About

My name is Matt Pennell. I am an Assistant Professor of Zoology and Canada Research Chair of Biodiversity Theory and Informatics at the University of British Columbia.

My full CV is here.

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 (e.g., macroevolution of major groups of organisms) and smallest (e.g., the development of the adaptive immune system within an individual) of scales. (You can read more about specific research projects here and 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. At an even more meta-level, I am keen to understand how we can make science more efficient and effective. I also really love teaching and give courses on statistics, data science, and phylogenetics at the University of British Columbia.

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, following the NBA, and spending time with my family. I am a long-time supporter of GiveDirectly and The Humane League.

Recognition

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

Academic history

Assistant Professor, UBC Zoology
(2016 – present)
Master of none.

Izaak Killam and NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow, UBC Zoology
(2015 – 2016)
Worked with Sally Otto on the evolution of sex chromosomes.

Graduate Fellow, NESCent
(2012)
Worked on the macroevolution of plant traits

Ph.D. in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, U Idaho
(2010 – 2015)
Supervised by Luke Harmon; worked on phylogenetic comparative methods.

B.Sc. (First Class Honours), Simon Fraser University
(2005-2010)
Got my start in research working for David Green and Bernie Crespi