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Serendipity leads Michael Lynch to being named Regents Professor

February 2, 2023

Lynch lauded for visionary approach in quantitative genetics

As one of the world’s leading quantitative geneticists, Michael Lynch knows everything there is to know about natural evolution.

Including the fact his life hardly evolved naturally.

“I’ve thought about that quite a bit,” said Lynch, a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and director of the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution. “I think there was a lot of serendipity in my life.”

That serendipity led Lynch to being named one of four new Regents Professors. He will be officially inducted on Feb. 9.

Lynch was honored not just for his research on population genetics, his 1998 book “Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative Traits” — which is considered the foundational work in quantitative genetics — or his induction into the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, but also for the leadership he has provided to 51 postdoctoral fellows, 34 PhD students and 17 master’s degree students.

“Lynch has advanced a visionary approach to uncover the fundamental mechanisms of evolution through studies of single-celled organisms, including bacteria, archaea, protozoa and fungi,” said Kenro Kusumi, dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. ASU and The College are thrilled to recognize the achievements by this internationally recognized scientist.”

And to think, Lynch once assumed he would work at a factory every day of his life, “waiting for retirement.”

Lynch was introduced to science at a young age growing up in Auburn, New York, just outside Syracuse. His father worked as a tool-and-dye maker, spent the last years of his career making transistors for General Electric and gave Lynch calculus books he borrowed from his engineer friends.

And like a lot of young kids with an interest in science, Lynch often performed science experiments at home.

“I had one of those little chemistry sets and sort of blew things up, mixing chemicals that shouldn’t have been mixed together,” Lynch said with a smile. “Nobody got hurt, though.

“I spent a lot of time looking in a microscope. I was able to look at all kinds of bugs that I never would’ve known existed and spent a lot of time in the woods collecting salamanders, things like that.”

Lynch never thought college was an option, though. No one in his family had ever gone to college, and his parents didn’t have the money to send him to a four-year university.

But it was the late 1960s, and America was involved in the Vietnam War. Every one of Lynch’s male predecessors had gone to war, and he thought he would be next.

But his parents had other ideas. They didn’t want him to go to Vietnam. Lynch didn’t want to go, either.

“And if you weren’t going to college, then that’s where you were headed,” Lynch said.

So, his parents started looking at colleges. Lynch wound up at St. Bonaventure (more on that in a moment), and even now, more than 50 years later, he believes that if it hadn’t been for the war, he might have gone to work in a factory and never stepped foot on a college campus.

As to why he went to St. Bonaventure, a private Franciscan university, well, that’s where a second bit of serendipity played a part. His parents didn’t really know what good colleges were around New York, but St. Bonaventure was in the news because its basketball team was ranked among the top five teams in the country, so they had a passing knowledge of the school.

Plus, Lynch’s mother was a devout Catholic and didn’t want her son to attend the state schools because, Lynch said, “they were burning buildings down during the Vietnam years, and she thought that was too radical.”

Lynch said his mom thought he would go to St. Bonaventure and become a priest.

“I don’t think she ever quite got over that, but she felt OK that I was going to be a doctor,” said Lynch, who had interest in going to medical school at the time. “And that’s prestige for the family.”

As it turned out, St. Bonaventure’s small size was ideal for Lynch. He didn’t have a lot of self-confidence growing up — “I spent a lot of time on sports teams when I was in high school and was pretty terrible at it all” — and the close-knit nature of the student body developed Lynch’s interpersonal skills.

“I had zero social skills when I went there,” he said. “One of the main things I learned there was to, I don’t know, be at least semi-competent in interacting with people.”

Lynch paid for school by working the night security shift — 1 to 6 a.m. — at local factories that made everything from typewriters to TVs to ski masks and heavy picture tubes.

During the day, he took practically every science course St. Bonaventure offered.

“I thought I would be a doctor,” he said. “I didn’t really know what research or graduate school was, so I assumed that’s what you could with a medical degree.”

In his final two years at St. Bonaventure, however, Lynch began doing field research with Professor Stephen Eaton.

“He was an amazing natural historian,” Lynch said. “He had me doing research on plankton communities in a local reservoir called the Allegheny Reservoir. I was counting different species of algae and plankton and plants. For me, that was really sort of eye-opening. That was my first real experience with research.”

