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Sarah Bordenstein receives Huxley Award from Society for the Study of Evolution

12 May 2023
Sarah Bordenstein

Sarah Bordenstein, associate research professor of biology and entomology at Penn State, has been awarded the 2023 T. H. Huxley Award from the Education and Outreach Committee of the Society for the Study of Evolution. The award recognizes and promotes the development of high-quality evolution education resources and provides funds for the awardee to present at the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) annual conference. 

Bordenstein is an expert in microbial ecology, genomics, and science education and a member of the Penn State One Health Microbiome Center. In her research, she uses quantitative and computational genomic analyses to study the lifecycle and genome dynamics of the bacterium Wolbachia pipientis—which lives within the cells of about half the world’s arthropods, including insects, spiders, mites, and crustaceans—and a virus that can infect the bacteria. Wolbachia’s ability to manipulate arthropod reproduction and inhibit RNA viral replication makes it a promising vector control tool in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases and an intriguing topic for student research.

Bordenstein was recognized for her work as director of "Discover the Microbes Within! The Wolbachia Project." During this activity, students and citizen scientists take part in evolutionary problem solving around the identity of insects and the microbes that live inside them. Participants engage in real-world research, exploring their own questions using DNA sequence data from samples they collect. 

“I am thrilled to be recognized by the Society for the Study of Evolution because it highlights our commitment to make the study of genetics, evolution, and symbiosis accessible to all audiences,” said Bordenstein. “All of our curriculum is available online through a creative commons license, and we provide free training and resources for teachers to easily incorporate the project into their classrooms.”

student wearing gloves disecting arthropod
The Wolbachia Project is offered as an immersive research experience through Penn State’s Scientist-in-Residence program. Here, local high school students are dissecting and isolating DNA from arthropod reproductive tissues. Credit: Keith Hickey / Penn State 

The Wolbachia Project is an immersive lab experience that integrates concepts from biodiversity, biotechnology and bioinformatics. Participants identify arthropod species in their local community; isolate DNA to discover if the arthropods are infected with Wolbachia bacterial symbionts; examine DNA sequences to determine the relatedness of these Wolbachia strains to other sequences in the national genetic database; publish their results in the Wolbachia Project Database; and communicate their findings to the scientific community.

“Students envision what it's like to be a scientist while developing foundational laboratory and critical thinking skills,” said Bordenstein. “Gaining insight into the hidden beauty of microbes and DNA leads to a deeper understanding of the world around us.”

The Wolbachia Project was developed in 2005 by Bordenstein and her husband, Seth Bordenstein—the project’s founding director and lead scientist, director of the One Health Microbiome Center, and professor of biology and entomology at Penn State—in collaboration with high school educators and Wolbachia researchers. It continues to be supported by their research lab at Penn State and has reached tens of thousands of middle and high school students, college students, and citizen scientists worldwide. In the current school year alone, the project has over 3500 participants. Sarah Bordenstein hopes to build partnerships with school districts across Pennsylvania while sustaining international growth of thes project, something she says will be supported from this award.

Prior to joining Penn State in 2022, Sarah Bordenstein was a senior research specialist at Vanderbilt University from 2010 to 2022, a lab manager at Vanderbilt University from 2008 to 2010, and an education and outreach content manager at the Marine Biological Laboratory from 2004 to 2008. She was previously a high school teacher. Sarah Bordenstein earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1999 and a master’s degree in biological sciences from Tennessee State University in 2004.