Curiosity and a love for learning have always been constants in the life of William & Mary biologists Lizabeth Allison and John Swaddle.

Now, they have been elected 2023 Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science family of journals.

“I congratulate Professors Allison and Swaddle on the well-deserved recognition of their commitment to excellence in the lab and in the classroom. Their dedication to sharing curiosity and discovery with W&M students honors the Alma Mater of the Nation,” said Provost Peggy Agouris. “Their work builds on the biology department’s distinguished tradition of investigating and solving issues in the natural world, in this case in the realms of medical and wildlife research. I salute them both.”

Allison and Swaddle are among the 26 fellows to have been elected from William & Mary throughout the fellowship’s history. As the AAAS celebrates the 150th anniversary of its fellows’ program, the W&M biologists are two of the 502 scientists, engineers and innovators who have been recognized for their extraordinary achievements across disciplines this year.  

Sudip S. Parikh, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, described this year’s class of fellows as embodying scientific excellence, fostering trust in science and leading the next generation of scientists.

Allison, Chancellor Professor of Biology and department chair, was acknowledged “for excellence in teaching, and for outstanding contributions to biology education and the study of nuclear hormone receptors in development and molecular endocrinology.”

Swaddle, professor of biology and faculty director of the Institute for Integrative Conservation, was recognized “for outstanding contributions in conservation biology, behavioral ecology, and mentoring of graduate and undergraduate research students.”

With Allison and Swaddle, the William & Mary biology department reaches a total of three AAAS Fellows in as many years, following the election of Chancellor Professor of Biology Margaret Saha in 2021. The three share this honor with several historical members of the department. 

Helping students think like biologists

The first woman in her immediate family to attend college, Allison was interested in many different things growing up: biology, but also creative arts such as writing and theatre.

“After all, I get to perform when I’m giving big lectures,” she said. 

She eventually went back to biology, igniting a process of continuous learning and exploration that defines her work to this day. She credits her curiosity for a discovery that challenged what was known about nuclear receptors – which are proteins that regulate gene expression in response to hormone signals.

She presented evidence of the thyroid hormone receptor being a shuttling protein, which means that it rapidly transports between the nucleus and the cytoplasm rather than only residing in the nucleus as previously thought.

This work, performed with her last doctoral student at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and her first undergraduate team at William & Mary, revealed the existence of another checkpoint in gene regulation.

“We’re still focused on understanding the receptor itself, but we’ve become much more interested in applying some of what we learned to particular diseases,” said Allison. “We’re working on Resistance to Thyroid Hormone syndrome where there are some mutations in the receptor itself.”

Members of the Allison Lab at the congress of DiscoverBMB 2024, the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. They are all smiling while standing behind a colorful conference banner.
Members of the Allison Lab at the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. From left to right: Caroline Danielski ’24, Yigit Simsek ’25, Allison, Katelyn Beasley ’24, Sherena Christmas M.S. ’24.

Since then, the Allison Lab has made many more discoveries: Working with students has certainly been a highlight of her career.

“I’ve worked with so many remarkable students,” she said. “But the most satisfaction has come from working with students where I could actually see that I was able to make a difference for them and their lives.”

Allison’s excellence in teaching has impacted students well beyond William & Mary. She is the sole author of a molecular biology textbook – which a review described as flowing “like a novel” – and then co-wrote an introductory biology textbook

“That has really shaped my teaching because we had a focus on pedagogy, on helping budding biologists learn and think like biologists,” she said.

Allison’s own teaching has evolved over time – a long way from the days of overhead transparencies being the latest technology in a biology class.

“I still have a lecture format, but there are more in class activities, getting away from a model of just having exams,” she said. “I’ve incorporated activities that involve more thinking, problem solving and applying knowledge.”

Intellectual stimulation has defined her own career path. In a similar vein, she encourages early career researchers to stay true to themselves and do research they are passionate about.

At William & Mary, she has truly flourished: She is delighted – but not surprised – by the AAAS’ recognition of work from the W&M biology department.

“It has always been an exceptional department that has attracted amazing faculty,” she said. “Everybody is so engaged with undergraduate and master’s students, and so dedicated to their scholarship, teaching and service.”

Turning research into practical solutions

As a young boy growing up in London, Swaddle shared a love of animals with his role model, the British naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

“In some sense I never grew out of it,” he said. “I find interacting with animals and nature in general so pleasurable, so intrinsically good that I want that opportunity for as many people as possible.”

Swaddle’s research aims to support wildlife, people and the planet at the same time, turning fundamental science ideas into practical solutions that help people and wildlife.

One example comes from his work on reducing collisions with buildings –  a fatal phenomenon for hundreds of millions of birds in the United States every year – through the use of sonic nets or window films

“These are solutions that allow for economic development, but will also make the world safer for wildlife,” he said. “We’re trying and testing solutions, but also thinking about their implementation with local communities. We are losing species from the planet at an unprecedented rate, and our work is about slowing and reversing that loss, for the benefit of everyone.”

Birds, he said, are a fundamental part of many ecosystems: They pollinate plants, spread seeds and serve as predators and prey. They also have a profound spiritual and emotional significance and are important for the economy, as birdwatching activities generate billions of dollars every year. Without birds, ecosystems would collapse, and people would lose their livelihoods. 

Birds can also be hosts or reservoirs for disease-causing organisms. In a One Health interdisciplinary approach, which operates at the human-animal-environment interface, bird conservation and wildlife biodiversity become crucial.

“When you have greater biodiversity, it’s more likely that diseases will stay within the wildlife populations and not spill over to humans,” he said, noting that many W&M students are interested in research that informs public health and global health policies. “Improving biodiversity is good for public health.”

Swaddle started making his mark at William & Mary straight after his arrival over 20 years ago. With the very first student he worked with, a sophomore at the time, he co-wrote a paper that generated considerable media interest and keeps being referenced to this day, with more than 300 citations on Google Scholar.

“She was talking about some ideas from a book that she had finished in high school,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily an area I worked in, but I thought, ‘Hey, why not? Let’s take a risk and work on this.’”

Swaddle described working with undergraduates as beneficial for students as well as faculty, as it gives them more freedom to take on more daring projects.

“Working with undergraduates is something I’ve really enjoyed and that has really influenced my mentoring style,” he said.

Following his elevation to AAAS Fellow, Swaddle hopes to build more partnerships and collaborations. His work so far has greatly benefited from interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary opportunities, and he encourages early career researchers to seek these out. 

“You have to start from a foundation of establishing yourself with some degree of expertise in a discipline,” he said. “But when you’re ready, start looking outward because there are even more opportunities out there.”

, Senior Research Writer