Catherine Peichel

Fellow: Awarded 2013

Field of Study: Molecular and Cellular Biology

Competition: US & Canada


I am an evolutionary geneticist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. My laboratory studies the genetic and genomic mechanisms that underlie evolutionary processes in a small fish, the threespine stickleback. In particular, work in my lab is focused on addressing three fundamental questions in evolutionary biology: (1) How and why do sex chromosomes evolve?; (2) What is the genetic basis of reproductive isolation and speciation?; and (3) What is the genetic basis of behavioral evolution? Our recent work has revealed a surprising connection between these three areas: the formation of a new sex chromosome is associated with the evolution of behavioral isolation between young species.
A native Californian, I always thought I would become a marine biologist. But I fell in love with genetics during my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley (1987–1991). So, instead of pursuing a graduate degree in marine biology, I moved east to obtain my Ph.D. in the area of developmental genetics at Princeton University (1991–1998). There, I learned about the power of forward genetics, in which you start with an interesting phenotype and let the organism lead you to the underlying genotype, an approach I have continued to use throughout my career. I then moved back to California to do a postdoctoral fellowship with David Kingsley at Stanford University (1998–2002). David and I wanted to figure out whether the same genes that contribute to the development of a species are also involved in evolutionary differences between species. To address this question, we developed the genetic and genomic tools necessary to turn the threespine stickleback fish into a new model system for studying the genetic basis of evolutionary change in vertebrates. Over the past decade, sticklebacks have become an evolutionary “supermodel,” providing important insights into the processes underlying evolution that many previously believed to be intractable. My contributions to creating this new model system were recognized with a Burroughs Wellcome Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences (2003–2008).

I chose to pursue a career in academia not only for my love of exploring the unknown, but also for my desire to be a mentor for the next generation of scientists. Since starting my own laboratory in 2003, I have mentored at many levels: I am the director of a summer undergraduate research program, have developed new courses for graduate students, and have mentored high school students, undergraduates, Ph.D. students, and postdoctoral fellows in my own lab. My laboratory has brought together scientists with expertise in the diverse fields of genetics and genomics, behavior and neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. I have placed great importance on training students and postdocs at this scientific interface, as well as promoting collaborations with experts in these fields outside of my lab. I have found that science is the most rewarding when I work with talented scientists who have expertise that is complementary to my own. I am also committed to sharing my love of genetics and evolutionary biology with those outside the traditional scientific community. In particular, over the past decade, I have been actively involved in developing and teaching a genetics curriculum at two new medical schools in Nepal.

When I am not in the lab, I can usually be found running on the beautiful trails in the mountains around Seattle.

Profile photograph by Steve Froggett.