Kerry L. Shaw

Kerry L. Shaw

Fellow: Awarded 2010

Field of Study: Organismic Biology & Ecology

Competition: US & Canada


 Kerry Shaw is a Professor of Biology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University, heading a lab group studying the behavioral, ecological, genetic, and evolutionary processes that cause new species to evolve (i.e., speciation). Professor Shaw obtained her A.B. in Biology from Princeton University in 1985, with a concentration in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where that “the mystery of mysteries…," species origins, transformed, for her, from one of how dramatic differences between organisms evolve, to one of why relatively small differences evolve and cause species to split into two. In 1993 she obtained her Ph.D. in Population Biology at Washington University in St. Louis. During this period of study, she investigated the evolutionary relationships of an endemic group of Hawaiian insects (genus Laupala, a cricket) using DNA sequences in order to understand how changes in behavior associate with speciation events. Only recently had the thirty-eight species of Laupala been hypothesized, largely on the basis of distinct differences in their acoustic behaviors. Because there were few if any other visible differences among these species, the burning question at the time was whether song (expressed by the male to attract females) and preference (expressed by the female in the search for a mate) really did indicate different species. Not only did she find corroborative evidence in the DNA sequences that these species were in fact distinct genetically, but also that the origin of these species is promoted by evolution of their acoustic signals.

From 1993 to 1995 she was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship in Environmental Biology from the National Science Foundation to continue work on the genetic basis of behavioral differences that distinguish closely related species, in order to determine what genetic changes underlie speciation. She took this fellowship to Cornell University for training in the neuroethology and evolutionary biology labs in Ithaca. The training from these labs enabled a synthesis of ethology and evolutionary biology, and in turn, a synthesis with the study of speciation.

In 1995, she I began her first faculty position as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. During the five years at Harvard, she developed a broader and deeper understanding of what species are, both biologically and philosophically. She was awarded a Sloan Foundation Young Investigator Award in Molecular Evolution in support of her empirical work from 1995 to1998. During this time she also received two major grants from the National Science Foundation (1997-2000 and 1999-2004). Among many talks delivered at North American and European academic institutions, she presented her findings at two major symposia on the study of speciation. She was promoted to Associate Professor at Harvard in 1999.

In July 2000 she joined the Biology Department at the University of Maryland as an Associate Professor. She continued to receive grant support from the National Science Foundation (her third major grant was awarded from 2004 to 2007). In 2005, she and colleagues discovered that the Hawaiian cricket genus Laupala is the fastest speciating group of insects (and of invertebrates, more generally) on record, reported by Science Magazine as one of the “Breakthroughs of the Year” (Science, 23 December 2005: Vol. 310, no. 5756, pp. 1878 – 1879; Mendelson, T. C. and Shaw, K. L. 2005, "Rapid speciation in an arthropod," Nature, 433: 375-376). The significance of this finding was that behavioral, rather than morphological evolution, is first to spur the origin of new species. In 2004 she was elected North American Vice President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and in 2005 was elected to the council of the American Genetics Association. She also delivered research talks in many of the major symposia on speciation, the 100th Birthday Celebration Symposium in honor of Ernst Mayr, in 2004, being one of the most notable. Her teaching efforts continued at Maryland, where for six years she taught a major undergraduate course in Evolutionary Biology.

In 2007 she joined the faculty in Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell as full Professor, and she has continued to receive funding on her work in speciation from the National Science Foundation through two recent grants (2008-2011 and 2009-2014). These grants will further her work, probing recent results that suggest that genes underlying male signals and female preferences are genetically linked. These findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the summer of 2009.