem solving, and clear writing -has been a bedrock for me. The second is the adventurous spirit of CC. It is a continual inspiration to think outside the box and live more creatively."

In early work, Novembre uncovered vulnerabilities in a classic approach to analyzing the geographic distribution of genetic diversity - principal component analysis (PCA) - and upended a long-standing interpretation of PCA waves as indicators of large-scale migration events. He went on to leverage this finding and, with collaborators, established a strong correlation between shared ancestral geography and genetic similarity among Europeans. This research affirmed the importance of place in determining DNA patterns and showed that it is often possible for ancestry to be pinpointed within a couple hundred miles through genetic sequencing.

Novembre also developed a new approach for estimating recombination rates using ancestry blocks of admixed populations. Recombination is the fundamental biological process by which genetic material from parents is combined in an individual before being passed to offspring; the recombination rate describes how many recombination events - or points on the genome where the genetic material switches from one parent to another - are happening over time in a group. Novembre and colleagues were able to infer recombination rates across African American genomes (representing a largely West African and European admixture only several hundred years old) by identifying the breakpoints of African and European ancestry. This work has led to a highly detailed genetic map for African Americans, which provides a tool for improving studies of the genetic origins of disease and is inspiring new inquiry into genetic diversity across the globe.

Novembre also made key insights concerning the impact of natural selection on both positive and negative genetic variants, as well as the link between the population explosion of the last few centuries and the inordinate plethora of rare, deleterious variations in the contemporary genome. The MacArthur Foundation noted that "through his unique approach to important biological questions, Novembre is producing a more finely grained picture of human genetic history and differentiating the impact of genetic and nongenetic factors in the features of current populations."

After graduating from Colorado College, Novembre went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Chicago, he was affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles (2008-13) and was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in bioinformatics at the University of Chicago (2006-08).

His articles have appeared in such journals as Science, Nature, Nature Genetics, the American Journal of Human Genetics, and Bioinformatics, among others.

Report an issue - Last updated: 12/16/2020