Tandy Warnow on winning the International Society for Computational Biology's Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award

3/14/2024 Lauren Laws

Written by Lauren Laws

Tandy Warnow speaking at her 2022 Investiture.
Tandy Warnow

Most Grainger Engineering faculty know when they’re nominated for an award with the only surprise being who eventually wins it. But for professor of computer science Tandy Warnow, even being nominated for the International Society for Computational Biology’s Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award went unknown to her. 
Winning it then turned out to be more memorable for the surprise.
“I honestly never thought I’d be winning this,” said Warnow. “The previous winners are really quite illustrious.” 
It’s a list Warnow now belongs to, alongside the likes of Peer Bork of EMBL Heidelberg, Steven Salzberg of Johns Hopkins University, Pavel Pevzner of University of California, San Diego, Temple Smith of Boston University, and more. 
The Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award recognizes a member of the computational biology community who is more than two decades post-degree and has made major contributions to the field of computational biology. Warnow’s contributions are a step above major, however. From pioneering work in mathematical phylogenetics to algorithm development for evolutionary biology, her work has not only transformed the field, but also reshaped modern understanding of evolutionary relationships.
“A lot of people think these problems are solved or perhaps that better methods aren’t needed, but that’s not how I see it!” said Warnow. “I think there are tremendous opportunities for impactful research that combines computer science, statistics, and biology.”
Evolutionary biologists have utilized her methods and software for core bioinformatics problems, such as multiple sequence alignment and species tree estimation. But her impact goes far beyond data. 
“I’ve certainly influenced the field through my former students and postdocs – some of whom are now leaders in their own right,” admitted Warnow whose former students include Luay Nakhleh, the current dean of engineering at Rice University. She says she tries to pass on not only her own knowledge, but also lessons taught to her from those who guided her own journey, such as her postdoctoral supervisor Michael Waterman, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and fellow Senior Scientist Accomplishment award winner from 2006.
“He taught me to value work because of its contributions to biological discovery even if the work itself was not “hard” or “innovative” in terms of the mathematics; that was a huge lesson, and one that I now try to communicate to my students.”
Warnow will receive the award in July at the ISMB meeting in Montreal where she’ll deliver a keynote speech on large-scale phylogenomic estimation. Besides continuing that research, she plans to return to working on historical linguistics through a collaboration with probabilist Steve Evans of University of California, Berkeley, Don Ringe from University of Pennsylvania, and Illinois PhD student, Marc Canby.

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This story was published March 14, 2024.