The Evolutionary

A year after winning a MacArthur “genius” grant, UT biologist David Hillis is still tracing branching patterns on the tree of life—and chasing frogs.

David Hillis has spent many wet nights chasing frogs. Once, when he was camping in Queensland, Australia, it started to rain, and to hunt frogs without getting his clothes wet, he set out naked into the rainforest. Another time, he was in Mexico with a group of undergraduate biology students when a downpour at three in the morning forced them from the beach where they had camped; the eighteen-mile drive to the nearest town lasted until dawn because he kept stopping the van to jump out and examine the giant frogs making their way across the road. The first time he asked his wife for a date, when they were freshmen at Baylor University, he invited her to go out and listen to frogs. (Before that, he had invited her to come up to his room to listen to “Voices of the Night,” a record of frog calls. She refused.)

But frogs aren’t the half of it. Hillis, 41, an evolutionary biologist and the director of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, won a $295,000 MacArthur Fellowship grant last year; one thing he hopes to do with the money is travel to Madagascar to study crayfish. (The MacArthur “genius” grants recognize individuals of exceptional creativity and promise; past Texas winners include political activist Ernesto Cortes, writers Cormac McCarthy and Sandra Cisneros, poet Edward Hirsch, mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck, and the late disaster-relief expert Fred Cuny.) Every year, the MacArthur Foundation’s selection committee evaluates the recommendations of more than one hundred nominators from a range of disciplines and awards twenty to forty grants of $200,000 to $375,000, with no strings attached. For Hillis, the grant means freedom to pursue projects that might not receive backing from traditional sources, like the National Science Foundation. “Most grant agencies like to fund projects that are pretty much a sure thing,” he says. “But in the history of science, the things that have turned out to be the most fascinating are also the most risky.”


In fact, says Hillis, his entire career has been an example of how pursuing an obscure interest can yield unexpected rewards. He has been a key contributor to the field of phylogenetic analysis, which is concerned with figuring out how life-forms are connected on the evolutionary tree. “When I first started working on phylogeny, as a graduate student, most people considered it to be a very limited field that

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