Nels Elde, University of Utah evolutionary geneticist, receives MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’

(Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) Nels Elde, an evolutionary geneticist who does his research at the University of Utah, has received a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship, aka "genius grant." The fellowships were announced Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

Nels Elde said he cheated a bit when he learned two weeks ago that he would be receiving one of the nation’s most prestigious awards: A MacArthur Fellowship, often called a “genius grant.”

The people at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation told Elde, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Utah, that he could only tell one person about the fellowship before the foundation’s big announcement Tuesday.

Elde told two people: His wife, Anne Kirchhoff, who is a health services researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and their 4-month-old daughter, Hannah — who, Elde deduced, wouldn’t be able to tell anyone.

“I’ve been kind of bursting at the seams,” Elde told The Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday.

Elde, 47, is one of 21 people — a group that includes writers, scientists, sociologists, a property law scholar and a documentary filmmaker — who were picked for the fellowship, based on their creativity, their track record and their potential to produce more creative work. Each gets a cash prize of $625,000, paid over five years, no strings attached, funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Elde’s work is rooted in the hard science of genetics, but “it also adds a bit of context, a little bit of perspective,” he said. “It asks questions that are a little more philosophical.”

His research looks at how microbes evolve within their hosts — human bodies — and how humans evolve to battle them.

Microbes — such as viruses or bacteria — have short lifetimes, massive populations and high mutation rates, Elde said. Humans, in contrast, have far longer lifetimes, mutations happen slowly, and there aren’t as many of us.

“It’s not a fair fight,” Elde said. “It’s a different contest.”

A virus can attack with everything it’s got, Elde said, but humans “just need one good immune defense … out of one cell that [spreads and] evens the playing field.”

The Elde Lab at the U. of U. isn’t involved in the most pressing work involving viruses right now — developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that has spread round the world — though Elde said one of his researchers is an expert in coronaviruses.

The lab’s efforts are more big picture. “What our work does is, it gives what we’re seeing in real time some evolutionary context,” he said.

In his spare time, Elde is a community garden organizer on Salt Lake City’s east side. He and others successfully convinced The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not to pave over a 1.5-acre field in the 33rd Ward for a parking lot. Instead, half the space was retained for gardening.

Elde raises chickens on part of that garden, and sees in them the same genetic diversity he studies in his lab. He also follows a tradition of other scientists: Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of evolution, bred pigeons, while Gregor Mendel, whose ideas formed the basis for modern genetics, grew peas as part of his research.

Elde also co-hosts the podcast “This Week in Evolution,” which works to explain the science of evolution in understandable terms.

“For better or worse, it’s long-form rambling,” Elde said. “One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed from that is telling the stories of other people’s work, and lifting up other people’s science.”

Elde said he aims to spend some of his MacArthur prize money on educating the general public about science. “How do we tell the stories both of scientists and their science? And not just to other scientists but to all of us?” he said.

“He’s a very good communicator of science,” said Jeanette Ducut-Sigada, manager of the U.'s Science Diversity Program and biosciences Ph.D. programs.

Elde and Kirchhoff were in Seattle 10 years ago, considering where they could both work next. “Salt Lake City was not on our radar,” Elde said. But as they looked around for places where they could both continue their research, Elde said they were struck by “the vibrant community of creative people” in Utah.

Elde is the seventh Utahn to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Four of the previous recipients were evolutionary biologists: Michael Ghiselin in 1981, Jon Seger in 1987, Sharon B. Emerson in 1995 and Eric L. Charnow in 1997. The other Utah recipients were poet/writer Mark Strand in 1987 and developmental biologist Susan Mango in 2008.