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SU biologist named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

William T. Starmer focuses on mathematical approaches to biological problems

Jan 9, 2012 | Article by: Judy Holmes

Tom Starmer in the woods

William T. Starmer

Biologist William T. Starmer believes one can usually tell what people do by looking at their bookshelves. The volumes lining the wall of Starmer’s office in Syracuse University’s Life Sciences Complex summarize a career focused on mathematical approaches to understanding biological problems, particularly in the areas of population genetics, ecology, and evolution. He’s written some of the chapters in the books on his shelves.

For his accomplishments in the biological sciences, Starmer, a professor of biology in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences, has been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science.  The AAAS will recognize the 2012 class of Fellows for their outstanding contributions to science and technology during the annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, Feb. 18, 2012.

An accomplished mathematician as well as an expert in population genetics, Starmer has worked collaboratively with colleagues from his department, and with scientists across the nation and internationally. His research has garnered continuous funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“Tom Starmer’s research program is interdisciplinary and collaborative,” says Larry Wolf, professor emeritus in SU’s Department of Biology. Wolf is also an AAAS Fellow. “Tom is the resident statistical consultant in the department and also the faculty member to whom students and colleagues turn for help with modeling efforts. His collaboration is constantly in demand on an incredible diversity of topics. His insight has earned him respect among colleagues worldwide.”

Starmer believes one can learn much about an ecosystem and evolution by studying some of the smallest creatures living within. He has worked collaboratively with scientists all over the world to study the ecological genetics of the interactions between cactus, yeast, and fruit flies (Drosophila).  He organized two NSF-funded expeditions to study the cactus-yeast-Drosophila system in the West Indies as well as two NSF-funded international meetings to bring together some of the foremost experts in the field.  A species of Drosophila and yeast have been named in his honor. 

Starmer has collaborated on extensive studies of yeast systematics. More than 1000 yeasts have been identified the world over.  A three-volume collection of much of what is known about the taxonomy, ecology, and evolution of yeasts sits on his bookshelf among the books on genetics, evolution, and statistics. “I’ve studied yeasts that live in unique habitats and show interesting relationships with plants and insects,” Starmer says. “Their interactions with each other and their symbionts are one of the more fascinating aspects of their ecology. There is still much to be discovered about how they live and their functions in the ecosystem.”

Starmer has also worked with others to study evolution by looking at ancient organisms found living in ice cores obtained from deep in the Greenland ice sheet.  Other work includes collaborations to study molecular evolution of vision genes, sexual selection in Drosophila, and community ecology. He is the author or co-author of more than 200 scientific publications.

Starmer holds a Ph.D. in genetics and statistics from the University of Arizona. Before his appointment in 1977 at SU, he worked as a research microbiologist at the University of California, a research professor at the University of Arizona, and a resident associate at the Argonne National Laboratory.  He has served as a Visiting Fellow at the University of New England, Armidale, N.S.W. in Australia; on the NSF’s Population Biology and Physiological Ecology panel and oversight committee; and on the NSF’s Integrated Research Challenge in Environmental Biology panel. 
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Judy Holmes