My name is Matt Pennell. I am an Associate Professor of Zoology and Canada Research Chair of Biodiversity Theory and Informatics at the University of British Columbia. In August 2022, I will be starting a new job as an Associate Professor of Quantitative and Computational Biology at the University of Southern California.
Originally from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, I now live in Vancouver with my wife and our pets. I was never an outdoorsy or particularly nature-loving kid and certainly never imagined I would be a biologist when I grew up. As an undergraduate, I became intrigued by evolutionary theory, mostly because I loved (and still do) algorithms and philosophical puzzles, and never looked back. I then moved to Moscow, Idaho (with a brief interlude living in Inuvik, Northwest Territories) to study with Luke Harmon and started thinking seriously about phylogenetic trees — graphs which depict the historical relationships between different entities — and what they can tell us about evolutionary processes. In my research, I’ve used phylogenetic trees to study evolution at the grandest (macroevolution of major groups of organisms) and smallest (the development of the adaptive immune system within an individual) of scales. You can read my published papers here. While superficially disparate, these projects all revolve around a few common themes: I want to define the outer boundaries of our knowledge and understand what we can and cannot learn from different types of data. As I alluded to above, these problems have consumed me since I first was introduced to evolutionary biology and, quite naturally, have led me to the philosophy of modeling, information theory, and machine learning. I also really love teaching and give courses on statistics, data science, and phylogenetics at the University of British Columbia; I will continue to teach in these areas at the University of Southern California, when I move there next year.
There is not much separation between my work life and personal life: my primary hobby is reading and thinking about interesting problems of all sorts. I also enjoy cycling, driving, and spending time with my family. I donate regularly to the Good Food Institute.
Theodious Dobzhansky Prize from the Society of Study of Evolution
Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Biodiversity Theory and Informatics
Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Naturallists