Rob Lanfear

The thing I enjoy the most about teaching is that it makes learning new things a key part of my job.

Group research focus
My group focusses on three areas united by an interest in understanding molecular evolution. Our longest standing projects focus on understanding why some lineages evolve faster than others. We focus on speciose clades of organisms like birds, flowering plants, and more recently (with a very slightly narrower focus) eucalypts and acacias. We also look to extend and develop our understanding of the theory in this area, so that we can make and test quantitative predictions. Our second area of research was motivated by some of the challenges of measuring rates of molecular evolution, and involves developing new methods in phylogenetics. This work involves  efforts to build and select better models of molecular evolution, and has recently grown into pushing some of the boundaries of phylogenetic inference. Finally, we study the accumulation of somatic mutations within individual plants. For this, we leverage the latest sequencing and inference methods to try and catch mutations right at their source, so that we can test hypotheses about the causes and consequences of somatic mutation. 

Teaching and research achievements
I hope that our current work on somatic mutations will be our biggest contribution so far - this is an area in which I think we are really improving our ability to measure and understand a critical aspect of biology. I'm also loving the challenge of running a course (I teach the Biology, Society, and Ethics third year course), but my teaching achievements are limited to surviving my first half of a semester of real teaching - I've been lucky to be a pure researcher until now. 

What do you enjoy most about teaching?
The thing I enjoy the most about teaching is that it makes learning new things a key part of my job. Teaching a bioethics course also means that I get to expose students to a huge variety of challenging and unsolved societal and ethical issues. Invariably, my teaching also influences my research directions, which helps keep a broad range of projects going in my group.

What else do you have underway?
I've just started a collaboration here at ANU to use artificial intelligence to try and solve some open problems in phylogenetics. This may or may not work, but it's great fun and allows me to polish up of the now-ancient techniques I learned during my masters in Artificial Intelligence, before I got hooked on biology.


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