As Lynch was applying for graduate programs, Eaton gave him a Science (magazine) paper on limnology, the study of the biological, chemical and physical features of lakes and other bodies of fresh water. The paper was written by Joseph Shapiro, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

“I always liked water, and I knew there were a ton of lakes up there in Minnesota so I figured it would be worth a try,” Lynch said.

Lynch’s path then became more traditional. After receiving his PhD at Minnesota, he took a job at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and eventually moved beyond limnology to population genetics, thanks in part to a class on the subject he had audited at Minnesota.

Now, he’s one of the leaders in his field and a Regents Professor, joining a select group that makes up less than 3% of ASU’s faculty.


Not just in the way he ever could have imagined.

Top photo: Newly named Regents Professor Michael Lynch from the School of Life Sciences and director of the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution. Photo by Enrique Lopez

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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Finding intelligent solutions to the digital divide

February 2, 2023

Experts from around the world came together in Phoenix to address digital inequity at Smart Region Summit

Lack of access to computers and cellphones. No internet. Computer illiteracy. 

Dubbed the digital divide, these global challenges were tackled on Wednesday by panelists at Arizona State University’s Smart Region Summit. Now in its fifth year, the event took place at the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix with a focus on digital inclusion. 

The issue impacts impoverished communities and other marginalized groups. 

“Having connectivity matters right?” said Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. Lee spoke during a panel on "Digital Equity and Inclusion Around the World." 

“It matters in terms of where you live. It still matters in terms of accessibility, availability and literacy, but it always matters for you to actually have a full-fledged digital citizenship,” Lee said. 

The event brought together a diverse group of local, national and international smart-city experts, educators, technologists, faculty and leaders to discuss the role that smart technology plays in creating smart cities and impacting quality-of-life factors such as education, work and community building. 

Panelists presented unique insights and discussed the solutions necessary to create smart cities that are inclusive — solutions like building infrastructure, collaboration, and philanthropic and public sector funding. 

In a panel titled "Act Locally, Think Globally," Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego discussed the advances Phoenix has made in the use of technology for this month’s Super Bowl LVII. 

“When you come into Sky Harbor, this will be the first Super Bowl where you can basically have a robot taxi take you from Sky Harbor to downtown,” Gallego said. 

Sanjeev Khagram, dean of ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, moderated the panel, which also touched on the Thunderbird School's partnership with Kenya. The country's "Silicon Savannah" has become a smart-city platform that has leveraged technology to provide opportunities for the country and entire region. 

Matthew Rantanen, the director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, gave the keynote speech. He shared his story of bringing digital equity and access to tribal lands across the U.S. 

Rantanen has been described as a cyber warrior for tribal broadband. He has worked for more than 20 years to bring tribes from all over the country together through what he calls Broadband Bootcamp.

“There are tribes that have traditionally never worked together because of their previous political arguments. Now they are working together and sharing resources. They're sharing staff, they're sharing equipment and working together to develop networks,” Rantanen said.

Attendees hailed from fields such as academia, government and private and nonprofit industries, including Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google. At the top of the event, Deloitte and Amazon Web Services announced a donation of smart rover kits for students in the Roosevelt Elementary School District.

According to Lev Gonick, chief information officer for ASU Enterprise Technology who co-founded the event in 2019, “closing the digital gap is not just a matter of providing access to technology, but rather a call to action to expand and enhance our digital resources in order to empower and uplift all members of our community.

“It requires a collective effort to create an inclusive and accessible digital future that ensures individuals of all backgrounds are able to succeed in a rapidly evolving digital world.” 

Reflecting on the event after the panels, Diana Bowman, associate dean of applied research and engagement at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law and panel moderator, said, “We have people on the stage and in the audience who are from all across the U.S., as well as the number of people who have flown in from around the world.

“And to me that highlights how successful this event has become. It's one of the events to come to when you actually want to develop solutions ... and I think it's really put ASU on the map in terms of being a thought leader around smart city, smart campuses and engagement.”

Top photo: Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego holds a smart rover kit, which was part of a donation to Roosevelt Elementary School District Superintendent Dani Portillo (center) during the fifth annual Smart Region Summit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix on Feb. 1. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News