A conversation with 2020 MacArthur Fellow Nels Elde

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


The MacArthur Fellowship—often referred to as the genius grant—recognizes talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a capacity for self-direction. That describes U Professor Nels Elde perfectly. The MacArthur Foundation announced on Oct. 6, 2020, that Elde, an evolutionary geneticist, had been named a MacArthur Fellow. In this conversation, Elde describes his work, his influences and how he learned about this incredible recognition. Recorded on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping us achieve great things at the University of Utah. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the U, and my guest today is Nels Elde.

Nels is an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Utah and, I am so pleased to tell you, a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Now, this is a big deal. For our listeners who may not be familiar with the MacArthur Grant, a little bit of background. This is often the recognition that is referred to as the “Genius Grant.” It recognizes talented individuals who've shown extraordinary originality, dedication and creative pursuit and also a capacity for self-direction. Now that definitely defines Professor Elde, as you'll learn today. So, Nels, on behalf of the entire university, warmest congratulations. We are so proud at the U to have a MacArthur genius on our faculty!

Nels Elde: Well, thank you, President Watkins, and so fun to be here on your podcast, U Rising. I can't wait for the conversation.

President Watkins: Well, tell us a little bit about how you find out that you're a MacArthur Fellow. What's the process that they let you know?

Nels Elde: Yeah, it's just a little bit of a trick, actually. So, the program officer at MacArthur sent me an email asking me to comment on a candidate that they were considering for a MacArthur Fellowship. And so, I should have been maybe a little suspicious because they didn't say anyone's name, but I spent the week before that phone call actually happened thinking about the people who I thought deserved this—so, my mentor, other people, my science heroes. And it was actually a fun exercise to think about that and what I would say in trying to support their case, which I think could be argued as much stronger than mine. But then, when the phone call happened, very quickly they said, "Actually, the candidate is you. You've been named a MacArthur Fellow" and so that was a complete shock, a fun shock. And to be honest with you, I'm still kind of pinching myself over here, a really fun honor.

                      Nels Elde

President Watkins: I have to say, Nels, that story that you just told tells everything about you. That your mind did not quickly go to, ‘Hey, this could be something great about me,’ but instead who are some of my scientific heroes that I would hope would earn that kind of recognition, and I think that says a lot about who you are and why you're such an asset to the University of Utah. I'm wondering whether many listeners know what an evolutionary geneticist is or what you do, so provide a little background about your field and your research and about your team.

Nels Elde: Happy to do that. So, kind of starting in the broadest strokes there with evolutionary genetics. So, evolution I think we could describe as all of the diversity of life around us and to try to understand how it got to be this way. The genetics adds sort of a series of tools or techniques that you can use to do that. And so, I think we're all very familiar with things like the Human Genome Project, genomes and decoding the recipe book of life. And so, when you put that together, genetics and genomics with evolution, then you're starting to get at those questions about diversity or comparing the diversity around us using genomes, using genetic approaches to try to do that.

And so, focusing in on my group, we specifically are interested in how infectious microbes—so things like the current pandemic, viruses but also bacteria, fungi, other critters around us—can kind of turn into problems and really challenges. We think about our immune system, one of the big themes in my lab, and how that compares—the human immune system, for example—to some of our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, gorillas, spider monkeys, and all this crazy interesting diversity. At the same time, what is coming at us? So, what about the diversity of infectious microbes? And in fact, these things can evolve so rapidly. We can set up experiments in the lab to try to learn the rules of how they might change, how they might emerge for not just the kind of the pandemic that we're up against now, but maybe even into the future, and maybe we can be caught a little less flat-footed with some of the approaches that we're taking and that others in the field are taking.

President Watkins: That’s very helpful, and I think also helps our listeners understand the relevance of your work in a broad way. I'm guessing you need a pretty diverse team to make this happen, and I know you have connections with the biology department in some significant ways. But talk a little bit about your interdisciplinary team.

Nels Elde: Yeah, this is really fun, Ruth, and thank you for bringing it up, and thank you for your support over the years on this. So, we've really had an incredibly great program together, this transformative excellence program. And what we've done is recognized that we have some history here in evolutionary genetics, not just in the medical school where I am in human genetics, but also on main campus in the biology department. In fact, there is another MacArthur Fellow hiding out there, Jon Seger, who was named a fellow I think something like 30 years ago, and he is still going strong teaching, doing research and is a really inspiring colleague.

And so, what we did a few years ago is we all teamed up and we said, ‘You know what? We're doing a lot of the same stuff, overlapping stuff, maybe coming at it from a slightly different angle.’ So, the infectious microbes in my lab, this is you can imagine the biomedical relevance, but evolutionary genetics, all of the diversity around us, this is very much sort of the core of the School of Biological Sciences. And so, with your great support and energy behind us, we were able to recently recruit five new faculty—three in biology, two in human genetics, my department. And we're just building a bridge across campus on this broad topic of evolutionary genetics. I think the time is right, the energy is there, and the place is right and so this has been just a spectacularly fun thing to be a part of.

President Watkins: It's a perfect example of One U in action, that when we figure out how to build bridges across units, we will be stronger and better. And congratulations on recruiting five new scholars.

