University Professor Marla Sokolowski receives the Royal Society of Canada's Flavelle Medal for her contributions to biological science

September 15, 2020 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

Marla Sokolowski, a University Professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has won the distinguished Flavelle Medal from the Royal Society of Canada for her contributions to biological science.

“I was surprised and delighted to receive this wonderful news,” says Sokolowski, who received both her bachelor of science and PhD from the University of Toronto. “I am deeply honoured to be part of the group of exemplary scientists who have won this medal since its inception in 1924. I am only the second woman to have won this medal; the first was awarded 72 years ago, to Margaret Newton, a plant pathologist. I feel grateful for my superb trainees and the innovative research that they have accomplished over the years.”

“I’m thrilled to congratulate Professor Sokolowski on this, the most recent of many honours she has received,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. “Her pioneering work has provided fascinating foundational insight into the interplay of genes and non-genetic factors in species from fruit flies to humans. She is truly deserving of this recognition.”

Throughout her career, Sokolowski has investigated the interaction between genes and the environment, and how genetic tendencies are affected by the environment and experience. The latter work is in contrast to the longstanding “nature vs. nurture” thinking that genes and the environment acted independently in determining how members of a species, including humans, behave.

She is a pioneer in behaviour genetics, a branch of genetics that encompasses the genetic and molecular basis of individual differences in behaviour. One of her most significant discoveries was of the foraging gene in Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit flies. The interaction between the gene and other factors determines the food-hunting behaviour of the flies — for example, how far they will range in their search for food.

Her research has ramifications far beyond the lab, for example by informing early childhood development policy — especially for children being raised in challenging environments who may lack the enrichment to which others have greater access.

Sokolowski is a Fellow and former co-director of the Child & Brain Development Program of CIFAR, the Canadian-based global research organization. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Fellow of Massey College.

Sokolowski is the recipient of many honours including the Genetics Society of Canada’s Award of Excellence, the Distinguished Investigator Award from the International Behaviour and Neurogenetics Society, as well as the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal.

The award will be presented to Sokolowski on November 27 as part of the Royal Society’s week-long Celebration of Excellence and Engagement.