Undergraduate Complexity Research
Hunter Fraser is Professor of Biology at Stanford University, where he leads a research laboratory focused on evolutionary genomics. Fraser became involved with SFI as an Undergraduate Complexity Researcher (UCR) in 1999. He holds a B.S. from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley.
Briefly describe your primary research interests.
My lab studies the evolution of complex traits by developing new experimental and computational methods. Our work brings together quantitative genetics, genomics, epigenetics, and evolutionary biology to achieve a deeper understanding of how genetic variation shapes the phenotypic diversity of life. Our main focus is on the evolution of gene expression, since this is the primary fuel for natural selection. Our long-term goal is to understand the genetic basis of complex traits well enough to introduce them into new species via genome editing.
How does a complex systems perspective influence your thinking in your research?
Although genetics is often taught in terms of simple Mendelian traits, most traits are far more complex. They evolve via a multitude of genetic changes, each having a small effect by itself, which in sum give rise to the spectacular adaptation of every organism to its environment. Genetics cannot be reduced to studying one gene at a time – the interactions are of the essence.
How did your experience in the undergraduate research program change your view of your research domain, your career path, or the world around you?
My summer at SFI was my first introduction to computational biology. I had been focused on experimental biology before this, which was not nearly as intellectually stimulating for me. After my time at SFI I decided to focus my efforts on computational approaches to studying evolution, which is still a major theme of my lab's work. The summer program also led me to apply to work the following summer in the lab of an SFI external faculty member, Marc Feldman, which was also a major turning point for my research career as it was my first experience with evolutionary genomics.
What advice do you have for students at the beginning of their scientific careers?
Try different fields of research and don't stop until you find one that you're truly passionate about!
Who are your professional or personal inspirations and why?
Scientific: Alfred Russell Wallace
Personal: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ernest Shackleton
What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?
I enjoy backpacking trips where I'm hiking by myself for a week or more.
Interview conducted August 2022.