My research interests focus on understanding how evolution occurs. I use plants to study evolution because they do not move and therefore it is easier to measure their survivorship and reproduction (flower and fruit number), and thus their fitness, in a Darwinian sense. The Darwinian paradigm of evolutionary process is that evolution reflects natural selection acting on variation among individuals such that those individuals that enjoy higher survivorship and reproduction will be better represented in the gene pool the next generation than those individuals that have lower survivorship and/or reproduction. Thus, if a given expression of a trait, say larger flower size, provides greater reproductive success for the individual manifesting relatively larger flowers, and genetic variation is at least in part responsible for the variation of the trait in the population, then the population will evolve larger flowers from one generation to the next.

The marriage of the Darwinian concept of natural selection with our modern understanding of heredity (beginning with the rediscovery of Mendel’s principles) then suggests two important approaches to quantifying how evolution occurs. First, we need to understand how natural selection acts in natural populations. For example, is it strong or weak, consistent or variable, and if variable, at what geographic or temporal scale? Second, we need to understand how genetic variation dictates the way in which natural populations respond to natural selection. For example, how much standing genetic variation is there in populations, how quickly does mutation introduce new genetic variation, what fraction of mutations are beneficial, and how large are the effects of new mutations (very small to very large)? Furthermore, we would like to know the complexity of genetic variation, for example, can variants at a particular gene or locus confer higher fitness by themselves or does selection reflect the way in which new variants interact with one another? One way to think about this latter issue is to think of the way a bird’s beak might evolve. If selection favors birds with larger beaks (perhaps to crack open larger nuts) then the spread of genetic variants to increase the size of the upper beak may depend on the spread of genetic variants to increase the size of the lower beak as well. Thus a bird with a larger upper beak but with a normal lower beak may be at a disadvantage relative to a bird with both normal upper and lower beaks because the overbite prevents it from picking up any fruit.

My research program uses both of the above approaches, natural selection and genetic, to quantify just how evolution occurs. My research is largely funded by public funds via various national funding agencies, both here and abroad. My research relies on the close collaboration between myself and other senior investigators, and most importantly with postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students, and even occasionally high school students. Thus my research helps build bridge s at the international level, and also serves as an important training vehicle by way of mentoring for individuals at various levels of training.

My teaching program reflects my research interests, in that I feel most comfortable teaching what I know most about. Thus I teach a basic genetics class where I introduce students to the foundations of genetics and my graduate level course introduces students to just how genetic variation may dictate evolutionary process.

As a parting note, I would like explain to the general public why my research and teaching merits public support. Our universities are the crowning achievement to our commitment to education in the United States . With the English colonization of America came the immediate recognition of the need to have higher centers of education. Certainly one of the most important outcomes of this investment in higher learning was arguably one of the most important documents in the world today, our US constitution. Our constitution reflects dialogue among many well educated a nd intelligent men whose knowledge of ancient and contemporary mores and philosophies are imprinted upon the document that provides the foundation for the way we govern ourselves. In every sphere of our lives one can see why it is important to invest in education and higher education. Look at those countries that don’t and compare their standard of living with ours.

Many of the technological innovations that we take for granted today reflect a public investment into curiosity driven research. Three examples: First, a basic understanding of evolution (natural selection acting on variation which has a genetic basis) led to revolutionary changes in the practices of animal and crop breeding, including recognition of the power of selection, and hybrid vigor. The second example is the observation by microbiologists why certain viruses did not g row and destroy their bacteria hosts, when they normally do so. This led to the discovery of restriction enzymes and the birth of recombinant DNA technique s, one of the foundations of the new gene-tech industry. Finally, and also in the context of the gene-tech industry, an important technique, PCR, is based on the observation that bacteria that can grow in hot springs. Other examples abound, including the discovery of the laws of electricity (James Clerk Maxwell) and Einstein’s contribution to our understanding of small matter physics leading to the use of nuclear energy etc. Funding of basic research has about a 2:1 greater return on investment than funding on applied research. Both types of funding approaches are needed.

Finally, I wish to express just how grateful I am to have the opportunity to teach and conduct research at a major public US university.  Up until quite recently, the opportunities for the pursuit of knowledge has been limited to particular privileged groups. If one takes the basic premise that all people have the potential to contribute to our knowledge base then our goal should be to ensure that all people have the opportunity for higher education and the opportunity to pursue intellectual pursuits. Only in this way can we hope to address the major issues confronting humans today. Simply put, increasing t he number of people that contribute to the positive development of our society only increases the probability of finding the solution to our problems.

Charles B. Fenster