Nels Elde: Well, we only had four slots. And so, that was like, but this is a really generous . . .

President Watkins: I do recall that you had four hires, though. So...

Nels Elde: We snuck a fifth one in, we couldn't help it. There was a great couple, academic couple, who we were able to lure here and they're here. So, all five are here. And, of course, this isn't super easy under our pandemic scenarios, all of the restrictions, all of the struggles and challenges we're all going through, all the extra stress. But everyone made it and we can't wait to get together in person and start to celebrate and build these scientific bridges. But so far, we're doing it mostly over Zoom, similar to what we're doing here on the podcast today.

President Watkins: Well, I'm very pleased about that. It is rewarding to see those things come to fruition. And what I have learned about the One U effort and also about these clusters in critical transformative areas is it takes passionate leaders to make it happen. That's a credit to you and also to some of your colleagues who have stayed with you on that. Now, one of the ways that you are recognized and praised is that people see you as an individual who makes connections that other people don't see or can't. How do you think you got that sort of skill? Because it is, that creativity and innovation, is really an important asset to your work.

Nels Elde: Well, thank you. Actually, that line came from my mentor who's one of the people I was thinking about in that trick phone call, I thought might be the person. So no, it's a really nice thing for him to say, and I don't know. Part of the process was talking a little bit about how I got here. And so, of course, the first thing I think about is my family and that background. And so, as I said to the folks at MacArthur, I come from a family of artists, scientists and ministers, and I kind of see my job description as sort of mixing those three things together somehow. My father is now a retired scientist and that, of course, is at the center of our work here in the genetics department. However, my sister and my mother are both artists and have been in different ways and different times in their lives.

And so, I've really tried, I enjoy that, too. And to try to center some of that creativity and honestly, when we do science, we're making choices as humans about what are we going to pick? What are we going to study? And I think there's some style to that. There's some artistry in that. And so, that's part of it. And then finally, the minister part of this, so grandfathers, uncles and cousins, and there's an echo of that, I think, in evolutionary genetics. Because we're thinking about questions of where did all this diversity come from? Why are we here? We kind of meander into some of these why questions. And so, anyway, when you combine those three things, maybe that gets at how I'm looking at things slightly differently. It's sort of a weird stew of family background coming together here.

President Watkins: I think a very interesting and special stew of family background, and I know now that you're a fellow Midwesterner. I don't know a whole lot of Nels's. There're a bunch in my Scandinavian family from the Midwest. So, I'm guessing that is your path too.

Nels Elde: It is. I have to say, Ruth, speaking of this sort of slightly uncomfortable ‘genius’ tag, my Minnesota mother as soon as this went out has been kind of patrolling Facebook. And when people, our friends and family are commenting on social media, ‘Oh, Nels is this genius,’ she's there, at the ready, to correct the record and say, ‘You know, I think that might be a little strong. He's a good kid and he's, you know, a smart guy, but let's not get carried away.’ So yes, some of that Midwestern grounding is very much at play and it's a good thing under the circumstances.

President Watkins: Well, certainly, we think you're a genius and also think one of the reasons you're a genius is that humility. So, it's a good combination and allows you to be so effective. Now, the big question everybody wants to know is when you receive a MacArthur Award, what do you do with the funds? From a researcher’s standpoint, my guess is the flexibility is one of the most wonderful things that can happen.

Nels Elde: Really great. And I think both a wonderful opportunity, but a great responsibility to try to think about it. Because the MacArthur Foundation, I mean, if you just look at this year as a class, the things that these creative people that are being sort of lifted up by that foundation, the contributions they're making to doing really cool and interesting things in the world, that feels like a pretty big responsibility. So, the short answer, I don't know yet, but thinking, trying to think kind of carefully about that, to try to be thoughtful about that. One of the first ideas that I'll just sort of float for fun is I actually do a little podcast myself. It's called This Week in Evolution. I've been doing it for about five years, and it's been really this incredible thing that I didn't realize when I went into it, to just start to think about the field more broadly, to talk to my colleagues in different ways and share their work.

And so, I've kind of been brainstorming a little bit on extending that into new space. How do we tell the stories of evolutionary geneticists or scientists and not just to other scientists, but to the science-curious public, to the public in general? And I think in the middle of a pandemic like this one, we're really seeing some broken links between what scientists do and how that's communicated and how we all kind of connect as bigger, broader communities around the things that we're grappling with have really important scientific implications. So anyway, I'll maybe stop there as a broad framework for thinking about what to do with these resources, to try to do something creative in that space. And so, stay tuned. We'll see what happens.

President Watkins: Well, I think that's a fabulous idea. One of the things that we need are scientists and scholars who are also effective communicators and good at sharing science with the public. It is not everyone's strength, but I know it's yours. And the pandemic has really influenced people's thinking about a source of truth, looking to universities and looking to researchers for answers and true information. So, we are grateful that you are providing that kind of information here at the University of Utah, and so honored to have you as a member of the university's faculty, joining a few other geniuses, I guess. But at this point, we are really enjoying the moment to recognize your achievements. Thanks so much for being with us today, Nels, and best wishes with the next steps of your creative and scientific endeavors.

Listeners, thank you for joining us today for the U Rising podcast, and I hope you'll join for the next episode.